Prehistoric timelines

Texts about prehistory are liable to use three different timelines or naming systems interchangeably so it’s as well to be absolutely clear about them. What follows isn’t definitive, it’s the opposite. It’s my attempt to make sense of the timelines and period-related terminology used in the Stonehenge exhibition at the British Museum. As far as I can tell there are three systems:

  1. the geological eras
  2. the sequence of ice ages
  3. the archaeological periods relating to human culture

1. Geological eras

The geologic time scale is the very high level division of earth history into units called — in descending order of duration — eons, eras, periods, epochs and ages. We are interested in just two epochs:

a) The Pleistocene epoch: 2,580,000 to 11,700 years ago

This long period includes all the earth’s most recent periods of glaciations. It ends with the end of the most recent ice age and general climate warming.

b) The Holocene epoch: 11,650 to now

The Holocene is said to have started about 11,650 years ago, at the end of the most recent maximal glaciation or ice age, and we are still living in it today (although see the note at the end about the possible creation of a new epoch, Anthropocene).

Human figurines carved from yew wood with quartzite eyes from Roos Carr, East Yorkshire, 1000 to 500 BC © Hull Museums

2. Ice ages

The Quaternary glaciation: 2,588,00 YA to the present

The Quaternary glaciation started around 2,588,000 years ago (YA) and is ongoing. The dating of its start is based on the formation of the Arctic ice cap. The Quaternary glaciation itself consists of a sequence of glacial and interglacial periods and we are living in the most recent of its interglacial periods i.e. a warm spell between ice ages.

The Last Glacial Period (LGP): 115,000 to 12,000 YA

The Last Glacial Period (LGP), known colloquially as the last ice age, covers the period 115,000 to 12,000 years ago. The LGP is just part of the larger sequence of glacial and interglacial periods known as the Quaternary glaciation (see above). During this last glacial period there have been alternating episodes of glacier advance and retreat.

Last Glacial Maximum (LGM): 33,000 to 12,000 YA

The most recent period of glacier advance, when ice reached its furthest extent, is called the Last Glacial Maximum (LGM). Ice sheets covered much of North America and Northern Europe leading to a large drop in sea levels. The ice sheets began to grow 33,000 years ago and maximum coverage was reached between 26,500 and 20,000 years ago. At this point all of Scotland, most of Ireland and Wales and England north of a line from the Wash to the Bristol Channel was under ice. South of the ice the land was covered by permafrost with scattered glaciers and ice sheets at high points further south.

During the last glacial maximum, 26,500 and 20,000 years ago, the sea level was about 125 meters (about 410 feet) lower than it is today. After about 20,000 years ago deglaciation commenced in the Northern Hemisphere, and the ice cap began to retreat north, causing sea levels to rise.

The Holocene: 11,650 YA to the present day

Relevant both as a geological epoch and in the timeline of glaciation, the Holocene is the most recent geological epoch and the one we’re all still living in today. In Britain it correlates to the withdrawal of the ice sheets from the entire country.

As the ice sheets withdrew, Britain continued to be part of the continent of Europe, joined by an extensive area referred to as Doggerland. With the withdrawal of the ice and the rise of sea levels, Doggerland was flooded, creating what we now call the North Sea and the English Channel, a process which was complete by about 8,000 years ago.

Bone-bead necklace, part of the finds from Skara Brae, c. 3100 to 2500 BC Skara Brae, Orkney, Scotland © The Trustees of the British Museum

3. Human culture timelines

Human archaeology and ethnography uses what is called the ‘three age’ system, dividing the prehistory of humans into three broad categories – stone age, bronze age, iron age – according to the type of tools found in find sites.

It’s surprising to learn that this schema is 200 years old. It was developed by Christian Thomsen, director of the Royal Museum of Nordic Antiquities in Copenhagen, Denmark, in the 1820s. Thomsen wanted to categorise objects in his collection chronologically according to the main medium used for tool making in each era, and his collection suggested that stone tools came first, then bronze, then iron.

