The Elements of Evolution – Bronze Age

Bronze Age

Copper is a ductile metal, as its extensive employment in today’s electrical wires testifies. Copper was used as an interesting sort of stone before its smelting properties were realized. 5700 BCE, early metal workers at Çatalhöyük in southern Anatolia hammered cold copper in native form to make rough tools or other objects. A millennium later, workers in Mesopotamia had advanced copper working by adding a new element, whereby creating a new age of technology.

To get a purer grade of copper, it must be extracted from ore via smelting: heating the ore under the right conditions.

Pure copper is not easily cast into closed molds. Impurities in the copper produced by prehistoric metalworkers gave a more satisfactory result. Arsenic was a common, casual copper pollutant.

Purposefully mixing 10% tin with copper hardens the metal while still affording malleability. Copper-tin alloy – bronze – makes for a fine, tough metal, able to hold a hard, sharp, cutting edge, as well as being easily cast.

Bronze metallurgy developed as an outcome of trade and cultural exchange in the Near East. The consumption and know-how for producing bronze spread with trade.

The Bronze Age was when early civilizations arose – in the Near East, most notably Mesopotamia and ancient Egypt, and in East Asia, beginning with China, followed by Japan.

In the large, it is more meaningful to trace the onset of civil society in the Bronze Age than it is to adhere to a strict definition of a society arriving at the Age via bronze working. For instance, historians disagree about the dates of the Bronze Age in China, beginning with the replacement of stone tools by those of bronze, and ending with the arrival of iron-smelting technology.

Technology aside, human migrations continued, prompting major cultural changes in Europe and Asia. By 3000 bce, the Neolithic farming cultures in Europe had been largely replaced by a Bronze Age culture from western Russia, bringing new concepts about family, property, and personhood. From 2000 BCE, a new class of artisans had arisen in the Urals. They produced sophisticated weapons, bred and trained horses, and built chariots. These innovations quickly spread throughout Europe and into Asia.

Minoan Civilization

Crete is the largest Greek island, first settled 128 TYA. By 7000 bce agriculture had appeared. The first known settlement was at Knossos around 6000 bce. Knossos farmers lived in rectangular, sunbaked, mud huts which had storage bins and sleeping platforms.

The Aegean Sea opens into the Mediterranean Sea, with Crete in the middle of the thoroughfare. That made the island a natural port for regional trade, which in turn fostered prosperity.

Crete was settled by immigrant farmers from mainland Europe in 4400 BCE. Trade was burgeoning by 3730 BCE.

The earliest civilization built on Crete was belatedly termed Minoan by English archeologist Arthur Evans, who unearthed the palace at Knossos on the north coast. Evans coined Minoan after Minos, the mythic king of Crete who ended up judging the dead in the underworld.

Minoan civilization flourished by 2700 BCE. The Minoans were Bronze Age traders, capable of fine craftwork in pottery as well as bronze. They built great cities, and palaces with impressive architectural features. Inside were walls decorated with vibrantly colored frescoes. The presence of palatial estates indicates an elite leadership and a monarchist power structure, as evidenced by a grand palace at Knossos.

The Minoans were a literate people, albeit in a script that has yet to be deciphered (known as Linear A).

Natural disasters hit Crete during the Minoan civilization. The first was an earthquake in 1700 bce. Many palaces, including the one at Knossos, were destroyed. They were rebuilt more lavishly than before.

A 100 years later, a volcanic eruption on the nearby island Thera once again leveled housing. Palaces were rebuilt on yet a grander scale than their last incarnation.

By the 16th century BCE, Minoan culture had spread across the Aegean Sea, to neighboring islands and mainland Greece. Minoan commerce and influence extended into the Levant. The Minoans traded extensively with Egypt.

Mycenaean civilization began flourishing on mainland Greece around 1600 BCE, nurtured by cultural injection from the Minoans. Mycenaeans from the mainland invaded Crete in 1420 BCE: creating a new political order and sending the economic power and aesthetic achievements of the Minoans into decline.

Ancient Egypt

The fundamental belief was that a creator god had established a specific and unalterable universal and social order. ~ Australian Egyptologist David O’Connor

By 5000 BCE a patchwork of farming villages dotted the banks of the Nile River. The river provided a natural highway between settlements.

Villages soon became a patchwork of fiefdoms. By 3100 BCE these small polities had become a unified state: the largest literate civilization in the world at that time. Consolidation came via political machinations and conflict, reinforced by symbolic ideology. For thousands of years the Egyptian worldview concerned itself with imposing order over potential chaos, as represented by the mythical gods Horus and Set.

Horus (pictured) is one of the oldest Egyptian deities: the patron deity of Nekhen society that first unified Egypt. In time the king of Egypt was advertised as Horus manifest. When the king died, he transformed into Osiris, the god of the afterlife.

