1200 – 600 BCE Transitions As the ancient period drew to a close the features that characterized the great river valley civilizations began to emerge in other environments and the sheer number of states increased as well. The transition from the ancient period (8000 BCE to 1200 BCE) to the classical period (600 BCE to 600 CE) that followed was an age of great change. But this change claimed victims. By about 1000 BCE, war, natural disaster, environmental exploitation, political decay, had severely weakened most of the civilizations that had emerged with agriculture.
Among the most influential people at the end of the ancient period were those who spoke various Indo-European languages. Their migrations throughout much of Eurasia profoundly influenced historical development in both southwest Asia and the larger world.
During the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries, linguists noticed that many languages of Europe, southwest Asia, and India featured remarkable similarities in vocabulary and grammatical structure. Because of the geographic regions where these tongues are found, scholars refer to them as Indo-European languages. The only persuasive explanation for the high degree of similarity was that speakers of Indo-European languages were all descendants of ancestors who spoke a common tongue and migrated from their original homeland. As migrants established separate communities and lost touch with one another, their languages evolved along different lines, adding new words, pronunciations, and spellings but retaining the basic grammatical structure of their original speech.
The original homeland of Indo-European speakers was probably the steppe region of modern-day Ukraine and southern Russia. A central feature of Indo-European society was the domestication of wild horses. The possession of domesticated horses vastly magnified the power of the Indo-Europeans enabling the development of more efficient transportation, such as carts, wagons, and chariots. Furthermore, because of their strength and speed, horses provided Indo-European speakers with a tremendous military advantage over peoples they encountered. It is perhaps significant that many groups of Indo-European speakers considered themselves superior to other peoples: the terms Aryan, Iran, and Eire (the official name of the modern Republic of Ireland) all derive from the Indo-European word aryo, meaning “nobleman" or "lord."
As they flourished in southern Russia, Indo-European speakers experienced a population explosion, which prompted some of them to move into eastern Europe, India, and western China.
The most influential Indo-European migrants in ancient times were the Hittites, who established a powerful kingdom in modern-day Turkey. The Hittites were responsible for two technological innovations—the construction of light, horse-drawn war chariots and the refinement of iron metallurgy—that helped weaken the kingdoms of the Ancient period and ushering in the empires of the Classical period.
Hebrews, Israelites, and Jews
Perhaps the least influenced by the Indo-Europeans, Hebrews, Israelites, and Jews preserved memories of their historical experiences in an extensive collection of sacred writings. Hebrews were speakers of the ancient Hebrew language. Israelites formed a branch of Hebrews who settled in Palestine (modern-day Israel) after 1300 BCE Jews descended from southern Israelites who inhabited the kingdom of Judah.
The earliest Hebrews were pastoral nomads who inhabited lands between Mesopotamia and Egypt during the second millennium BCE. As Mesopotamia prospered, some of the Hebrews settled in the region's cities. According to the Hebrew scriptures (the Old Testament of the Christian Bible), the Hebrew patriarch Abraham came from the Sumerian city of Ur, but he migrated to northern Mesopotamia about 1850 BCE. Abraham's descendants continued to recognize many of the deities, values, and customs common to Mesopotamian peoples. Hebrew law, for example, borrowed heavily from Hammurabi's code. The Hebrews also told the story of a devastating flood that had destroyed all early human society, which was a variation on similar flood stories related from the earliest days of Sumerian society.
According to their scriptures, around 1300 BCE, a branch of Hebrews fled Egyptian enslavement under the leadership of Moses. After the time of Moses, however, the religious beliefs of the Israelites developed along increasingly distinctive lines. Whereas the early Hebrews had recognized many of the same gods as their Mesopotamian neighbors, Moses embraced monotheism: he taught that there was only one god, known as Yahweh, who was a supremely powerful deity, the creator and sustainer of the world. Yahweh expected his followers to worship him alone, and he demanded that they observe high moral and ethical standards. In the Ten Commandments, a set of religious and ethical principles that Moses announced, Yahweh warned his followers against destructive and antisocial behavior such as lying, theft, adultery, and murder.
After bitter fighting for land, the Hebrews abandoned their inherited tribal structure and united in favor of a monarch, who residents became known as Israelites. During the reigns of King David (1000-970 BCE) and King Solomon (970-930 BCE), Israelites dominated the territory between Syria and Egypt. They built an elaborate and cosmopolitan capital city at Jerusalem. Like other peoples of southwest Asia, the Israelites made use of iron technology to strengthen their military forces and produce tough agricultural implements.
Between about 1000 and 400 BCE, the Israelites' religious leaders compiled their teachings in a set of holy scriptures known as the Torah (Hebrew for "doctrine" or "teaching"), which laid down Yahweh's laws and outlined his role in creating the world and guiding human affairs. The Torah taught that Yahweh would reward those who obeyed his will and punish those who did not. The Israelites placed increasing emphasis on devotion to Yahweh as they experienced a series of political and military setbacks. Following King Solomon's reign, tribal tensions led to the division of the community into a large kingdom of Israel in the north and a smaller kingdom of Judah in the land known as Judea to the south. Under invasion, conquering armies deported many of the Israelites. Those in the north were gradually assimilated into other religions, but unlike their cousins to the north, residents of Judea maintained their religious identity and became known as Jews.
Based on their distinctive monotheism, the Jews established a religious community based on their conviction that they had a special relationship with Yahweh that remained a scattered minority group in Southwest Asia and Europe.