In 1865 the British archaeologist and ethnographer John Lubbock sub-divided the stone age into two, the old stone age or paleolithic (from the Greek paleo meaning old and lithos meaning stone) and the new stone age or neolithic (from the Greek neo meaning new and lithos). Almost immediately the British archaeologist Hodder Westropp suggested an intermediary stage, the middle stone age or mesolithic (from the Greek meso meaning middle and lithos meaning stone), which is still used but is a little more controversial.

Finally, it was realised that the huge extent of the so-called ‘paleolithic’ itself needed to be subdivided, eventually into 3 stages, the lower, middle and upper, which were proposed in the 1880s. And so we find ourselves with the following schema:

  1. Stone Age: 
    • Paleolithic 3.3 million years ago to 15,000 YA
      • Lower Paleolithic: 3 million to 300,000 years ago
      • Middle Paleolithic: 300,000 to 30,000 years ago
      • Upper Paleolithic 50,000 to 12,000 YA
    • Mesolithic: 15,000 to 5,000 years ago
    • Neolithic: 5,000 to
  2. Bronze Age 5300 years ago to 3200 YA
  3. Iron Age to (depends on region)

Two reservations

1. It’s worth emphasising that this entire system works well in Europe and some parts of Asia but doesn’t far at all with human developments in Africa, the Americas or far Asia. In many parts of the world there was no Iron Age at all, for example in Pre-Columbian America and the prehistory of Australia.

2. The term Megalithic does not refer to a period of time, but only describes the use of large stones by ancient peoples from any period.

Now let’s look at the ages in a bit more detail:

Fine jadeitite axe-head made from material quarried in the high Italian Alps, c. 4500 to 3500 BC © The Trustees of the British Museum

Paleolithic or Old Stone Age: 3.3 million years ago to 15,000 YA

Paleolithic indicates the fact that from the dawn of the first proto-humans who used any kinds of tools through to the discovery of metal smelting, all human species used tools made from stone, particularly flint blades and axes. The paleolithic covers a vast period of time, from the earliest known use of stone tools by hominids c. 3.3 million years ago to the start of the Holocene era, about 12,000 years ago. It covers 99% of the period of human technological prehistory. For that entire period humans appear to have been roaming bands of hunter-gatherers living off the land.

As mentioned, as long ago as the 1880s it was found necessary to subdivide the Paleolithic into three:

Lower Paleolithic: 3 million to 300,000 years ago

The Lower Paleolithic is the earliest subdivision of the Paleolithic or Old Stone Age. It spans the period from around 3 million years ago when the first evidence for stone tool production and use by hominids appears in the archaeological record until around 300,000 years ago.

I was a bit puzzled by use of lower and upper until I equated this with the physical location of the finds with the older findings being literally lower down in the earth, and more recent findings being less deep or uppermost.

Middle Paleolithic: 300,000 to 30,000 years ago

The Middle Paleolithic is the second subdivision of the Paleolithic or Old Stone Age as it is understood in Europe, Africa and Asia. Anatomically modern humans (i.e. Homo sapiens) are believed to have emerged in Africa around 300,000 years ago. Around 125,000 years ago they began migrating out of Africa and slowly replaced earlier pre-existent Homo species such as the Neanderthals and Homo erectus.

The use of fire became widespread for the first time in human prehistory during the Middle Paleolithic and humans began to cook their food about 250,000 years ago.

The later part of the period saw the development of a range of new tools: about 90,000 years ago harpoons were invented which brought fish into human diets. Microliths or small stone tools or points were invented around 70,000 to 65,000 YA and were essential to the invention of bows and spear throwers.

Upper Paleolithic 50,000 to 12,000 years ago

The Upper Paleolithic or Late Stone Age is the third and last subdivision of the Paleolithic or Old Stone Age. About 50,000 years ago there was a marked increase in the diversity of artifacts. In Africa, bone artifacts and the first art appear in the archaeological record.

The early modern humans who migrated out of Africa and into Europe about 50,000 years ago, commonly referred to as the Cro-Magnons, left sophisticated stone tools, carved and engraved pieces on bone, ivory and antler, cave paintings and Venus figurines.

