Japan's location just off the fringe of continental Asia made it an ideal place for its unique culture to develop. The islands are situated close enough to China and Korea to benefit from the cultural and technological innovations of those great civilizations, but far enough removed across perilous seas to resist significant political and military domination from the two powers.
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Since ancient times, Japanese philosophers have pondered basic, unanswerable questions about their natural environment. The early Japanese believed that the world around them was inhabited by gods and spirits, from streaks of mist obscuring jagged mountain peaks to water cascading over secluded waterfalls. Almost every aspect of Japan's stunning natural beauty evoked a sense of awe and wonder among its people.
With all the technological innovations coming from modern Japan, it's easy to forget that even they had a Stone Age.
Being a warrior in feudal Japan was more than just a job. It was a way of life. The collapse of aristocratic rule ushered in a new age of chaos appropriately called the Warring States period (c.1400-1600) in which military might dictated who governed and who followed.
For the first time in centuries, Japan was relatively peaceful. The strict political and social policies of Ieyasu and subsequent shoguns ushered in a golden age of economic and cultural prosperity.
In the 1500s, when Spanish conquistadors appeared, two vast empires, those of the Aztecs and the Incas, dominated Central and South America. Both possessed divine kings, both were fractured by internal dissent, and both quickly succumbed to the Spanish onslaught. The physical remains of all these cultures lay dormant for centuries, until science and curiosity demanded their exploration.
The Maya were a collection of people clustered in city-states. What united them was an idea. For the Maya the world of ordinary living and the Otherworld populated by gods, ancestors, and monstrous things, were equally real. There existed three regions, intricately bound together: the heavens, the earth, and the waters of the Underworld.
In the past 25 years archaeologists have learned to read what the Mayas wrote. Today we know the names of kings and queens, how they lived, and when they died, transforming our view of Maya culture.
The Inca called their empire Tahuantinsuyu, or Land of the Four Quarters. It stretched 2,500 miles from Quito, Ecuador, to beyond Santiago, Chile. Within its domain were rich coastal settlements, high mountain valleys, rain-drenched tropical forests and the driest of deserts. The Inca controlled perhaps 10 million people, speaking a hundred different tongues. It was the largest empire on earth at the time. Yet when Pizarro executed its last emperor, Atahualpa, the Inca Empire was only 50 years old.
Huitzilopochtl, God of the Sun, was the Aztec principal god. He had an insatiable appetite for blood. Under his urging, the Aztecs rose from a band of primitive farmers to become the bloodiest civilization of the early Americas. Many Central America cultures indulged in human sacrifice. The Aztec practiced it on an industrial scale, sacrificing tens of thousands of victims each year.
In the wake of Columbus' historic voyage in 1492, expeditions, especially from Imperial Spain, swarmed into Aztec territory. They came in search of gold and souls gold to enrich the coffers of the Spanish king (and their own), and heathen souls to rescue for Christianity. Within a generation, America's ancient civilizations were crushed. Both the Aztec and Inca Empires collapsed after campaigns lasting just a couple of years. How did they fall so fast? Historians suggest many causes.
How do we know about the past? Did a giant flood actually occur? Or were the stories of Gilgamesh and Noah folk tales intended to provide moral guidance?
The word anthropology means literally "the study of man." We are a complicated species, and anthropologists poke into every aspect of our human nature.
Herodotus, the first historian, claimed modest goals for his work: "that the doings of men may not be forgotten." On the title page he wrote Historia, Greek for "inquiries" or "researches." Inquiring into the past has been called history ever since.
Humans are curious creatures, always wondering what lies beyond the horizon. Lewis and Clark did not describe themselves as geographers, but they might well have. Geography is the study of the surface of the earth. It is about people and places. It is about the physical character of a country, its climates and landscapes, and its biological environment.
Digging into our ancestors' past is hard work. Records of human life were not kept millions of years ago. What was life like for cavepeople in the Stone Age? Did Fred Flintstone actually wear leopard skin suits and eat brontosaurus burgers?
Lucy belonged to genus Australopithecus and the species afarensis, but she also belonged to the the hominid family (hominidae) to which humans belong. Although humans are of the family hominidae, we are not of Lucy's genus or species. We are Homo sapiens. How then, can Lucy be our ancient ancestor if we belong to a different genus and species? It's because humans and Lucy share a taxonomy up to the point of genus and species; there are many shared characteristics, but there are differences and these differences place humans in our own genus and species.
For Neanderthal Man, each and every day was a challenge. What was life like for Neanderthals? How did early humans find food, make clothing, and seek shelter?
Because there was no written language 50,000 years ago, we do not have much information on how a "modern stone age family" lived, what they ate, where they lived, what they wore, or even what they looked like. Like Fred Flintstone, did they have leopardskin suits, go barefoot, and use a boulder for a bowling ball?
