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Big Geography
Father Time

A Pictorial Archive from Nineteenth-Century Sources. Mineola, NY:
Dover Publications, Inc.
Father Time

Today, world history is a basic subject in the social studies curriculum across the United States. K–12 educators generally agree that young Americans graduating from high school should have knowledge of world history, geography, and contemporary affairs. A world history education should include the whole world and not just part of it. The subject is challenging, however, because it embraces humanity in general, not just one nation or cultural tradition, and because the time scope—from the Paleolithic era to the present—is immense.

Getting the whole world into world history does not mean that students must investigate "everything," and certainly not everything all at once! To make sense of the past, we have to organize the investigation into manageable pieces. We must define specific historical topics, questions, problems, time periods, and themes, then explore them in careful ways. Students, however, should not lose sight of the main subject: the story of how humans have behaved, thought, and interacted across the ages.

On this site, each of the Big Eras addresses a time period on the global scale. Each successive Big Era is shorter in time scope than the previous one. For example, Big Era One considers the very long epoch of history up to the emergence of Homo sapiens. Big Era Nine, by contrast, focuses on the period from 1945 to the present. This approach is generally compatible with conventional organization of courses, standards, and textbooks. It also mirrors the long-term trend of historical change: human interrelations have become increasingly complex, and the speed of change has continuously accelerated. Consequently, recent Big Eras should encompass shorter time periods than more distant ones if investigation of them is to be coherent and intelligible.

Dual Research Base

The World History for Us All model curriculum generally has a dual research base. One is the exciting research in comparative, interregional, and world-scale history that scholars have undertaken during the past several decades. This scholarship has shown that although nation-states and civilizations are appropriate contexts for studying historical change, other configurations of space and time are valid as well. Patrick Manning has argued that the central aim of world history is to investigate "the interaction of the pieces (be they community, societal, or continental) in human history" and "to assess the experience of the whole of humanity through study of those interactions."1 World history also involves searches for answers to questions about the past that may lead the searcher straight across the boundaries of nations, empires, and civilizations. World History for Us All has adopted the premise that when teachers and students pose good historical questions, even very big questions, they can explore answers in ways that charge their study with historical meaning and contemporary relevance. As historian David Christian writes:

In a world with nuclear weapons and ecological problems that cross all national borders, we desperately need to see humanity as a whole. Accounts of the past that focus primarily on the divisions between nations, religions, and cultures are beginning to look parochial and anachronistic—even dangerous. So, it is not true that history becomes vacuous at large scales. Familiar objects may vanish, but new and important objects and problems come into view.2

The other part of the World History for Us All research base is the work that scholars in the United States, Britain, and other countries have done on the ways students learn, interpret, and understand the past. They have been asking, "How do students build meaning from historical information, and how do they connect facts to broader patterns and generalizations?" These writers argue that historical understanding requires learning of both the particular and the general. In fact, the ability to relate specific subject matter to higher and more sophisticated levels of causation and significance is a fundamental historical thinking skill. Peter Lee has observed:
Children reading

A Pictorial Archive from Nineteenth-Century Sources. Mineola, NY:
Dover Publications, Inc.
Children reading

While understanding something in depth is a necessary part of learning history ... it is not enough. Moving from one in-depth topic to another and illuminating each one in the historical spotlight only begins to develop historical understanding if such topics are set in a wider historical framework ... To provide something students can use and think about, we may need to teach a big picture quite quickly, in a matter of two or three weeks, and keep coming back to it. Such a framework focuses on large-scale patterns of change, encompassing students’ in-depth studies so they are not simply isolated topics ... This means students need to acquire a usable framework of the past, a big picture organized by substantive concepts they increasingly understand and can reflect upon.3

Scales of space and time

What is the best way to get started teaching and learning world history? In some curriculums and textbooks, the first major topic is the agricultural revolution in the Fertile Crescent in 12,000 BP (Before Present). In others, the first focus is the founding of river valley civilization in Mesopotamia in 6,000 BP. In modern world history courses, the first topic might be the Renaissance in Europe in the fifteenth and sixteenth centuries. But what if we start, not at a particular spot on the globe, but with the world as a whole? What if we think of the Earth as a "place" whose inhabitants have a shared history? Events and developments may take place inside continents, regions, civilizations, or nation-states, but those "spaces" remain parts of the globe in all its roundness.