The distinct species Homo neanderthalensis, which had first emerged in the fossil record 400,000 years ago and lived widely across Europe and Asia, continued to live for a very long time – as long as 10,000 years – alongside the new incomers Homo sapiens. Then, abruptly, Neanderthals disappear completely from the fossil record 40,000 years ago, leaving archaeologists to speculate about the reasons for their sudden disappearance to this day.

This upper paleolithic revolution which kicked off 50,000 years ago saw many innovations. It witnessed the first evidence of human fishing. New implements were invented: for example, the spear thrower (30,000 years ago), the net (around 29,000 YA), the bolas, the bow and arrow (30,000 to 25,000 YA). From this period date the oldest examples of ceramic art, for example, the Venus of Dolní Věstonice (about 29,000 YA). Members of the European early Upper Paleolithic culture known as the Aurignacian had even developed lunar calendars by 30,000 YA.

Human populations

A really important fact to grasp is that human populations during this period were tiny. The entire population of Europe between 40,000 and 16,000 years ago was probably somewhere 4,000 and 6,000 individuals.

Bronze Age sun pendant, 1000 to 800 BC © The Trustees of the British Museum

The Mesolithic (in Britain): 12,000 to 6,000 years ago

The Paleolithic is said to end with the end of the last ice age and the spread back into Europe of human communities which developed new tools and techniques. The period from the end of the ice age to the arrival of metal smelting 4,500 years ago was initially simply referred to as the Neolithic or new stone age because of the proliferation of new techniques.

But, as we’ve seen, archaeologists almost immediately felt the need to define an interim period between the end of the Old Stone Age and the final period of innovation – hence the creation of the term mesolithic, which refers to the final period of hunter-gatherer cultures in Europe and Western Asia, between the end of the Last Glacial Maximum and the Neolithic Revolution. In Europe it spans roughly 15,000 to 5,000 years ago.

Precise dating of the Mesolithic varies between areas because they were impacted by a) deglaciation and the creation of newly habitable land and b) the arrival of the agricultural revolution, at widely varying times. Thus the mesolithic is said to start in warm Greece around 15,000 years ago but in chilly Britain only around 12,000 YA.

Broadly speaking the Mesolithic is associated with a decline in the group hunting of large animals in favour of a broader hunter-gatherer way of life, and the development of more sophisticated and typically smaller lithic tools and weapons than the heavy-chipped equivalents typical of the Paleolithic.

The Neolithic (in Britain): 6,000 to 4,500 years ago (2,500 BC)

The Neolithic is now used to refer to the period after the ice age when human society was transformed by the advent of agriculture with its enormous cultural, social and economic consequences, but most tools continued to be made of stone, albeit of high levels of sophistication.

The advent of agriculture is sometimes referred to as the Neolithic Revolution. It saw the wide-scale transition of many human cultures from a lifestyle of hunting and gathering to one of agriculture and settlement, with the domestication and breeding of edible grasses and farm animals. With settlement came villages and then towns. We have religious records which point to polytheism.

Some archaeologists refer to a ‘Neolithic package’ in which they include farming, herding, polished stone axes, timber longhouses and pottery. Farming formed the basis for centralised administrations and political structures, hierarchical ideologies, depersonalised systems of knowledge (that’s to say, writing), densely populated settlements, specialisation and division of labour, more trade, the development of non-portable art and architecture and greater property ownership.

The agricultural revolution spread from its origins in the Middle East, through Turkey, across Greece and slowly into central and western Europe. Different sites in the Middle East point to different dates for the domestication of different plants or animals but the process was underway by as long ago as 12,000 years ago.

The diffusion across Europe, from the Fertile Crescent through Anatolia, across the Aegean and central Europe to Britain, took some 3,000 years (9500 to 6000 years ago). It is calculated to have spread at a speed of about 1 kilometre a year, but it was patchy, spreading to some (fertile) areas, moving round mountains, stalling, then suddenly jumping again.

Interestingly, there is evidence of some communities keeping to the mesolithic hunter-gatherer lifestyle for very long periods after the neolithic package arrived, for as long as a thousand years! Archaeologists call such societies are called ‘subneolithic’, the ‘sub’ just meaning hanging on after the main era had ended.

