Today I'm going to give you a very broad overview

of human history. I'll be using the latest

version of my Timeline of World History chart,

which is available as a poster from my website  In particular, I’m going

to be showing you how history can be divided

into various time periods – or ages – and

I’ll be explaining how these divisions end

up highlighting some of the most important

turning points in world history.


Let me start by explaining the basics of how

this chart works. The vertical scale represents

the flow of time, with time moving forward

as you move down the page. Every white line

represents 100 years and the scale is equidistant,

which means that the distance between two

lines near the top of the chart is exactly

same as it is near the bottom. This is important

because it allows for accurate comparisons

to be made and thus gives the viewer a proper

perspective on time.

Horizontally, the various sections of the

chart represent different parts of the world.

So, on the far left, we have the Americas,

followed by Africa, Europe, Asia, and finally

the Pacific islands. Every line on the chart

represents a specific culture, civilization,

or empire and the width of the line represents

the relative importance of that culture when

compared to other cultures from the same time

period or region.

The next thing we need to talk about are the

terms AD and BC and their equivalents CE and

BCE. AD means Anno Domini, which is Latin

for "in the year of the Lord". Basically,

it's meant to measure the years from the birth

of Jesus. Anything before that point is called

BC, which stands for "Before Christ". Now,

most scholars today have actually concluded

that Jesus was probably born in 4 BC so keep

in mind that the scale is a bit off.

So, as we move backwards through time, the

AD dates go down but then once we get to BC,

the dates start going back up. And I should

point out that there is no year zero. So,

basically, the year 1 BC was followed immediately

by the year 1 AD. Nowadays, it’s becoming

more and more standard for historians to use

the terms CE and BCE instead. CE stands for

Common Era and BCE stands for Before the Common

Era. The reason for the change is simply an

attempt to use a more neutral term, which

makes sense considering that 75% of the world

is not Christian.

Ok, now that we've got that under our belt,

the next question we need to address is: What

is the starting point for history? In other

words, where do we draw the line between history

and pre-history? Well, on this chart, I've

used the year 33 hundred BCE as my starting

point. The reason for this is that this is

approximately when writing first appeared.

The basic idea is that without written records,

we can't have history. Therefore, everything

before the emergence of the first writing

systems is best categorized as pre-history.

And, of course, pre-history goes back much

farther than 5,300 years. If we’re talking

about the pre-history of our species, homo

sapiens, it goes back about another 200 thousand

years (a time period also known as the Stone

Age) and if we’re talking about the pre-history

of the planet earth, that goes back about

4.5 billion years. But this chart doesn’t

cover prehistory. Instead, it starts with

the emergence of written records and goes

from there.

So, on this chart, history is divided into

six main time periods: the Early Bronze Age,

the Bronze Age, the Iron Age, Classical Antiquity,

the Middle Ages, and the Modern Period. Let’s

now take a look at each, one by one.

The Bronze Age gets its name based on the

fact that humans first started to make things

out of bronze around the same time that they

first developed writing. This occurred in

three main areas: Egypt, Sumer (which is modern-day

Iraq), and the Indus Valley (modern-day Pakistan).

Unfortunately, the writing system used in

the Indus Valley is yet to be deciphered so

we can only read the records from Egypt and

Sumer. But we do know that these three civilizations

did trade with one another and that throughout

the early Bronze Age, each grew in terms of

both size and technology.

At the start of this period, the Sumerians

had already invented the wheel, the plough,

and the sail. But during the early Bronze

Age, they also went on to develop astronomy

and mathematics. Over in Egypt, it was during

the early Bronze Age that the Great Pyramids

of Giza were built.

Besides these three civilizations, the only

other place in the world to have large cities

was over in what is today Peru. There, a culture

known as the Norte Chico civilization was

thriving. But strangely, although they built

large stone structures, they appear to have

had no writing system and no pottery. Stone

structures dating from the early Bronze Age

can also be found at Stonehenge in England

and on the island of Malta. But neither of

these places had large populations.