Studying the past in this holistic way means asking questions about events and developments that are relatively broad in space and time. In terms of geographical space, study of the history of a rural community, a town, a city, a nation, an empire, a civilization, the world, or even the universe are all valid. It is not that one geographical scale of history is more important than another. Rather, at different scales we can identify and ask different kinds of interesting historical questions. Where one scholar might research 30 years in the history of a Mexican village to understand economic changes there, another might take on migration patterns in Africa south of the Sahara from 1500 to 2000 CE. A third might explore 3,000 years of global climatic change and its effects on human society. Students of world history may study very specific times and events, but they may also try to understand them better by setting them in larger comparative, regional, and global contexts.

We can push this point even farther. The Earth itself is framed by even larger contexts—the solar system, the Milky Way galaxy, and the universe. As we explore how human beings evolved, acquired mental abilities that no other animal species possessed, and came to populate almost all parts of the world, we should remember that when our species emerged, the Earth had already existed for more than four billion years. Complex processes of physical and biological change had long been underway when our first bipedal ancestors appeared on the scene just seven million years ago.

Learning to "think the world"

One of the wonders of our era is that for the first time in history, people everywhere in the world can experience the same event almost simultaneously. A spectacular example of this is the world-wide celebrations that greeted the New Year in 2000. The planet revolved through the time zones, midnight struck again and again, and the festivities broke out in rapid, rolling sequence around the planet. Among the first to celebrate were the people of the Kiribati and Marshall Islands, which lie in the South Pacific just west of the International Date Line. From there, the New Year swept on to Sydney, Beijing, New Delhi, Jerusalem, Lagos, London, Caracas, Seattle, and, at last, Honolulu. Those who had the stamina to watch TV long enough could see the entire relay of parties, prayers, and fireworks displays, for twenty-four straight hours. This spectacle was a compelling reminder of the unity of humankind as inhabitants of a single tiny "marble" suspended in the universe. Also remarkable is that millions of people could consciously witness the world-wide commemoration and reflect upon it in real time.

Electronic marvels invented in the twentieth century enabled men and women to "think the world" in a way that no one could have done in 1000 CE or even in 1900.4 We live now in what scholars have called a "condition of globality." Careers, family life, community activities, and even mental health all depend to some degree on our understanding of the astonishing complexities that intertwine all human beings. The ability to "think the world"—its economy, science, technology, politics, and culture—must be a primary aim of all education today. This challenges us to rethink humanity’s history in a more holistic, interconnected way.

Millions of young people around the world spend their typical days—when not looking at a computer screen or talking into a cell phone—congregating with family members, fellow students, friends, or coworkers. But those bonds are only our most special. We are also connected, often unconsciously, to numerous other networks of human relationships that affect the course of daily life. Some of these "communities" may be fleeting (passengers sharing an airplane flying at 30,000 feet), and some may be very large (all members of the Roman Catholic Church). Some of them cut across many generations, such as family trees, or the communities formed by particular religions or nations. No individual anywhere in the world is truly isolated from such complex global relationships, not hunters in the Amazon rain forest, nor peasant girls in high Himalayan valleys.

In fact, most people are continuously affected by events and trends initiated in distant parts of the globe. Supermarkets in Wisconsin raise the price of coffee because of weather conditions in Brazil. An office conference call gets cut off, causing minor panic over a deal closure in Beijing. Or, on a very big scale, house prices in the United States drastically drop, triggering a chain of events that ends in a world recession! Our continuous encounters with the wide, wide world are an aspect of the dizzying pace of change, the single most conspicuous feature of contemporary life. Whether in the United States, Italy, Burma, or Swaziland, society is perpetually transforming itself because of the growing complexity of world communication, the flow of goods and financial transactions, and the apparently never-ending birth of new ideas, techniques, and products.

Marmite is a yeast paste loved by British children—but not by Americans.

Wikimedia Commons
Marmite Jars

Our culture, that is, our language, institutions, laws, moral codes, and regular social routines, buffers us to some extent against the gales of change. Shared culture enables people to have some expectation of how others will think and behave. It helps us predict with at least some accuracy the shape of our affairs from one day to the next. In so far as we have a place in a familiar system of cultural values and organizations, we can usually cope quite well with new things or sudden change. When a social group—a family, religious denomination, business community, or nation—confronts something new or foreign, its members try to fit the strange thing into the existing cultural system with a minimum amount of fuss. Or the group may reject it altogether as useless or distasteful. So far, for example, American children have stoutly resisted Marmite, the yeast paste that British children love to spread on bread. And not everyone in the world likes peanut butter. On the whole, social groups do well at using their cultural yardsticks to sift through the new and strange, accepting one item, rejecting another, so that life does not appear to change all that much from one month to the next.