One of the mind-blowing aspects of the neolithic revolution is that all the evidence suggests it made human beings measurably worse off! Many of the cultivated crops (wheat, barley, maize) are deficient in vitamins and minerals and relying on them and cow or goat milk to the exclusion of other elements in a diet can be very harmful. All the archaeological evidence suggests that the Neolithic Revolution led to much more limited diets and poorer nutrition. Human height decreased by an average of 5 inches! Apparently human height didn’t return to pre-neolithic levels until the 20th century.

In addition, close habitation with animals led infectious diseases to jump the species boundary. Smallpox and influenza are just two diseases we got from animals. And higher population densities, living with poor sanitation led to tainted water supplies and the usual diseases of diarrhoea and dysentery, typhoid and cholera.

Jared Diamond suggests that the status of women declined with the adoption of agriculture because women in farming societies typically have more pregnancies and are expected to do more demanding work than women in hunter-gatherer societies.

Having read widely about it, it’s hard to avoid the conclusion that the Neolithic Revolution was a catastrophe for most humans.

The Bronze Age (in Britain): 2,500 BC to 800 BC

Bronze is produced by smelting copper and alloying it with tin, arsenic, or other metals to strengthen it i.e. use it to make stronger, more durable tools or weapons.

In Eurasia the development of bronze tools definitely follows the final refinement of stone ones, and supersedes them. When exactly this happened varies largely from region to region and even from site to site within regions.

In Britain the advent of the Bronze Age is generally agreed to be marked by the arrival of the so-called Beaker culture, so named for the sudden appearance of beaker- or bell-shaped bowls in graves. In Britain the Bronze Age is subdivided into an earlier phase (2500 to 1200 BC) and a later one (1200 to 700 BC).

The Beaker people appear to have known how to smelt copper from their first arrival but it is only around 2150 BC that there is evidence of them smelting copper with other metals (generally tin) to make bronze.

A 2017 study suggests that the Beaker People almost completely replaced the island’s earlier inhabitants, with an estimated 90% of Britain’s neolithic gene pool being replaced! That’s to say, the people who built Stonehenge were substantially wiped out and superseded.

Primarily the Bronze Age is characterised by the widespread use of bronze tools and implements. It is usually accompanied by most of the traits of ‘civilisation’, including craft, urban centres, crafting of precious objects, widespread trade. In the Middle East and Greece we know it was accompanied by the worship of ethnic gods.

Devon and Cornwall were major sources of tin for much of western Europe and the earliest Greek and Roman historians refer to trade with these remote islands which brought the ore to the Mediterranean heartlands.

Bronze twin horse-snake hybrid from hoard, 1200 to 1000 BC. Kallerup, Thy, Jutland, Denmark © National Museum of Denmark

The Iron Age (in Britain): 800 BC to 43 AD

The Iron Age in Britain is dated by the first finds of iron tools in burial sites (around 800 BC) to the arrival of the Romans (43 AD).

The Iron Age is characterised by substantial population growth which allowed increasing social specialisation in societies living in large settlements. In Britain there was a proliferation of large hill forts. There is sophisticated social organisation, for example a class system overseen by a king and the implementation of taxation. There is extensive trade, nationally and internationally, leading to burial sites rich in high value goods, sometimes transported across great distances.

Also a good deal of immigration with entire tribes moving into and settling territories. Whether this involved conquest or peaceful ‘diffusion’ is debated to this day. When the Romans arrived they found a land divided among tribes with a highly developed sense of identity, regional allegiance, names and kings.

The Iron Age is said to end when writing begins. Even though the same kinds of tools are used, a culture has clearly entered a new phase when it enters the historical record. But obviously this happened at different times in different regions.

Thus in the Ancient Near East the Iron Age is taken to end with the start of the Achaemenid Empire in the 6th century BC, as it enters history in the writings of the Greek historian Herodotus. In Western Europe the Iron Age is ended by the Roman conquest, which was established by 100 AD. By contrast in Scandinavia and other parts of northern Europe that the Romans did not reach, the Iron Age is said to have continued until the start of the Viking Age in about 800 AD.