Okay, so that was the early Bronze Age. Now

let’s look at the Bronze Age proper. Dividing

these two time periods is a very important

event known as the 4.2 kiloyear event, named

because it occurred approximately 4.2 thousand

years ago. The exact cause of the event is

still debated but we do know is that it resulted

in approximately 100 years of extremely dry

conditions worldwide. Because of this, the

Egyptian Old Kingdom, the Akkadian Empire

(which had conquered Sumer) and the Indus

Valley Civilization all declined rapidly and

in the time period that followed, we get a

new set of cultures. Egypt was revived as

the Middle & New Kingdoms and the Sumerian

civilization eventually evolved in the Babylonian

civilization. But in South Asia, we get a

more dramatic change. The Indus Valley cities

disappear altogether and we get a new set

of people arriving, the Indo-Aryans, who were

part of the larger Indo-European group.

During the Bronze Age proper, we also get

civilizations arising in other parts of the

world for the first time, including in China,

Sub-Saharan Africa, and unbeknownst to many

people, North America. There we get the Poverty

Point culture, where large mounds and complex

settlements were built. Finally, we also get

the first civilization in Europe – the Minoans

on the island of Crete. Midway through the

period though, there was a volcanic eruption

nearby which led to the downfall of the Minoans

and the rise of the Mycenean Greeks instead.

This catastrophe could very well have been

the event that birthed the Atlantis myth.

The next big turning point in history occurred

around 12 hundred BCE and is known as the

Bronze Age collapse. For reasons that are

still somewhat unclear, the major civilizations

in Greece, Anatolia, and Egypt all disappeared

almost instantaneously. What followed is often

called the Greek Dark Ages – a period in

which the historical record for the region

goes somewhat silent. Interestingly, it is

during this silent period that many of the

world’s most famous legendary tales supposedly

took place, such as those found in the Jewish

Torah, the Greek Iliad, and the Hindu Mahabharata.

The Bronze Age collapse also coincided with

the first use of iron in the Middle East.

Therefore, the period in which the Greek Dark

Ages took place is also aptly called the Iron

Age. This is the third and final period in

what is known as the three-age system, consisting

of the Stone Age, the Bronze Age, and the

Iron Age.

The next period is not actually part of the

three-age system. This is because, after approximately

600 BCE, we no longer have to rely entirely

on archaeology to get information. As I mentioned

earlier, humans have been writing since 33

hundred BCE. But there is nothing surviving

from the Bronze Age or Iron Age that could

really be considered a history book. Sure,

we have the names of kings, lists of battles,

and other details carved into rock and metal

but we don’t have anything that starts with

“In this treatise, I am going to record

the complete history of X”

But, around this time, we do start to get

such writings, for example, from a Greek guy

named Herodotus, who is often called the “father

of history”. So, in other words, we know

a heck of a lot more information about this

next period, called Classical Antiquity, than

we know about the previous periods.

Classical Antiquity is when the Greeks and

the Romans laid the foundations for what would

become known as Western civilization, mostly

by borrowing and building upon information

gained from the earlier Bronze Age civilizations.

But there was a lot going on in other parts

of the world as well.

For example, in Mesoamerica, Olmec culture

would go on to influence classical Mayan culture,

with its intricate calendar and writing system

and in North America, there was an extensive

trade network where lots of different types

of art was being exchanged

In Africa, the long-standing Kingdom of Kush

eventually gave way to the Kingdom of Aksum

in Ethiopia. There was also the three mighty

Persian empires, the Maurya & Gupta Empires

in India, and the first imperial dynasty in

China. Eventually, a trade route between all

these areas opened up, known as the Silk Road,

and thus the Western parts of Eurasia and

the Eastern parts of Eurasia were connected

for the first time.

But perhaps even more importantly, it was

during Classical Antiquity that humanity’s

current moral and philosophical foundations

were laid. Simultaneously yet independently,

we got Greek philosophy, the Bible, the Hindu

& Buddhist scriptures and the writings of

Confucius. We also saw the first experiments

with democracy and the first evidence of truly

scientific thinking.