Yet in today’s globally interconnected world, the forces of change, ricocheting around the world, are much more encompassing than we generally realize or wish to believe. Global change is not simply a matter of one event there (war in the Middle East) affecting some condition of life here (a rise in the price of gas). Nor is it just that products or ideas spread quickly from one place to another. The most striking feature of global interaction is that a significant development occurring in one place is likely to set off a complex chain reaction, disrupting and rearranging numerous relationships over an extensive area, maybe even around the world.

When did the world get like this? For how long have peoples of the globe been interconnected? Since the Industrial Revolution? Since World War II? Since the invention of the Internet? A better question might be: How far back in time would we have to go to find a world divided into a collection of entirely separate, self-contained societies, each moving through time along its own track, unresponsive to developments anywhere else? The answer is that we could cast back two hundred, five thousand, twenty thousand years and still not find such a world of completely atomized societies. Indeed, even the early history of humankind hundreds of thousands of years ago is a story of long-distance migrations of hunting and foraging bands across Africa and Eurasia, a process that involved interaction between one group and another wherever such contact took place.

Some important geographical terms

To "think world history" in a way that makes room for all peoples requires that we see the spherical surface of the planet as the primary place where history happened. Students need, therefore, to have a basic knowledge of what the World History for Us All model curriculum has called Big Geography, that is, the largest-scale features of the earth’s physical and natural environment. These are the patterns of topography, vegetation, climate, and weather that cut across particular nations or cultural groups and that give the world as a whole its distinctive "face." Attention to Big Geography prepares students to explore particular events, time periods, and regions in a way that encourages making connections between whatever subject matter they are learning and the world-scale context. This site uses some geographical terms that may not be familiar to teachers and students.

Map of Afroeurasia


Afroeurasia is the landmass made up of Africa and Eurasia together. Afroeurasia was formed during the last 40 million years by the collision of the tectonic plates that contained Eurasia and those that contained Africa and Arabia. This geographical expression serves as a helpful tool in discussing large-scale historical developments that cut across the traditionally-defined continental divisions of Africa, Asia, and Europe. Even though Africa is separated from both Europe and Asia by the Mediterranean and Red seas (except at the Isthmus of Sinai where modern Egypt meets Israel), these bodies of water have historically been channels of human intercommunication, not barriers to it. Therefore, we may think of both the Mediterranean and the Red Sea as "lakes" inside Afroeurasia.

Map of the Americas

America, the Americas

The Americas are made up of the continents of North America and South America, including neighboring islands, notably the islands of the Caribbean Sea. Until the twentieth century, most geography books classified North and South America together as a single continent, labeling them the "New World" ("new" to Europeans beginning in the late fifteenth century CE) in contradistinction to the "Old World," that is, Afroeurasia. In the twentieth century, school children in the United States and most other countries (though not in some Latin American states) were taught to see the "Western Hemisphere" as constituting two continents, joined only by the narrow Isthmus of Panama. On the other hand, humans in North and South America have never been entirely disconnected from one another. As far as we know, humans first migrated from North to South America 12,000 years or longer ago by advancing along either the Isthmus or its coastal waters. Also, it is not hard to perceive the Gulf of Mexico and the Caribbean Sea as two "internal seas" of a single American landmass, much the way we may think of the Mediterranean and Red seas as "inside" Afroeurasia. The Caribbean and the Gulf of Mexico are bounded on three sides by land and on the west by a long string of closely clustered islands.

Map of Australasia


The continent of Australia, plus New Guinea, New Zealand, Tasmania, and other islands that neighbor Australia make up Australasia. During the last Ice Age, when sea levels were lower, Australia, New Guinea, and Tasmania constituted a single landmass known as Sahul. Human settlement of Australasia began as many as 60,000 years ago, though Polynesian mariners did not reach New Zealand until about 1000 CE.

