A Road, Not a Wall


I’ve discovered some forums, over at Reddit (duh, http://reddit.com). Now, Reddit was designed for people to share links to interesting articles – read-it. However, it has developed beyond that.

On certain subreddits like askhistorians or the alternate-history ones, there is a basic geographical and technological assumption that’s starting to make me grit my teeth when it comes up.


Followed immediately by Asia and Africa.

I know, it’s what they’re taught at school, that these areas are somehow, despite all the land border they share, magically separate and, inside their borders, unified somehow by nature.

Especially, how Europe and Africa must be really separate because there’s water all around them. North Africa must be much more like South Africa than like the European stuff just across Gibraltar, or reachable by stepping-stone islands.

The Mediterranean was never a barrier to humanity. In most ages, it was the grand highway uniting the lands that touched it.

Let’s look where this silly concept of “Europe” comes from.

The Hellenic concept, c. 800 BC or so, was that they were Europe, and the mainland they faced across the islands (which were theirs) was Asia. They noted that the Bosporus and the Black Sea beyond separated them from this Asia place. They also firmly believed, as recorded in Herodotus, that if you went up some major river emptying into the Black Sea, you would find it running the other way and emptying into a far northern sea, so that water completely cut off Europe from Asia.

Please don’t talk to me about the ancient Greeks as the original scientists. Anyone who hasn’t noticed that water only runs downhill, and that if you cut a channel from salt water to salt water it will be full of, duh, salt water, not fresh (unless the Amazon is emptying into it on one side), isn’t observing reality in any meaningful way. Consider as well that they are the only people I ever heard of who thought, believed, and declared as fact that a human pregnancy took ten months.

Africa is a little different. For one thing, “Africa,” to Herodotus and company, was only the coastline and its hinterland to the west of Egypt – pretty much the Greek colony of Kyrenaica. So when you hear Aesop came from Africa, remember that the “Africans” were mostly Hellenic settlers from Europe. The big chunk of land, the continent, was Libya. It was cut off by water everywhere but at Suez. Though there wasn’t any real discontinuity in people, the Hellenes declared the narrow place enough of separation to make Libya its own continent. Not that this ever kept Egyptians from ruling parts of Asia or Asiatic empires from marching into Egypt.

What the Hellenes did believe is that, however big Libya was, it was not accessible to human beings. To them, the Sahara was just the start of the inferno that prevailed toward the equator, all around the world. There were likely lands, and peoples, on the other side of the globe (they believed in a globular planet), but the Antipodes could not be reached past the zone of fiery death.

This rather says that no one tried sailing down the coast. The Egyptians, with their voyages to Punt, rather knew better.

So this is how we got those three continents, mostly from Hellenes wanting to declare themselves different.

Now, part of the problem is the habit of modern people of declaring continent and race to be one. Like when they refer to “African” or “Asian” as a race.

You see, each of those continents had several races in residence by the time history opened up. Africa, or Libya, had Caucasian people on the Mediterranean coast, Negros in Upper Egypt and across equatorial Africa, and the Khoisan, who weren’t Negros, in southern Africa.

Equally, Asia had Caucasians, not only in the Near East and Mideast and India, but across Central Asia to the Dzungarian Gates. I’m not sure how Semites count any more. It had Malays in the southeast, and Mongoloid/Han/whatchacallit-this-month in the East. Then we have to figure out how to classify the Ainu, who back then held a lot more of the Japanese islands. Do we count the Australoids of New Guinea?

Europe, a little more monotone, mainly because it was the hinterland no one seems to have wanted into. At this time, we don’t find Finns and other “Asiatics” moving eastward in the north.

The point of this is to say that on these reddits, continents are assumed to create or support race, and so that the Big Bad of History, the Europeans, can be lumped as one thing, while Africans and Asians are each another, and usually their poor victims.

Only that’s not how it was, genetically or culturally.

The Mediterranean was not a wall keeping Europeans out of Africa, and Africans out of Europe. The Mediterranean was a highway that facilitated the spread of Mediterranean coastal cultures. The Mediterranean is how the folks from Hellas managed to colonize Ionia and Karia, Kyrenaica, southern Italy, and all the way west to Massilia/Marseilles. The Mediterranean is how the Phoenicians colonized from the Near East of Asia along North Africa to the Punic kingdoms and on into Iberia. The Mediterranean – and the Atlantic – is how the Bell Beaker folks colonized even earlier from the Syrian shore, up around Iberia, deeply into France from the northern shore, and even into southern England.

So far as we can see, sea-faring, not just paddling around the lake, goes back into the Neolithic, and often earlier in technology. The mesolithic natives of Australia paddled there from the land to the north, then, as they moved inland, forgot about boats. The Malays settled archipelagos out through the Philippines, and their descendents, the Polynesians, settled from Madagascar to Easter Island, and from Hawai’i to New Zealand. The earliest civilizations, Sumer, Akkad, Dilmun, the Harappan cities, all traded across the Persian Gulf and Indian Ocean.

For practical people, seas are not barriers. For urban elites engaging in scholarship, who can’t get across the river safely on their own, though, seas can be insurmountable mental walls. Northern French fishermen were sailing to North American waters to fish, and landing in Eastern Canada to take a break, when the official guardians of knowledge said there was nothing out there.

So, please, folks, on the Reference Desk at NaNoWriMo, or at Ask Historians, or especially History What If, you’ll get better answers if you re-think asking about “Asians,” “Africans,” or “Europeans.” Try using a cultural name, or a place description: the Rus, Europe west of the Rhine, the Babylonians, the Roman Kingdom/Republic/Empire/Empire of the East. And for your own sake, give a target year or era, like “1350,” not “the Middle Ages” or “before the Modern Period.” It’s just really hard to answer for 2000 years of history, and people who would happily answer a tighter question just don’t want to write the 500-page book the broad thing you asked would take.

One response »

  1. Hey, Holly, your post is so spot on 🙂
    Maybe because I’m Italian and my ancestrots used to call the Mediterranean ‘Mare Nostrum’, I’ve never perceived it as a barrier. It was obviously a factor of union and meeting. It is still today, actually, for good and bad.

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