As the Stonehenge exhibition at the British Museum strongly indicates, the later Iron Age was characterised by increasing warfare and social strife. Skeletons show signs of multiple injuries. Average life expectancy at birth was around 25. Into this culture arrived the Romans with their writing, education, towns, roads and laws.

P.S. A new geological era – the Anthropocene?

Remember how I said we’re only interested in two geological epochs, the Pleistocene and the Holocene. Well, there is a new, third category: many scientists are pushing for the scientific community to recognise that the Holocene has ended and we have entered a new epoch, to be named the Anthropocene.

The idea is that this new era should be dated to mark the commencement of significant human impact on Earth’s geology and ecosystems. With widespread acceptance that manmade global warming is having (and will continue to have) a significant effect on the world’s ecosystems, you can see the logic of arguing that we live in an entirely unprecedented era. But to date, none of the official bodies which recognise the geological eras have accepted the anthropocene and there is ongoing debate about when  it should be said to have started.

The problem with our over-documented, over-determined time is that too much has happened. Since Hiroshima we live in The Atomic Age. And since the end of the Second World War we are also all living in an age of rapid technological and social change, which some historians call the Great Acceleration.

Or should we be going further back, should the start of the anthropocene be lined up with the start of the Industrial Revolution in 1710 or 1770 (depending on which precise technical discoveries you prioritise)?

Or, in a massive leap, should we go right back to the start of the neolithic revolution described above, which is when human beings first began to have a measurable impact on their environment? Which would make it identical the current term, the Holocene?

The debate is ongoing and there’s no shortage of candidates but if we stick to permanent markers which are being laid down now and which geologists will find in a million years time, then apparently radioactivity from the nuclear tests is now embedded in ice cores and a thin layer of microplastics has been laid down on the ocean beds, the kind of thing which 100% fulfil the geological criteria.

Personally I think it should be the 1780s and the invention of new, more efficient steam engines, as it was this breakthrough – more than agriculture itself – which set us on the course of greater and greater reliance on energy, first coal, then oil and gas whose use, we all now know, has led to our runaway proliferation, our destruction of every ecosystem we come into contact with, and what looks likely to be massive and irreversible effects on the entire global climate.

Will Stonehenge, built as a result of the neolithic agricultural revolution, survive long enough to see the world transformed by the manmade global warming which is that revolution’s long-term legacy? (Photo © English Heritage)

Related links

The World Set Free by H.G. Wells (1914)

The dream of The World Set Free [is] a dream of highly educated and highly favoured leading and ruling men, voluntarily setting themselves to the task of reshaping the world.
(The World Set Free, preface)

Wells and world government

Wells was terrifyingly prolific. He wrote more than 114 books, of which over 50 were novels.

From around 1901 onwards his books, both fictional and factual, increasingly testify to one central concern – the notion that the Scientific Age has, and will continue to, transform human society out of all recognition – and that all the old primitive traditions of nationalism, with its national governments and imperial rivalries, egged on by warmongering newspapers and ambitious politicians, rivalries which used to be settled by ‘limited wars’, simply could not afford to continue – because they will inexorably lead to the destruction of all human civilisation.

The weapons of the Scientific Age are now so destructive, and can be spread so far and wide through vast artillery and the new medium of air flight, that modern war will wreak death and devastation on a completely unprecedented scale. His thesis is that:

because of the development of scientific knowledge, separate sovereign states and separate sovereign empires are no longer possible in the world, that to attempt to keep on with the old system is to heap disaster upon disaster for mankind and perhaps to destroy our race altogether.

The only solution Wells could see from the mid-1900s until the end of his life in 1945, was the establishment of a World Government, which would a) supersede the old nationalisms of redundant nation states in order to ensure global peace, and b) then set about organising the human population, its needs and resources, its cities and transport, its food and education, in a centralised, rational and logical way.

A brief history of the world

Written in 1913, The World Set Free is a fictional variation on this, Wells’s abiding theme. It is a history of the future, a prediction of what might happen, mostly set in the 1950s.

Readers of each new Wells book must, by this stage, have wondered what kind of book it would be: Would it be one of the taut, compelling science fiction yarns which he began his career with (Time Machine, Wor of the Worlds)? Or one of the broad social comedies (Kipps, Love and Mr Lewisham) he began to write at the turn of the century? Or one of the series of entirely factual books of scientific analysis and prophecy, which began with 1901’s best-selling Anticipations?

