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Book Review


Edmund Burke III, David Christian, and Ross E. Dunn, World History: The Big Eras. A Compact History of Humankind for Teachers and Students. A Companion to World History for Us All. A Model Curriculum for World History. Los Angeles: University of California, Los Angeles UCLA, 2009.

     As a practicing "big history" practitioner and "big history" editor for this journal, I am always delighted when I encounter world history teaching materials that encourage teachers and students to consider human history from the widest possible angle. Practitioners of big history argue that, just as world history has strengthened the historical discipline by examining and connecting events at larger scales, so big history has in turn enriched world history by expanding those scales even further, to include not just the history of humankind, but of the planetary and cosmic context in which our species operates.

     World History: The Big Eras is a fine example of how widening the lens through which we view the human past helps students and teachers make sense of all the myriad details and events of history in a way that is not overwhelming, but refreshing and enlightening. The authors are all very experienced at considering the whole of the past, not just fragments of it, and in their introduction offer powerful endorsements the "big history" approach.

     After noting that 'a world history education should include the whole world and not just part of it', the authors point out the enormous challenges of embracing humanity in general over vast scales of time and space. The solution to this challenge, they argue, is to "organize the investigation into manageable pieces," which in this book means dividing the past into nine 'big' chronological eras, and the surface of the planet into nine 'big' geographical zones. The result is that in 90 pages of clearly written and well illustrated text, they have created a model of temporal and spatial organization upon which teachers and students can base their own investigation of the whole world. The book not only provides a context that makes sense of the global past, but also a framework that might be applied to any set of state or national world history standards.

     The spatial zones laid out in the section on 'big geography' are sensible and conceptually sound. Afroeurasia is described as a vast world zone in which the Red and Mediterranean Seas are imagined as 'lakes' within. The Americas embrace North, Central, and South America; Australasia the continent of Australia plus large nearby islands including New Zealand and New Guinea; and Oceania is the Pacific Basin. It is important to remember that, before the fifteenth century these great world zones were largely isolated from each other, and that human history played out in distinctly different ways in each of these landmasses. The authors also refer to other spatial entities unified by geography or environment, including Eurasia, the Great Arid Zone, Indo-Mediterranea, Inner Eurasia, and Southwest Asia. By establishing these various zones of spatial organization, the authors are reminding us that a proper understanding of world history must be predicated upon a deep understanding of world geography, something that all the best state world history standards have included in their curricula (see for example the Michigan World History and Geography Content Expectations and Hawaii Social Studies benchmarks).

     From the moment historians started writing large scale history, the question of how to divide it up into neat chronological chunks has perhaps been the greatest challenge they faced. (On this see Craig Benjamin, "Beginnings and Endings," in Hughes-Warrington, M., ed., Palgrave Advances: World History. London and New York: Palgrave/Macmillan, 2004, pp. 90-111). Even today, with a large number of outstanding world history textbooks, standards, and websites available, there is continuing disagreement on the best places to end one 'era' and begin another. The authors, using the model laid out in the outstanding web-based model curriculum, "World History for Us All" (, opt here for the division of a vast chronology into nine overlapping eras.

     In Big Era 1 (13 billion–200,000 years ago) the early history of the cosmos and planet, the origins of life, and the evolution of hominins, is unfolded in a handful of compelling pages, reminding us of how recent a phenomenon the human species actually is in the universe. Big Era 2 (200,000–10,000 years ago) examines the long and important Paleolithic Era of human history, focusing on migration and adaptation, environmental interactions, social organization, and Paleolithic ideas about the world. Big Era 3 (10,000–1000 BCE) considers the agricultural revolution, finding its causes in climate change, early experiments with domestication, and the trap of sedentism, before showing us the critically important historical ramifications of the adoption of farming which led eventually to cities, states, and pastoral nomadic lifeways.

     In Big Era 4 (1200 BCE–500 CE) the initial emphasis is on human population growth, increased population densities, and the impact of our species on the environment. Great empires appear and evolve, and philosophical ideas and 'big religions' are adopted by millions of humans. Big Era 5 (300–1500 CE) continues to investigate the relationship between burgeoning human populations and the environment, while at the same time reminding students and teachers of the increased scale of commerce, innovation, and warfare that characterizes the era. In Big Era 6 (1400–1800 CE) the authors argue that the most significant developments were the 'extension of networks of communication and exchange' leading to the emergence of a 'truly global economy', accompanied by the rise of European economic and military power.

     Big Era 7 (1750–1914 CE) considers the global economic, political, social, and intellectual impacts of industrialization, which is arguably, after the transition to agriculture, the most significant 'revolution' in all of human history. In Big Era 8 (1900–1945) a series of global crises are outlined, including two global wars and the Great Depression, but also discussed is the sustained assault on the environment that will probably turn out to be a far more significant consequence of population growth and the spread of capitalism and industrialization than any war or economic downturn. Finally, in Big Era 9 (1945–Present) the authors bring together many of the themes – political, economic, intellectual, and environmental – that have characterized their investigation of the global past, and consider not only how they have played out over recent decades, but how they might continue to unfold. In so doing they remind us that world and big historians who have the ability and training to understand the great eras and themes of the global past are uniquely positioned to make intelligent predictions about the future, and to offer sensible solutions to the serious and genuinely global problems that humankind faces.

     World History: The Big Eras is an incredibly useful book for students and teachers alike who, faced with the often bewildering array of detail found in state and national standards, and traditional world history courses, are desperately seeking materials that will help them make sense of the global past. There have been many publications over the past two decades that have tried to conceptualize all of the past in a single volume, a genre that in its modern form was probably reinstated by Jared Diamond with 'Guns, Germs, and Steel'. Some of these are worthwhile, but many others are vacuous, muddle headed, and ultimately useless. World History: The Big Eras is thoughtful, articulate, easy to read, and fundamentally useful on a number of levels. The difference between this book and so many other single volume histories of the world is that World History: The Big Eras has been written by three of the finest world historians practicing today, and as such presents a compelling and supportable model of the global and even cosmic past that should become required reading for world history teachers and students everywhere.

Related Readings

Benjamin, Craig. "Beginnings and Endings," in Hughes-Warrington, M., ed., Palgrave Advances: World History. London and New York: Palgrave/Macmillan, 2004, pp. 90-111.

Benjamin, Craig. "Editor's Introduction to World History Connected Forum on Big History", World History Connected, Volume 6, No. 3 (Oct 2009),

Brown, Cynthia Stokes. Big History: From the Big Bang to the Present. New York: The New Press., 2007.

Bryson, Bill. A Short History of Nearly Everything. London: Random House, 2003.

Christian, David. Maps of Time: An Introduction to Big History. Berkeley & Los Angeles: University of California Press, 2004.

Dunn, Ross E. The New World History. New York: Bedford/St. Martins, 1999.

Christian, David. This Fleeting World: A Short History of Humanity. Great Barrington, MA: Berkshire Publishing, 2008.

Craig Benjamin is an Associate Professor in the History Department and Meijer Honors College of Grand Valley State University, Michigan.


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