It had been a long time in coming.
Conditions hadn’t been right before then, nor had mankind been ready. By the time they were in any position to experiment with a more reliable form of subsistence than hunting, foraging, or scavenging, the impossible climate of the last ice age had arrived.
But as they shivered out those forty thousand years or more it seems they bettered their potential. The brutal conditions made intelligence more vital for survival than in the warmer interglacial periods. Their behaviour had to be more flexible and inventive. Every conceivable notion of survival, every possible means to advance their tenure on earth was put into practice, including wiping out their closest competitor – the Neanderthal.
The earth wobbled on its axis again, tilting just enough for the amount of sunlight striking the globe to grow. The ice sheets retreated. Much of the earth’s fresh water, formerly locked up as ice, now fell as rain. The new climate favoured a proliferation of life that had struggled for survival during the glacial gloom; plants that had teetered on the edge of ice sheets and existence crept forward and thrived. Broad-leaved forest advanced north, to the south open woods and grasslands sprang up over wastelands and desert.
The megafauna of the open tundra and vast steppes vanished, replaced by smaller beasts less migratory in their seasonal habits. And so, no longer forced to follow the routes of migrating beasts or flee the insufferable cold, people of this postglacial epoch established smaller territories that allowed greater intimacy and control over local natural resources.
Everything was now in order for the greatest technological achievement of their reign. It could only have happened then, it could only have happened in a few places on earth.
One place was south of the deciduous forest that stretched like a belt across the globe. On a crescent-shaped patch over northern Africa around 8000BC, mankind had grown in numbers. Competition for wild food resources had become fierce and new strategies of survival were necessary. Amongst the staple of wild plants they gathered were fast growing grasses that produced seeds they could grind into coarse bread. Perhaps they started throwing seeds here and there and were encouraged when new shoots emerged. The leap that followed would change the course of human history and transform the face of the earth forever.
These people ceased their wandering ways, for tending crops required permanent places of living. Having long ago domesticated the wolf they now experimented with other tractable wild animals. Surpluses of meat and grain freed up labour for new crafts and professions demanded within this ever-changing milieu. Hierarchical organisation and a consistency of laws protected those who may have perished in their absence. Their numbers grew and grew.
And then, of course, they went forth. To flee their enemies, to abandon depleted soils, to comply with that foremost urge of nature: to disperse and propagate. Some bands failed in their quest and retraced their steps. Too far south they found unfriendly soils, in others places the land was too dry or too wet, too dark or too dangerous.
Others went north into temperate zones where they found their wheats were able to flourish. Within a few thousand years farming villages had sprung up in Anatolia, another thousand and they had reached the Balkans. They migrated along river valleys and up medium-sized streams; their routes dictated by highly fertile, wind-blown deposits laid down as soil, as if in invitation, by the last ice age.
Brand new cultures appeared with networks of trade that enabled the transfer of technology and artefacts far beyond their origins. Ornaments made out of thorny oysters were worn by people who had never seen the sea, copper decorated people who never saw malachite, cultigens of seed and livestock passed into environments far from where they had evolved, and a range of stones tilled soils and felled trees in lands unheard of to those who had mined or quarried them.
And everywhere they went, they encountered a different kind of people; people who had been there from the beginning, committed to be there to the end. But the more these farmers came into their land, the more these indigenes found themselves retreating. Their competitors had the edge. They used much less land to support far greater numbers. They exposed themselves less to dangerous wild beasts and the worst of nature’s elements. They had the resources of a primordial forest to supplement their own produce. They had greater immunity to microbial diseases passed on from their livestock. Gene by gene they absorbed indigenous traits more favourable to survival in this wetter, milder clime – a skin more suited to a lighter sun, a greater tolerance for the cold. Their more dependable social infrastructure allowed for a greater diversity of ideas, specialities and trade.
About two hundred generations after their forebears had set forth, the first farmers of Europe branched west and entered the Danubian Basin.
The age of the hunter-gatherer in Europe, along with a lifestyle that had remained unchallenged for hundreds of thousands of years, was drawing to a close.
Western civilisation had begun.