In the event The World Set Free is, as so often with Edwardian Wells, a hybrid or mongrel of all three.

The novel opens with a long factual account of human prehistory which reads like an article from an old-fashioned encyclopedia. Wells paints a convincing picture of Homo sapiens as a species which, in its animal ignorance, for millennia walked over the rocks which contained coal and iron ore, squelched through the rivers which contained the clay which could be made into porcelain. In other words, all around us have always been the untapped resources which it took us a long, long time to recognise, and then a long, long time to develop the technology to harness for our use.

He gives an overview of the slow development of fire, agriculture, stratified societies, cities, writing – in Mesopotamia, in China, in Mesoamerica – and how, in all of these societies, there arose the ‘dreamers’, the seekers, the explorers of things, the wonderers-how… Archimedes, Roger Bacon, Leonardo da Vinci.

Man had not been always thus; the instincts and desires of the little home, the little plot, was not all his nature; also he was an adventurer, an experimenter, an unresting curiosity, an insatiable desire.

If you were an average reader of 1914, who had left school at 14 or 15, all this must have been wonderfully mind-expanding stuff. Placing our present-day society, with its cafés and motor cars, in the context of the long history of the human species, was a typically thrilling perspective.

These preliminaries lead in to an up-to-the-minute description of the latest discoveries about the structure of the atom and the radioactive decay of unstable elements, and learned speculation about how these might turn out to be yet another source of secret energy which has lain around us for millennia, but which humanity is now poised to refine and use for its good.

At this point what has in effect been a long history lesson turns into something more like a ‘novel’ with the introduction of specific characters. We are introduced to the inventor ‘Holsten’ who we follow for a few pages, as he ponders on the power of the atom. Maybe he is the protagonist of the story.

But no. We have only been with his discoveries and thoughts for a few pages, before Wells scoops us up and leaps decades into the future, beyond Holsten’s discoveries, to describe how people yet to be born will develop new motors and engines to harness nuclear power and transform the world, making car travel cheaper and quicker, and really establishing airplane travel as affordable and safe (remember this was written in 1913, when there were hardly any airplanes yet).

The ‘historical’ text pauses for a moment to set the scene in a courtroom where Holsten is a witness in a copyright dispute about the new technology, which is placed here solely to allow Wells to explain at length how ‘the law’ was a relic of primitive tribal conflicts, and in no way ready for the New Age of Scientific Knowledge. How it tends to hold back the pace of invention and change.

Then we are back to the high-level view of the historian of the future, explaining how this sudden accession of cheap energy not only led to new inventions, air travel, fast land travel and the revolutionising of most industry, but also led to economic upheaval leading to depression, unemployment, suicide and social unrest.

For the governments of the day were constitutionally unprepared for any kind of technological change. Here is Wells’s jaded view of contemporary government:

The world in these days was not really governed at all, in the sense in which government came to be understood in subsequent years. Government was a treaty, not a design; it was forensic, conservative, disputatious, unseeing, unthinking, uncreative; throughout the world, except where the vestiges of absolutism still sheltered the court favourite and the trusted servant, it was in the hands of the predominant caste of lawyers, who had an enormous advantage in being the only trained caste. Their professional education and every circumstance in the manipulation of the fantastically naive electoral methods by which they clambered to power, conspired to keep them contemptuous of facts, conscientiously unimaginative, alert to claim and seize advantages and suspicious of every generosity. Government was an obstructive business of energetic fractions, progress went on outside of and in spite of public activities, and legislation was the last crippling recognition of needs so clamorous and imperative and facts so aggressively established as to invade even the dingy seclusions of the judges and threaten the very existence of the otherwise inattentive political machine.

Lawyers taking advantage of clunky electoral methods in order to seize advantage in the endless faction fighting which makes up real day-to-day politics, the last thing any of them being interested in is reluctantly conceding laws to feebly acknowledge social and technological changes which have already swept through society and everyone else can see are blindingly obvious.

Ring any bells?