In contrast, Set was the god of chaos, manifest in darkness, the desert, and storms. In Egyptian mythology, Set was a usurper that killed his brother Osiris. Osiris’s son Horus sought revenge on Set, thereby symbolizing justice.

Egyptian rulers imposed power based upon social inequality that was justified as the natural order established by the gods when creating the world.

Egypt’s distinctive ideology systemized its civilization over wide areas at the expense of local religious cults. Mythology acted as cultural glue in a society where only a minor minority were literate.

Scribes held enormous power in all early civilizations. Egypt was no exception.

Egyptian society was shaped with the idea that the well-being of the people depending upon their ruler, who was supported by their labors. The increasingly grandiose pyramids and other building projects for the pharaoh as divine king amply testify to this idea.

Pyramid building created public works that defined the authority of a despotic ruler while rendering dependent subjects. Every flood season, with agriculture at a standstill, peasants were organized into construction teams, fed by a nearby pyramid workers’ community.

The peasants worked off tax obligations. Pyramid construction institutionalized the state practice of trading food for labor. Villagers became dependent upon the state for food 3 months of the year – food which was obtained by taxation of crop surpluses from the villagers. The permanent pyramid workforce comprised relatively few people: mostly skilled artisans, with attendant project managers.

Pharaohs had absolute rule: following no written laws, unlike contemporaneous Mesopotamian city-states. The empire existed for the benefit of a tiny minority.

A prolonged drought after 2180 BCE undermined authority. 300 years of repeated famines gave way to anarchy. Egypt splintered into competing fiefdoms.

~2134 BCE the city of Thebes in upper Egypt achieved supremacy and reunited Egypt (the Middle Kingdom). Having learned lessons from the past, rulers relied heavily on an efficient bureaucracy to increase agricultural production and stockpile food reserves.

With political stability achieved, for over 3 centuries Egypt prospered under a series of able pharaohs who were more pragmatic, and less divine, than the pyramid builders of the Old Kingdom. Overseas trade expanded.

Everything depended upon charismatic leadership. Succession disputes plagued the Theban court in the 17th century BCE. This occurred as thousands of Asian immigrants were moving into the delta region.

The Hyksos were a mixed tribe from west Asia who came to profit from Egyptian economic success. They climbed to power beginning ~1800 BCE; ultimately gaining control of lower Egypt by 1650 BCE, fragmenting the once-unified kingdom. Their chief deity was Set, whom they identified with their native storm god.

Ahmose was the son of soldier. He followed in his father’s footsteps, first as a foot soldier. His bravery put him in good stead, and by his wits he was promoted: serving 5 pharaohs, and eventually routing the Hyksos from their rule of lower Egypt, thus once again unifying the realm into the New Kingdom, beginning 1570 BCE. Thebes became the capital of Egypt.

As always, the quality of leadership determined the fortunes of the empire. The Egyptian empire suffered under Akhenaten, a heretical pharaoh who trifled with the traditional Egyptian polytheistic religious ideology, headed by the Theban Sun god Amun. Akhenaten instead favored the monotheistic Sun god Aten.

Akhenaten had taken the throne in 1353 BCE as Amenhotep IV, upon the death of this father Amenhotep III. Only after he switched religious allegiance in 1348 BCE did he take the name Akhenaten: “beneficial to Aten.”

Akhenaten transferred the capital to Amarna in 1343 BCE. It proved an inauspicious move. A serious pandemic occurred during the Amarna Period under Akhenaten. It may have been the plague, or polio, or the first recorded outbreak of influenza, spread from Asia.

Influenza arose from eating animals. Domesticated animals were widespread by this time. The Egyptians let the wastes of waterfowl and pigs mix into the water supply: a ready-made means for contagion.

Nefertiti (1370–1330 BCE) was Akhenaten’s wife. She may have briefly succeeded Akhenaten upon his death in 1336 BCE, but her name was then erased from history until the discovery of a bust of her in 1912. Subsequent publicity made her one of the most iconic visages associated with ancient Egypt.

The new capital was abandoned after Akhenaten’s reign. Its association with the pandemic doubtlessly played a part.

In 1332 BCE, Akhenaten’s 9-year-old son, Tutankhamun, succeeded to the throne. Presiding over a troubled kingdom, Tut’s advisors took the only course open to them: they restored the old spiritual order as well as moving the capital.

King Tut ruled but 10 years. His death was accidental, possibly from a fall. He had a badly broken leg which had become infected. And he had malaria.

With a bad overbite, a skewed hip, and a club foot, among other maladies, Tutankhamun was a product of incest: conceived by one of Akhenaten’s sisters, or a cousin, not by Akhenaten’s wife, Nefertiti. Tutankhamun himself carried on the tradition by marrying his half-sister. They had 2 daughters, both stillborn; hence, the lineage ended.

The Rameside pharaohs that followed labored to elevate Egypt to its former imperial glory. Rameses II (ruled: 1279–1213 BCE) began by building cities, temples, and monuments.

