5 historical facts that blew my mind

I have always loved History. I can get hooked on a history book as if it was a novel, with the extra benefit of gaining a new perspective on the past and its relevance for the present. Here is a list of some of the most surprising insights I learned through my readings, I hope you’ll enjoy it!

1. The first human settlers of Madagascar came from Indonesia, not Africa

Chronological dispersal of Austronesian peoples across the Indo-Pacific per: Chambers, Geoff (2013). “Genetics and the Origins of the Polynesians”. John Wiley & Sons, Inc. (via Wikipedia)

Madagascar is only 400 km away from mainland Africa, and around 7,000 km from Indonesia. Nonetheless, the first human settlers in the island came from the Indonesian archipelago [1], no earlier than 300 B.C.E. It is a jaw-dropping distance for that era, even more so if we think that the same population (the Austronesian peoples) went on to colonise Hawaii and New Zealand in the following centuries. As Wikipedia puts it:

They were the most widespread group of peoples with shared linguistic ancestry prior to the colonial era.

2. Wales was the very last part of the Roman Empire to fall to the barbarians… 800 years after the end of Rome

Pillar of Eliseg in Wales (erected c. 855 A.D.). Magnus Maximus is listed as an ancestor of a medieval Welsh king (from Wikipedia)

I came across this fact by reading The Fall of Rome and the End of Civilization [2]:

“North Wales can lay claim to being the very last part of the Roman empire to fall to the barbarians — when it fell to the English under Edward I in 1282. It seems that it was in these ‘backward’ parts of the empire that people found it easiest to re-establish tribal structures and effective military resistance”.

Obviously, by 1282 Welsh had long abandoned roman customs. However, the idea of a roman legacy was still alive and routinely used by Welsh medieval kings to legitimise their power (e.g. royal genealogies had the late Roman Emperor Maximum Magnus as the founding father of Welsh royal dynasties) [3].

3. The destiny of medieval Europe was decided in a pivotal battle between Asian nomadic tribes

By the mid of the XIII century the Mongols had conquered almost the whole continent of Asia, in one of the most incredible and brutal conquests in history (around 40 million victims [3]). Europe and North Africa now yawned open. The Mongol army had already proven devastating against European armies in Hungary and Poland. The near East was in no better position: the Islamic world, although richer than medieval Europe, was divided and weakened by internal struggles. Even the mighty Persian empire had been crushed by the Mongols in the 1220s, while Baghdad was sacked in 1258.

Map of the clash between Mamluks and Mongols (from Wikipedia)

Only one kingdom stood now between the Mongols and the Mediterranean: the sultanate of Cairo. There was a notable difference between this and other Islamic states at the time: in 1250 Egypt had been taken over by its own slave soldiers, the Mamluks, originally from Central Asia. As Frankopan says [4]:

“With remarkable irony, the new Egyptian overlords were men from similar stock to the Mongols themselves — nomads from the steppes”.

The Mongol and Mamluk armies clashed fiercely in 1260 in Ain Jalut, modern day Israel. In retrospect, we know that what was at stake in this battle was the future of Western Asia and Europe. Again Frankopan summarises it very well:

The Middle Ages in Europe are traditionally seen as the time of Crusades, chivalry and the growing power of the papacy, but all this was little more than a sideshow to the titanic struggles taking place further east. […] All that stood in the way of Mongol control of the Nile, of Egypt’s rich agricultural output and its crucial position as a junction on the trade routes in all directions was an army commanded by men who were drawn from the very same steppes: this was not just a struggle for supremacy, it was the triumph of a political, cultural and social system. The battle for the medieval world was being fought between nomads from Central and eastern Asia.

Had the Mamluks been crushed, the world history would have been very different. Instead, the battle of Ain Jalut was the first major defeat for the Mongols, who would never again reach so far in the West.

4. China was on the verge of starting a colonial empire in the early 1400s, a century before Europe

Woodblock print showing one of the ships from the Ming treasure voyages (early 17th century) (from Wikipedia)

Between 1405 and 1433 China undertook seven maritime expeditions (known as Ming treasure voyages), which reached as far as the Arabian peninsula and East Africa. The purpose of these voyages was to incorporate several foreign countries into China’s tributary system and sphere of influence through military, commercial and political supremacy.

These expeditions quickly made Ming China the first naval power in the World, at a time when the military and wealth gap with pre-colonial Europe was still overwhelming. Had China continued on that path, it could have started an intercontinental colonial empire decades before Spain and Portugal, changing radically the course of history. Instead, the expeditions ended abruptly in 1433 and China turned inward for centuries. Historians debate the reason for this: one possible explanation is the internal rivalry between social classes, with the traditional elite seeing the voyages as a threat to their status and resources [5].

5. The most recent common ancestor of every European (and of non-Europeans of European descent) is only 600 years old

If this dating sounds surprisingly recent, wait until you hear this second bit: everyone who was alive 1,000 years ago in Europe and left descendants who are alive today is also an ancestor of everyone alive in Europe today (the so called identical ancestors point).

Both of these astonishing findings are the result of mathematical calculations [6] rather than genetic studies, which by themselves cannot provide accurate dating because of lack of historical records and genetic data. Although the result is of little practical use (we have no way to know who exactly in the ninth century left ancestors alive today and who didn’t — with few exceptions among historical figures, like Charlemagne, that we know must be a common ancestor of all Europeans alive today), it is a beautiful discovery from a human and philosophical point of view. As Adam Rutherford puts it [7]:

You are of royal descent, because everyone is. You are of Viking descent, because everyone is. You are of Saracen, Roman, Goth, Hun, Jewish descent, because, well you get the idea. All Europeans are descended from exactly the same people, and not that long ago.

[1] Guns, Germs, and Steel: The Fates of Human Societies by Jared Diamond, 1997

[2] The Fall of Rome: And the End of Civilization by Bryan Ward-Perkins, 2005

[3] Britannia: A History of Roman Britain by Frere, Sheppard Sunderland, 1987

[3] The Better Angels of Our Nature: Why Violence Has Declined by Steven Pinker2011

[4] The Silk Roads: A New History of the World by Peter Frankopan, 2015

[5] Why Nations Fail by Daron Acemoglu and James A. Robinson, 2012

[6] Modelling the recent common ancestry of all living humans by Rohde D.L., Olson S., Chang J.T., Nature. 431 (7008): 562–6, 2004

[7] A Brief History of Everyone Who Ever Lived by Adam Rutherford, 2016

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