If you think history is a cold recitation of dates and the names of kings and battles, you owe it to yourself to check out Big History. And the best introduction I’ve found to that fascinating new field is Tamim Ansary‘s brilliant 50,000-year survey, The Invention of Yesterday. Unlike many of the pioneering books in Big History, Ansary’s is written in a breezy, conversational style that brings the past to life. And, in never straying from the 30,000-foot perspective that characterizes the field, it’s crammed with insight that’s missing from conventional histories that illuminate the trees but miss the forest. Tamim Ansary will help you understand human history as an extraterrestrial might view it.
Estimated reading time: 5 minutes
Everything’s connected to everything else
You might say that the subtext of The Invention of Yesterday is that everything’s connected to everything else. The book emphasizes “interconnectedness itself as an aspect of human history.” Here, for example, is Ansary on some of those connections as they unfolded in what in the European context is called the Middle Ages:
“The humbling of the Song [Dynasty in China], the Turkification of the Islamic world, the Afghan expansion into northern India, the Crusades — these dramas loom large in the world historical narratives of China, India, the Islamic world, and Europe. From the panoramic point of view, however, they look like a single interwoven drama that began in northern Europe, rippled through the Asian steppes, created disruptions in the urban civilizations along the whole perimeter of that region, and resulted finally in that great tilting of the table that shifted the balance of cultural power from the Eurasian east to the Eurasian west. The next five centuries saw this story continue to unfold across a vast swath of planet Earth.”
From Ansary’s perspective, all these changes were triggered by climatic changes in Scandinavia that drove the Vikings south and westward, eventually pushing the nomadic tribes of Central Asia east into China, south into India, and west into the Middle World (a term Ansary uses for the Middle East).
The Invention of Yesterday: A 50,000-Year History of Human Culture, Conflict, and Connection by Tamim Ansary (2019) 448 pages ★★★★★
Money, Math, Messaging, Management, and Might
To Ansary, Jared Diamond’s touchstone of “guns, germs, and steel” is a start but only that in illuminating how the West conquered the East. To answer the much broader question of how empires grew throughout history, he asserts that five factors were paramount: Money, Math, Messaging, Management, and Might. In other words, communications capabilities, technology, infrastructure, and management systems helped explain the expansion of empires as surely as the funds to pay for armies and navies and the strength and prowess of those military forces. “The increasing size of empires,” Ansary writes, “correlated to the increasing speed at which messages could be transmitted, which in turn reflected the development of technology and infrastructure.”
Understanding human history as an alien might see it
Historians invariably write from an ethnocentric perspective. “Every world history is really a somebody-centric story framed by a master narrative and puts itself as the center.” By a master narrative, Ansary means this: “every stable society is permeated by a social paradigm that organizes human interactions, gives purpose to people’s lives, and makes most events meaningful.” In other words, the widely known view of the Chinese through the ages that their empire was the center of the world is just one example. Read any history of Europe or Western civilization, and you’ll find much the same point of view. And every one of what Ansary calls the “world historical monads” — China, India, Western Europe, and Islam — is grounded in a coherent narrative about its origins and the cultural values on which its civilization is grounded.
Gaining perspective on the broad sweep of history
For the most part, Ansary eschews assigning dates to individual events. The book accounts for developments that evolve over hundreds or thousands of years. But one of the few dates he celebrates is 1492. “If history is the drama of ever-increasing interconnectedness, Columbus’s first voyage to America must be considered the pivotal event — the event that ‘changed everything.'” Then, the two halves of the planet came together in what other historians call the Columbian Exchange, forever altering the economic and political history of the Eurasian states and eradicating more than 90 percent of the people of the Americas.
“[T]he pandemic triggered by Columbus’s epic journey must be considered the single greatest catastrophe in history, dwarfing the Mongol holocaust, the Black Death, and the world wars of the twentieth century.” Later, Ansary explains, “three drugs [tobacco, coffee, and alcohol (rum)], along with gold, silver, and cotton — these were the goods that fueled the European colonization of the Americas.” And it’s that perspective from 30,000 feet that characterizes this remarkable book.
An extraordinary, Big-Picture view of the past
It’s difficult for us in modern times to understand just how much larger and more complex the human project has become over the years. Consider this, for instance: “Single cities such as Tokyo, Mumbai, or Sao Paulo have more inhabitants than did the entire earth in 3000 BCE.”
However, you’ll also find less sweeping lessons along the way. If you want to understand the origins of Christian holidays and rituals, the nature of money, and the central importance of geography in understanding history, read The Invention of Yesterday.
About the author
The Invention of Yesterday is the seventh of Tamim Ansary’s books. He is Afghan-American and has written extensively about his native country and about Islam. An author and public speaker, Ansary lives in San Francisco with his wife and two daughters.
For related reading
The Invention of Yesterday is a brilliant example of Big History. You’ll find other excellent books in the same field at New perspectives on world history.
Previously I reviewed another unique perspective on history by Tamim Ansary, Destiny Disrupted: A History of the World Through Islamic Eyes. It’s reviewed at An Islamic perspective on history.
You might also be interested in 20 top nonfiction books about history. And you can gain more insight into the Big Picture at Gaining a global perspective on the world around us.
Also, you can always find my most popular reviews, and the most recent ones, on the Home Page.