He launched numerous military campaigns into Syria, eventually meeting his match against the Hittites at the Battle of Kadesh (1274), where his army was fought to a standstill, owing to Rameses II committing the grievous tactical error of splitting up his combined forces. This was probably the largest chariot battle ever fought, involving 5,000 or more chariots.

From that moment on, Egypt lost political influence. The kingdom began a slow decline, finally falling to the Roman Empire in 30 BCE.


Modern Europeans descended from 3 major migrations of prehistoric people. Hunter-gatherers first arrived in Europe ~37 TYA. Farmers began migrating from Anatolia into Europe 9 TYA. Bringing their own families and lifestyle, these immigrants did not initially intermingle much with the local hunter-gatherers.

By the 3rd millennium, many Europeans had settled into towns and villages with trade routes between them. As humans are generally unhygienic, plague easily spreads when populations concentrate. So it did across Europe 5,700 years ago. By 5,400 ya the towns had depopulated.

The Yamnaya swept into a weakened western Europe 5000 to 4800 years ago. Yamnayans were hunter-gatherers and nomadic herders in their native lands of the Caucasus steppes.

There must have been a genocide. ~ Danish archaeologist Kristian Kristiansen

The Yamnaya that rapidly radiated through Europe were young men on horseback: axe-wielding warriors with conquest on their mind. Yamnayan men bred with the European women they encountered, fostering a fresh European race and dramatically altering European culture.

Europe was not alone in taking a Yamnaya impression. Yamnayans also invaded India, where they became known as Aryans.

The ancestral tongue from which all of today’s 400 Indo-European languages spring emanated from the Yamnaya.

Bronze Age Collapse

The Late Bronze Age world of the Eastern Mediterranean, a rich linkage of Aegean, Egyptian, Syro-Palestinian, and Hittite civilizations, collapsed famously 3200 years ago. ~ French anthropologist David Kaniewski et al

The Bronze Age Collapse (1206–1100 bce) in the Near East was a time of violent disruption in trade and culture, including severely curtailed literacy. Almost every city – from Pylos, at the southwestern tip of Greece, to Gaza, one of the oldest cities in the world – was destroyed.

Early empires collapsed, including that of the Egyptians, the Anatolian Hittite empire, and kingdoms in Mycenaean Greece. The Egyptians exhausted themselves militarily over the Hittites. Then the Hittites succumbed to the rising power of the Assyrians, who were based in northern Mesopotamia.

Drought in the southern Levant provoked the conflicts that led to the Bronze Age Collapse. For one, the climate change foreclosed the possibility of Egypt ever getting back to the level of prosperity it once enjoyed.

Mycenaean Civilization

Unlike the predecessor Minoan civilization, which had flourished solely via trade, Mycenaean civilization (1600–1100 BCE) was built by conquest as well as trade: ruled by a warrior aristocracy. The Mycenaean civilization was greatly influenced by the Minoan.

In being on major trade routes of the time, situated on the fertile plain of Argos in southern Greece, the Mycenaean cultural advantage was geographical. The makeup of Mycenaean civilization was of elements from afar, including south Russia via Anatolia, as well as influences filtered from Crete.

Mycenaean literacy was achieved after Minoan. The Mycenaean alphabet (Linear B) was based upon the Minoan.

The epic poems the Iliad and the Odyssey, attributed to Homer (~700 bce), were about the warrior kings of Mycenae, presumably expert horsemen and charioteers. The product of folk legends, these classics were written many centuries after the Mycenaean civilization had crumbled.

Mycenaean society was weakened by plutocratic suppression of much of its population, at a time when cheap weapons were readily accessible. Toward the end, Mycenaean cities were plundered by invaders, including the Sea Peoples: a confederacy of seafaring raiders in the Aegean Sea area.

Also besieged by the Sea Peoples, the Hittite empire in Anatolia was disintegrating by 1180 bce. So too Egypt, which was simultaneously in decline. Centralized bureaucracies collapsed as the power of urban elites was shaken.

The heaviest destruction in Mycenae was at fortified sites and palaces, where pillaging was most profitable. Large-scale government – kings, armies, and redistributive economic systems – ceased to exist. Depopulation was extensive.

The destruction ushered in the Greek Dark Ages, which lasted 4 centuries. A much-diminished Athens continued to be occupied, with limited trade and an impoverished culture. In villages and towns across the land, farming, weaving, potting, and metalworking continued, but at a lower level of output, for local consumption only.

By the mid-700s BCE, the Greeks had adopted the Phoenician alphabet system, which had been derived from Egyptian hieroglyphs. The Phoenicians were a maritime trading culture of city-states based in the western, coastal part of the Fertile Crescent. The Egyptians then adapted the Greek alphabet, rendering Coptic. The rise of Greek poleis (city-states) in the 9th century BCE ended that episode of Eurasian diminution.