But this golden age of human development did

not last forever. It came to an end around

the year 500 CE with the fall of the Western

Roman Empire. In other areas, the classical

period ended a little earlier (such as in

China) or a little later (like in Mesoamerica)

but basically, all over the world, most of

the major classical civilizations eventually

crumbled. We then get what’s called the

Middle Ages. The word “middle” is used

for this period because it is located in the

middle between ancient history (which consists

of everything we’ve covered so far) and

modern history (which we’ll be getting to

next). It’s also called the Medieval Period,

“medieval” simply meaning “Middle Age”.

But one term that really shouldn’t be used

for the medieval period, but often is, is

the Dark Ages. The reason for this is that

the so-called dark ages were really just limited

to Western Europe. Other areas during this

time, such as the Middle East and China, were

actually experiencing new Golden Ages.

So what made things in Western Europe change

so drastically? Well, numerous theories have

been put forward but one thing we know for

certain is that it involved large scale migrations

in several parts of the world. Whether or

not these migrations were sparked by climate

change or some other natural phenomenon, we

can’t be sure. But it ended up creating

kind of a domino effect. For example, the

Huns moved into Europe from the East and this

pushed several Germanic tribes south, bringing

them into conflict with Rome. Eventually,

it was these Germanic tribes, known to the

Romans as “barbarians” who caused the

fall of the Western Empire and plunged Europe

into the so-called Dark Ages.

But it wasn’t just barbarians that caused

trouble. In the years 535 and 536, there were

several extreme weather events, perhaps started

by a large volcanic eruption, that led to

famines and cool, dry weather all over the

world. There was also the First Bubonic Plague,

also known as the Plague of Justinian, that

killed 50% of the population in some cities.

In the East, these events did not lead to

the Eastern half of the Empire falling but

they did set the stage for the rise of a new

civilization nearby – Islam.

But while Islam was expanding in the Middle

East, Christianity was expanding in Europe.

Eventually, areas that started out as barbarian

kingdoms evolved into major powers such as

England, France, and the Holy Roman Empire.

But there were lots of other things happening

in the world during the Middle Ages as well.

For example, in West Africa, we get several

major empires for the first time, including

the Mali Empire with its ruler Mansa Musa,

who was the richest person ever in all of

world history. And in Southern Africa, there

was the city of Great Zimbabwe, which included

the first large structures ever in that part

of the world.

A lot was happening in the Americas as well.

We don’t tend to think of cities existing

in pre-Columbian North America but they did.

There was Cahokia in what is now Illinois

as well as the Puebloan cities in New Mexico.

In Mesoamerica, the Aztecs were dominating

and in South America, there were the Incas.

Finally, it was during the Middle Ages that

we get the largest land empire of all time

– the Mongol Empire – started by Genghis


Okay, we now come to the sixth and final time

period – the modern age – which is the

period in which we live today. One could argue

that the transition started with the most

deadly pandemic of all time – the Black

Death, also known as the Second Bubonic Plague.

Once again, up to 50% of the population in

many cities passed away and this perhaps helped

spark the Renaissance. The Eastern Roman Empire

finally fell, to the Ottoman Turks, and in

Italy, there was a renewed interest in studying

the art and philosophy of the Classical Period.

Around the same time, Europeans started colonizing

the Americas and major advances were made

in science. This in turn led to the industrial

revolution, which then gave way to the technological

revolution which we are still experiencing


Okay, so that was obviously a very broad overview.

But what I think is perhaps most interesting

and most important are the similarities that

can be seen in the transitions between each

time period. Often they involved a combination

of climate events, mass migrations, and pandemics

– three things that we are currently dealing

with in the year 2020. Does this mean that

we are on the verge of entering a new period

in human history? I guess only time will tell.

Let me know what you think in the comments.

Thanks for watching.