Wells sets the big social and technological change he is describing in the mid-1950s. In his version of history, Holsten devises a machine for liberating the energy of the atom in 1933, there’s some delay before it can be practically applied, but once turned into practical form atomic energy introduces sweeping changes from 1953 onwards,

and by the autumn of 1954 a gigantic replacement of industrial methods and machinery was in progress all about the habitable globe.

The last war

Having established the long sweep of human history which leads up to the invention of nuclear power, Wells moves on to part two of his book: The Atomic War.

War comes (apparently) because of old nationalistic and geographical rivalries and Wells (with astonishing accuracy) predicts it will result from the Central European powers attacking a Slavic Alliance.

He paints the war via three vignettes: hostilities have already broken out when we are introduced to a woman secretary based at Allied War Control headquarters in Paris. She is looking up at the tall, stern, unspeaking French military leader, Dubois, with womanly admiration, when a single plane flying high over the city drops an atom bomb on it.

Wells’s bomb is made of the fictional substance Carolinum and its chief difference from normal explosives is that it keeps on exploding (Chapter 2: section 4)

What happened when the celluloid stud was opened was that the inducive oxidised and became active. Then the surface of the Carolinum began to degenerate. This degeneration passed only slowly into the substance of the bomb. A moment or so after its explosion began it was still mainly an inert sphere exploding superficially, a big, inanimate nucleus wrapped in flame and thunder. Those that were thrown from aeroplanes fell in this state, they reached the ground still mainly solid, and, melting soil and rock in their progress, bored into the earth. There, as more and more of the Carolinum became active, the bomb spread itself out into a monstrous cavern of fiery energy at the base of what became very speedily a miniature active volcano. The Carolinum, unable to disperse, freely drove into and mixed up with a boiling confusion of molten soil and superheated steam, and so remained spinning furiously and maintaining an eruption that lasted for years or months or weeks according to the size of the bomb employed and the chances of its dispersal. Once launched, the bomb was absolutely unapproachable and uncontrollable until its forces were nearly exhausted, and from the crater that burst open above it, puffs of heavy incandescent vapour and fragments of viciously punitive rock and mud, saturated with Carolinum, and each a centre of scorching and blistering energy, were flung high and far.

Thus, in a moment, the tidy War Control becomes a vast crater, flooding with water from the river Seine, full of continually radiating explosive power. The woman just has time to crawl to the body of Dubois – which has been neatly chopped in half – and scream with horror, before the Seine flood comes in and drowns her.

The second source for Wells’s account of this future war is a book of memoirs published, the narrating historian tells us, much later, in 1970 by Frederick Barnet. This old man describes his young manhood, taking advantage of the new atomic flying machines to go on a grand aerial tour of Europe.

Back in London his father loses all his fortune and commits suicide with the result that Barnet is thrown out on the streets. Wells describes Barnet’s odyssey through a London unrecognisably changed by future technology, with glass-sheeted streets used by super-fast atomic-powered ‘cars’. Over his head is a network of pedestrian footpaths and bridges which make London look a bit like Venice.

I love all descriptions of the London of the future, enriching and transforming the gritty, polluted, windy city of the grim present.

Anyway, Barnet becomes aware of the poverty on the streets and witnesses a hunger march by the unemployed. It dawns on him that no-one is in charge. No-one is really directing the helter-skelter of technological and social change we are living though, and no-one has a plan for how to manage the human victims of these changes, the huge numbers of workers in the old industries – coal-mining, railways, ironworks – who have simply been thrown on the scrap heap when they weren’t wanted any more.

They were a sample of that great mass of unskilled cheap labour which the now still cheaper mechanical powers had superseded for evermore. They were being ‘scrapped’ – as horses had been ‘scrapped.’

For Wells Socialism wasn’t about justice for the working classes as such – it is always subsumed in a much vaster historical development in which he sees the old systems of law and ownership reaching a breaking point, because they are based on technological and scientific levels of knowledge which have been made redundant.