People of the Stone Age did not have the luxury of turning on the TV and watching Tim "Rock" Taylor host "Tool Time" or Bob Vilastone giving home-building tips in "This Old Cave." Nor could they dial 911 when a fire threatened them. Rather, they had to invent tools and harness the power of fire. But it was their experiments in tool-making that ultimately led to TV, cell phones, and computers.
The sands of the Nile River Valley hold many clues about one of the most mysterious, progressive, and artistic ancient civilizations. A great deal of evidence survives about how the ancient Egyptians lived, but questions remain. Even the wise sphinx would have trouble answering some of them. How were the pyramids built? Who came up with the idea for mummies and why? What was a typical day like for a pharaoh?
None of the achievements of the remarkable ancient Egyptian civilization would have been possible without the Nile River. There is always a connection between landscape and how a people develop. It does not take the wisdom of a sphinx to understand why.
Egyptian society was structured like a pyramid. At the top were the gods, such as Ra, Osiris, and Isis. Egyptians believed that the gods controlled the universe. Therefore, it was important to keep them happy. They could make the Nile overflow, cause famine, or even bring death.
Ancient Egypt, also had dynasties. They were families who often ruled for a considerable number of years and did impressive things such as building pyramids during their rule.
One of the Seven Wonders of the World, the pyramids defy 21st-century humans to explain their greatest secrets. How could a civilization that lacked bulldozers, forklifts, and trucks build such massive structures? Why would anyone have spent the time and energy to attempt such a task? What treasures were placed inside these monuments?
Egyptian women could have their own businesses, own and sell property, and serve as witnesses in court cases. Unlike most women in the Middle East, they were even permitted to be in the company of men. They could escape bad marriages by divorcing and remarrying. And women were entitled to one third of the property their husbands owned. The political and economic rights Egyptian women enjoyed made them the most liberated females of their time.
In the ancient Middle East, many great civilizations rose and fell. The religions of Judaism, Christianity, and Islam each trace their origins back to this part of the world. All of these civilizations arose in the area known as the Fertile Crescent. The Fertile Crescent stretches from the Mediterranean Sea in the west to the Zagros Mountains in the east. It is bordered in the north by the Taurus Mountains and in the south by the Persian Gulf and the Arabian Desert. Its shape resembles a crescent moon.
Located in what the ancient Greeks called Mesopotamia, which literally means "the land between the rivers," Sumer was a collection of city-states that occupied the southernmost portion of Mesopotamia. Most were situated along the Tigris and Euphrates Rivers, lying just north of the Persian Gulf.
The Babylonians used the innovations of the Sumerians, added to them, and built an empire that gave the world, among other things, codified laws, a tower that soared above the earth, and one of the Seven Wonders of the World.
Hammurabi is the best known and most celebrated of all Mesopotamian kings. He ruled the Babylonian Empire from 1792-50 B.C.E. Although he was concerned with keeping order in his kingdom, this was not his only reason for compiling the list of laws. When he began ruling the city-state of Babylon, he had control of no more than 50 square miles of territory. As he conquered other city-states and his empire grew, he saw the need to unify the various groups he controlled.
Much of Assyria's history is closely tied to its southern neighbor, Babylonia. The two Mesopotamian empires spoke similar languages and worshipped most of the same gods. They were often rivals on the battlefield for influence in the ancient Middle East.
Rather than destroy local economies for their own selfish gain, the Persians worked to increase trade throughout their kingdom. They standardized weights, developed official coinage, and implemented universal laws.
The Phoenicians lived along the Mediterranean coast in what is now Lebanon. They inhabited a number of different city-states, the most famous of which were Tyre, Byblos, and Sidon. These Phoenician places were often in conflict with each other for domination of the region. Because of this lack of cooperation, the Phoenicians were conquered and forced to pay tribute to the virtually every empire in the region, including the Egyptians, Hittites, Assyrians, Babylonians, Persians, and Greeks.
The Hebrew's early contribution to humankind was not wealthy empires or groundbreaking technology. Rather, it was the revolutionary idea that there was only one god, a belief known as monotheism. This one Hebrew god was called Yahweh. To the Hebrews, Yahweh was all powerful and all knowing, yet beyond human understanding. The religion based around this god influenced the founding of Christianity and Islam.
To understand the life and death of Jesus and the birth of Christianity, one must understand the context of the Roman Empire. Jesus was a Jew, as were almost all of his early followers.
A man meditating alone in a cave near Mecca received a religious vision. This vision laid the foundations for a new religion. The year was 610 and the man's name was Muhammad.
Democracy. Philosophy. Sculpture. Dramatic tragedies. The Olympic Games. Many of the fundamental elements of Western culture first arose more than 2000 years ago in ancient Greece.