Map of Eurasia


Eurasia is the landmass made up of Asia and Europe. Today, this term is widely used in history and geography education. The idea that Europe and Asia are separate continents goes back many centuries, but scholars who accept the definition of a continent as "a large landmass surrounded, or nearly surrounded, by water" know that the definition applies to neither Europe nor Asia because these two landmasses are conjoined. Moreover, the Ural Mountains, which eighteenth-century European geographers designated as the proper boundary between the European and Asian continents, have never been a serious obstacle to the flow of migrants, armies, trade goods, or ideas. On this site, we define Europe as a subcontinent of Eurasia (or of Afroeurasia), parallel to South Asia or to the Indochinese peninsula.

Map of the Great Arid Zone

Great Arid Zone

A climatic map of Afroeurasia shows that a good part of the landmass is a belt of dry or semi-dry country that extends all the way from the Atlantic coast of Africa in a generally northeasterly direction to the northern interior of China. This enormous tract comprises a chain of interconnected deserts, mountains, and semi-arid steppes. A steppe may be defined as flat or rolling grassland, equivalent to what Americans call "prairie" and Argentineans call "pampas." The main climatic characteristic of the Great Arid Zone is low annual rainfall, which may range from an average of less than 5 inches in the bleakest of deserts to 20 inches or so in better watered steppes. For several millennia, the Great Arid Zone has been home to pastoral nomadic peoples. Where water has been available from rivers, springs, or wells, it has also been home to farming societies and even large cities.

Map of Indo-Mediterranea


The region of lands and seas extending from the Atlantic coasts of Europe and North Africa to North India is known as Indo-Mediterranea. This expression includes the Mediterranean basin as a whole and extends eastward across Southwest Asia to northern India as far as the Bay of Bengal. In the long term of human history from at least the third millennium BCE to modern times, this region has been characterized by a proliferation of clusters of dense population (notably in river valleys) and by intense commercial and cultural interchange.

Map of Inner Eurasia

Inner Eurasia

The huge interior landmass of Eurasia, whose dominant features are flat, semi-arid regions of steppe and forest, is known as Inner Eurasia. David Christian defines Inner Eurasia as the territories ruled by the Soviet Union before its collapse, together with Mongolia and parts of western China. Poland and Hungary on the west and Manchuria (northeastern China) on the east may be thought of as Inner Eurasia’s borderlands. The northern margins are boreal forest and Arctic tundra. The southern boundaries are the Himalayas and other mountain chains.

Map of Oceania


The basin of the Pacific Ocean and its approximately 25,000 islands make up Oceania. Human settlement of this enormous region, sometimes called the Island Pacific, began in western islands near New Guinea about 1600 BCE. Polynesian mariners reached both Hawaii to the northeast and Easter Island to the far southeast around 500 CE. The majority of the islands lie in the tropical belt south of the Equator. The first peoples of Oceania spoke mostly Polynesian languages. Some geographers include both the large island of New Guinea and the continent of Australia as part of Oceania.

Map of Southwest Asia

Southwest Asia

Southwest Asia is the designation of the region, often referred to as the Middle East, which extends from the eastern coast of the Mediterranean Sea to Afghanistan, including Turkey and the Arabian Peninsula, but not including Egypt or any other part of Africa. World History for Us All uses the term "Middle East" only in the context of history since the start of the twentieth century. For earlier periods, "Middle East" has caused students of history considerable confusion because it is used sometimes as a synonym for Southwest Asia, sometimes to encompass Southwest Asia plus Egypt, and sometimes to embrace the entire region from Afghanistan to Morocco.

PowerPoint Presentation: Big Geography

Teaching Units for History, Geography, and Time arrow

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Getting our Bearings: Maps of Time, Space, and History

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Introduction to Big Geography

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1 Patrick Manning, "The Problem of Interactions in World History," American Historical Review 101 (June 1996): 772.

2 David Christian, Maps of Time: An Introduction to Big History (Berkeley: University of California Press, 2004), 8.

3 Peter Lee, "Putting Principles into Practice: Understanding History," How Students Learn: History in the Classroom: Committee on How People Learn, A Targeted Report for Teachers, ed. Suzanne Donovan and John D. Bransford (Washington, DC: National Academies Press, 2005), 65, 68, 69.

4 Michael Geyer and Charles Bright, "World History in a Global Age," American Historical Review 100 (Oct. 1995): 1042.

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