North of the Israelites' kingdom in Palestine, the Phoenicians occupied a narrow coastal plain in modern day Lebanon. Though not a numerous or militarily powerful people, the Phoenicians influenced societies throughout the Mediterranean basin because of their trade and communication networks. Between 1200 and 800 BCE, they dominated trade on the Mediterranean Sea. They sailed far and wide in search of raw materials, which established commercial colonies in Rhodes, Cyprus, Sicily, Sardinia, Spain, and north Africa.
The Phoenicians largely adapted Mesopotamian cultural traditions to their own needs, most notably written language. By creatively experimenting with simpler alternatives to cuneiform, Phoenician scribes devised an early alphabetic script consisting of twenty-two symbols representing consonants (the Phoenician alphabet had no symbols for vowels). Learning twenty-two letters and building words with them was much easier than memorizing the hundreds of symbols employed in cuneiform. Because alphabetic writing required much less investment in education than did cuneiform writing, more people were able to become literate than ever before. Alphabetic writing spread widely as the Phoenicians traveled and traded throughout the Mediterranean basin, becoming the basis of Greek language. These proto-Greeks, along with others, were eventually devastated by nomadic invaders, likely Indo-Europeans.
Drawn by the wealth of the Indus River Valley, Indo-European invaders, known as Aryans, used the Khyber Pass to cross the rugged mountains that ring the northern border of India. Using horses and iron weaponry, the Aryans easily defeated the populations in the Indus Valley. Over time the Aryans began to create permanent settlements – first in northern India and gradually moving south. Once settled, cultural exchange between the Aryans and Indians resulted in the establishment of religious traditions (particularly reincarnation) that continue to define India to this day. Recording their beliefs in epics called the Vedas and Upanisads, a belief system that stressed reincarnation and was superficially polytheistic evolved into what we now call, Hinduism. The Aryan social structure combined with Hinduism also had a major impact on later developments in India. The new social structure, the caste system, established rigid class ranks based on birth. The caste system divided people into groups, from top to bottom: priests (called Brahmins), warriors, merchants/landowners, and finally peasants. Social mobility among the classes was prohibited. Because members of different castes could not marry, children were born into the same castes as their parents – and stayed there.
Around 1100 BCE, the Shang kingdom in China was overthrown by rivals who established the Zhou dynasty, which continued much of the previously established Chinese culture. The Zhou officially ruled China for nearly 900 years (although their power was in serious decline by 600 BCE). The durability of the Zhou dynasty was in part due to a political innovation known as the Mandate of Heaven. The Zhou believed that heaven would grant the Zhou power only as long as its rulers governed justly and wisely. Put another way, the Zhou dynasty would remain in power only as long as it had the blessing of heaven. Additionally, the Zhou developed a feudal system of government, whose flexibility and trust in nobles, aided in its longevity. Similar to medieval Europe, the Zhou kings ruled the entirety of the kingdom, but through the loyalty of nobles who governed regions within the kingdom in his name. The king gave each noble protection as long as the noble remained loyal to him. Around 600 BCE, nomadic invaders (either Indo-Europeans or other nomadic groups displaced by Indo-European migrations) began to weaken the Zhou kings’ grasp on China. As these invasions strained commerce as well as the financial and military resources of the king’s central government, the Chinese citizens began questioning the wisdom of the dynasty. How could the Zhou dynasty still possess the blessing of heaven, if the standard of living was in such decline? The nobility entrusted with the essential task of passing along tax revenue (and its intrinsic loyalty) gradually each began building their own armies – first for protection and later to add territory – while disregarding the Zhou kings. As a result, this time period in Chinese history of Zhou decline and tensions among rival regional nobles earned the name, the Warring States. The warring states remained a fact of life until the Zhou dynasty was officially overthrown in 256 BCE.
Bantu of Sub-Saharan Africa
Just as the Indo-European migrations had important effects on the history of Europe and Asia, so too did the migrations of the Bantu people of Sub-Saharan Africa. Around the world, the conclusion of the Ancient period witnessed the spread of agriculture, iron, and complex states. The most prominent driver of this process in Africa was the migrations of Bantu-speaking peoples from modern-day Nigeria to the rest Sub-Saharan Africa.
The earliest Bantu speakers inhabited a region embracing the eastern part of modern Nigeria and the southern part of modern Cameroon. Members of this community referred to themselves as bantu. The earliest Bantu speakers settled mostly along the banks of rivers, which they navigated in canoes, and in open areas of the region's forests. They cultivated yams and oil palms, and in later centuries they added millet and sorghum. They also kept goats and raised guinea fowl. They lived in clan-based villages headed by chiefs who conducted religious rituals and represented their communities in dealings with neighboring villages. They traded regularly with hunting and gathering peoples who inhabited the tropical forests. Bantu cultivators provided these forest peoples with pottery and stone axes in exchange for meat, honey, and other forest products. Unlike most of their neighbors, the Bantu displayed an early readiness to migrate between 2000 BCE and 1000 CE. The precise motives of the early Bantu migrants are unknown, but it seems likely that population pressures drove the migrations. After about 1000 BCE, the pace of Bantu migrations quickened, as Bantu peoples began to produce iron tools and weapons. Iron tools enabled Bantu cultivators to clear land and expand the zone of agriculture more effectively than before, while iron weapons strengthened the hand of Bantu groups against adversaries and competitors for land or other resources. By 1000 CE Bantu-speaking peoples occupied most of Africa south of the equator.