The Treasure Voyages

Today marks the anniversary of the start of the Treasure Voyages, an incredible series of diplomatic and commercial expeditions undertaken by the Ming Dynasty during the 15th century that reached Southeast Asia, the Indian Subcontinent, the Middle-East, and East Africa. The scale, scope, and technical sophistication of this fleet — which involved over 27,000 personnel — was unprecedented in known history, and remained so for centuries.

The outward route of the fleet during the seventh and final voyage. Source: Wikipedia

The ships involved were marvels of engineering, reflecting the sheer technological might of what was then the world’s most advanced and powerful civilizations. See how the Treasure Voyages’ flagship compares to that of Columbus’ ship, St. Maria, used just decades later:

Unfortunately, I do not have the time to devote myself to writing more about this fascinating event or time period. Instead, I invite you to check out this detailed but succinct blog post about it, or listen to this great 45-minute BBC Radio post. The hyperlink to Wikipedia in the first sentence offers an extensive guide as well (it seems to be one of the better written and cited articles on the website).

The Lives of Average Ancient Egyptians

Nearly all historical studies tend to focus on major figures — monarchs, chiefs, military leaders, and revolutionaries — the folks who most stood out in terms of their pivotal roles, monuments, or outsized characters. But clearly, these individuals are an exceedingly small minority in the societies they lived in, and hardly representative of the typical person’s lifestyle, beliefs, routines, etc. We can only glean so much from the exceptional and often disconnected upper-classes that are often disproportionately represented.

Moreover, even the greatest and most exemplary leaders could only accomplish so much without the thousands (if not millions) of faceless and nameless people that helped make it happen. From the peasants and laborers that helped build empires, to the grunts that executed successful conquests and campaigns, these are the neglected masses that deserve some attention, if only to know: how did average joes and janes like us get by day-to-day?

With respect to Ancient Egypt at least — one of the world’s most spectacular and captivating civilizations — there is thankfully a great two-part series that sheds some light on how members of this advanced society got by. It is of course courtesy of the esteemed BBC.   Check out the videos below, as they are well worth your time.

Who knew that Egyptian courtship was relatively so liberal? Or that Egyptian homes were advanced enough to feature proto-fridges and ovens? Or that the Egyptians used moldy bread to successfully treat infection, unknowingly realizing the benefits of penicillin before we even knew such microorganisms existed. The familiarity and humanity of these thousands-year old people is absolutely awe-inspiring…to me at least.

Feel free to share your own thoughts and reactions.

The Eagle Huntress of Mongolia

Ashol Pan, 13-year-old Eagle Huntress , Mongolia Ashol Pan, 13-year-old Eagle Huntress , Mongolia II Ashol Pan, 13-year-old Eagle Huntress , Mongolia III Ashol Pan, 13-year-old Eagle Huntress , Mongolia IV Ashol Pan, 13-year-old Eagle Huntress , Mongolia V Ashol Pan, 13-year-old Eagle Huntress , Mongolia VI

This is Ashol-Pan, a 13-year-old Kazakh eagle huntress living in the rugged Altai Mountains of western Mongolia. The daughter of a famous hunter, she’s one of only 400 practicing eagle hunters, and the only known female to ever partake in the tradition in its 2,000-year history.

The Kazakhs of the Altai mountains are the only people that hunt with golden eagles, which are taken from nests at a young age. Females are chosen due to their larger size — the typical adult is around 15 pounds, with a wingspan of over 90 inches. Hunts occur in winter, when the temperatures can drop to -40F. Hunters work in teams, trekking on horseback for days in order to reach a mountain or ridge for a better view. When an animal is spotted, riders charge towards it to flush it into the open, and an eagle is released. If the eagle fails to make a kill, another is released.

After years of service, a hunter releases his mature eagle once and for all during the spring, leaving a slaughtered sheep as a farewell present. This ensures that the eagles go back to nature and have their own strong newborns, for both their future and those of the hunters that depend on them.

Source: BBC


The Histomap

Given that it’s almost a century old, this “histomap” — a chart encapsulating the history of the world’s major civilizations over millennia — is probably inaccurate in some area. But I still want it all the same. I’d love for someone to recreate it, and I’m surprised that hasn’t been done yet. Perhaps there were issues with the format that made it academically dubious? See for yourself (if it’s too small, click the title link):

Either way, it’s remarkable to see the rise and fall of so many empires and civilizations, and the various unexpected twist and turns along the way. No matter how much I read about this stuff, it never ceases to amaze me.

What if people told European history like they told Native American history?

