Last night the BBC aired the first part of journalist Andrew Marr’s History of the World, a documentary series chronicling the entire history of humanity, from the rise of anatomically modern humans down to the present day. The first episode focused on prehistory down to the end of Minoan civilization. The program, however, made several questionable assertions about ancient history that take a page from “alternative archaeology” more than history.
Marr is not a historian, or an archaeologist, or a specialist in prehistory. He is a political journalist with an interest in the history of Britain and a degree in English. This is not necessarily bad—after all I am not a professional archaeologist or historian, though I do have a degree in archaeology-anthropology. (Archaeology is considered a subset of anthropology in the U.S. but a separate discipline in Britain.) His documentary series, by necessity, must compress a great deal of history into a few short snippets of voice-over, interspersed with endless “reenactments.”
In the program, Marr claims that “around 4,000 years ago” “something” happened on a global scale that was remembered in myth as the Great Flood. But this is all he says of it; he gives no evidence, provides no proof. Instead, we are treated to a Chinese myth of Yu the Great and the Flood as a proxy for all. But the Chinese Flood myth is riparian, not global, and it is traditionally dated to c. 2500 BCE, while the Sumerians and other Near Eastern peoples imagined their Flood as taking place before this. The Chinese flood lasted for generations, while the Near Eastern flood lasted but weeks. In the Chinese myth, the flood was conquered by Yu’s civil engineering, building canals to drain the rivers. In Sumer, the gods ended the flood when they felt like it.
Science shows us that the Mesopotamian cities experienced localized flooding at various times, while other theorists have argued that the Flood was inspired by (a) observations of fossil sea shells on mountaintops, (b) an Indian Ocean meteor impact and subsequent tsunami circa 3000 BCE, and (c) rising sea levels after the Ice Age, 8,400 years ago. Robert Ballard also proposed the idea that the Black Sea filled in virtually overnight (in geologic terms) around 5600 BCE, inspiring the Near Eastern Flood myth. Except for the controversial Indian Ocean meteor theory, none of these even approximately match Marr’s 2000 BCE date for the advent of Flood myths, at which point, incidentally, the Gilgamesh flood story was probably already well-known, but neither the Chinese nor Mayan flood myths had likely yet been created.
But Marr’s concern is less for the accuracy of the facts about ancient myths than for creating a mythic history in support of the facts of climate change. He wants us to understand that human history was guided by climate change. Humans left Africa because of climate; humans began farming because of the environment; civilizations rose and fell because of natural disasters. This narrative, while not untrue, is a reduction of the vastly more complex story of civilization. Adherence to it, for example, leads Marr to leave out Göbekli Tepe, the most important ancient site prior to the Bronze Age because the idea of hunter-gatherers making advanced stone circles contradicts the climate change to agriculture to civilization narrative Marr wants to present.
This leads to his final error. In describing the Minoan civilization, Marr gives the false and misleading impression that climate change and natural disasters destroyed the Minoans. He does not explicitly identify the volcanic eruption at Thera as the cause, but the visuals show earthquakes and darkening skies as the narrative tells of “nature” striking back against the Minoans “around 3,700 years ago,” i.e. 1680 BCE. The Thera eruption is traditionally ascribed to the period around 1650 BCE, give or take.
But this is just wrong. The Minoans not only survived the Thera eruption, they actually built their largest palaces after the eruption, which at any rate had very little direct impact on Crete, amounting to perhaps a few millimeters of ash. (By contrast, Thera itself was completely destroyed.) The fact of the matter is that the Minoans soldiered on for at least two hundred more years. Around 1450 BCE (which is not “around 3700 years ago”) an earthquake did destroy several palaces, but this in turn led to the surviving palace at Knossos—the only one Marr mentions by name—running the whole island for the first time. Natural disaster did not directly lead to the downfall of Knossos. That honor went instead to the Mycenaeans, who, around 1420-1375 BCE, invaded and conquered Knossos and thus absorbed Crete into their expanding empire. The Mycenaeans do not warrant a mention from Marr because they are not climatic.
Overall, Marr’s program was almost as good as one could expect a one hour program covering the first 100,000 years of so of human existence to be. But its unspoken thesis on the governing power of the environment has led to several ambiguous-to-misleading statements that do not match the historical record.
I am an author and researcher focusing on pop culture, science, and history. Bylines: New Republic, Slate, etc. There's more about me in the About Jason tab.
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