Of course, this could be said of pretty much all non-Western history, including Africa and much of Asia. As I’ve lamented before, World History in most American curricula is basically European and American history — and even then, the narratives of certain European groups, such as those east of Germany, remain marginalized.

Of course, it doesn’t help that schools devote little time to teaching history, with many history teachers constrained in how much they could cram into their short and crowded school years. But that opens up a whole other debate about how education is organized and structured…

An Indigenous History of North America

The first immigrants to Europe arrived thousands of years ago from central Asia. Most pre-contact Europeans lived together in small villages. Because the continent was very crowded, their lives were ruled by strict hierarchies within the family and outside it to control resources. Europe was highly multi-ethnic, and most tribes were ruled by hereditary leaders who commanded the majority “commoners.” These groups were engaged in near constant warfare.

Pre-contact Europeans wore clothing made of natural materials such as animal skin and plant and animal-based textiles. Women wore long dresses and covered their hair, and men wore tunics and leggings. Both men and women liked to wear jewelry made from precious stones and metals as a sign of status. Before contact, Europeans had very poor diets. Most people were farmers and grew wheat and vegetables and raised cows and sheep to eat. They rarely washed themselves, and had many diseases because…

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A List of Chinese Inventions

It’s a shame that so few people in the West realize the innumerable contributions that Chinese civilization has made to humanity. It’s astounding how far ahead the Chinese were in just about every area of knowledge. Note that each of these were independently developed by the Chinese, even if some were also used or invented elsewhere.

  • Battens in sails and cloth
  • Blast furnace
  • Cast iron
  • Tofu, Ramen sushi
  • Qipao, Hanfu (clothing)
  • Chopsticks
  • Crank (drugs)
  • Repeating crossbow
  • Escapement mechanism for clocks
  • Exploding cannonball
  • Fire Arrow
  • Gunpowder
  • Firearm
  • Horse collar
  • Hull compartments/bulkheads
  • Indian ink
  • Kite
  • Land mines
  • Lottery
  • Menus for Song-era restaurants
  • Naval mines
  • Noodles
  • Paper
  • Pendulum (Zhang Heng)
  • Printing (woodblock printing and movable type)
  • Rockets: Fire Arrow, Multistage rocket
  • Rudder
  • Sailing carriage
  • Seismometer (of Zhang Heng)
  • Silk
  • South Pointing Chariot (differential gear, of Ma Jun)
  • Sluice gates
  • Toilet paper
  • Traditional Chinese medicine
  • Trebuchet (traction)
  • Trip hammer
  • Winnowing machine
  • Abacus (first appearance: Mesopotamia, 2400 BC. First certain appearance in China: 12th century AD)
  • Armillary sphere (invented by the Greek Eratosthenes), with the world’s first water-powered armillary sphere by Zhang Heng.
  • Various automata / primitive machines (refer to article on King Mu of Zhou, Mozi, Lu Ban, etc.)
  • Bellows
  • Belt drive
  • Bituminous coke for the iron and steel industry
  • Compass
  • Camera obscura
  • Cardan Suspension
  • The cannon
  • Chain drive
  • Chain pumps
  • Chinese calendar
  • Crossbow
  • Drydock
  • The Flamethrower
  • Flash lock
  • Early explosive grenades
  • Odometer
  • Paddle wheel, for boats
  • Paper money
  • Parachutes
  • Pontoon bridge
  • Porcelain
  • Postal system
  • Pound lock
  • Saw
  • Scissors
  • Steel
  • Suspension bridge
  • Star catalogue
  • Tea
  • Umbrella
  • Vaccination
  • Water clock
  • Waterwheel
  • Wheelbarrow
  • Windmill

Find even more contributions here.

Reflections on Hatred

“When our hatred is too keen it places us beneath those we hate.”

— François de La Rochefoucauld

“I would permit no man… to narrow and degrade my soul by making me hate him.”

–Booker T. Washington

I’m quite certain that I’ve written about on this topic before. It’s strange that despite all the things I could possibly talk about, I end up enamored with the same handful of subjects. Maybe hatred is just that ubiquitous. I can’t avoid it, and thus I can’t help dwelling on it so much, as I am now.

Maybe it’s because hatred is a part of my career path: all the conflicts I read about and study point to hatred, and the most terrible crime of genocide is predicated entirely on hatred. I feel that it is a recurring theme throughout the entire world and behind so many problems. What is this so-called War on Terror than a war on hatred? And what about the intractable Israeli-Palestinian conflict? And of course every war we’ve ever known to this day is either built upon or fed by hate. Continue reading