Those traditions come from the dark ages when there was really not enough for every one, when life was a fierce struggle that might be masked but could not be escaped. Of course this famine grabbing, this fierce dispossession of others, must follow from such a disharmony between material and training. Of course the rich were vulgar and the poor grew savage and every added power that came to men made the rich richer and the poor less necessary and less free. The men I met in the casual wards and the relief offices were all smouldering for revolt, talking of justice and injustice and revenge.

And then – the war breaks out, giving Barnet a job and a purpose, along with a lot of other unemployed men and with the population as a whole, which is swept up in a great communal moment of solidarity.

He enlists in the British army and is full of young-man enthusiasm to go off and fight. Via Barnet Wells gives us some startlingly prophetic descriptions of trench warfare, all sniping and boredom, on the front with Germany. Then Barnet is entrained up to Holland and is just supervising a platoon of men when German planes drop a dozen or so atom bombs on the dam and canal network of Holland resulting in unprecedented destruction. Cue descriptions of apocalyptic waves, national destruction, and an aftermath of muddy water in all directions littered with corpses.

In the third vignette a tough-minded French aviator flies with just a co-pilot all the way to Berlin, where he drops three atom bombs which obliterate the city.

These three stories comprise Well’s description of the great atomic war of the mid-1950s, which now escalates uncontrollably. Every power makes pre-emptive strikes on every other power, with the result that by the spring of 1959:

from nearly two hundred centres, and every week added to their number, roared the unquenchable crimson conflagrations of the atomic bombs, the flimsy fabric of the world’s credit had vanished, industry was completely disorganised and every city, every thickly populated area was starving or trembled on the verge of starvation. Most of the capital cities of the world were burning; millions of people had already perished, and over great areas government was at an end.

The World Council

As is often the way in this kind of world-shaping science fiction, a World Council is called. The idea is proposed by the French ambassador to Washington, Monsieur Leblanc, who chooses a remote village in the Italian Alps, Brissago. To the council are invited representatives of the surviving nations.

Wells now introduces a new act in the novel and markedly changes the tone. It becomes comic because we now zero in on the efforts of one ‘King Egbert’, King of a Ruritanian little country in the Balkans who wants to abdicate his royal prerogatives in the name of the new collective government – much to the comic chagrin of his brainy adviser, Firmin.

There is a scene right out of the Prisoner of Zenda, when the King of the Balkans tries to bomb the assembly of leaders and seize control of The World. But the plane he sends with atom bombs is shot down by a well-organised anti-air defence. Young Egbert and officials of the new world state are then sent to the Balkans to interview the King. The latter suavely pretends to know nothing about the attempt to blow up the council, but – in the middle of the night – sets off with his evil adviser to the secret hiding place of the remaining atom bombs. But Egbert and the security men from the council have followed him and there is a dramatic shoot-out in the aircraft hanger in which the King and his men are shot down. With that, organised resistance to the new World Government disappears.

If you had had any lingering thoughts that this was a serious novel, this scene demolishes them. the whole book is a series of linked sketches or scenes, more like a theatrical ‘revue’ than a continuous narrative.

Barnet’s Britain

In another sequence we return to Frederick Barnet who is, by now, in charge of troops guarding the perimeter of radioactive Paris. After descriptions of the refugees fleeing the devastated city, Barnet is shipped back to England to discover a land without money, government or food. A land where food supplies are protected by armed guard and vigilante groups, strangers are hassled or shot, where thieves are hanged at the perimeters of armed settlements: the same post-apocalyptic scenes he depicted so well in The War In The Air.

This is a powerful sequence which could have come out of a much more recent thriller about post-apocalyptic Britain, completely different in tone from the semi-comic King of the Balkans sequence.

But mostly Wells flies at a high level, a historian’s level, describing in very general terms how the new world government comes about i.e. more or less by accident; how it doesn’t waste time writing a constitution but sets up committees to address pressing problems such as the stabilisation of currency, the restoration of trade, the building of houses for displaced populations, and so on.

Now, in the postwar future, all of these things are planned and organised at a high level and in a rational way. Cheap atomic energy allows cities to be built anywhere. Cheap atomic energy drives agricultural equipment and provides cheap fertiliser so, in this new world, food can be grown almost anywhere and quickly and cheaply distributed.

Wasn’t there resistance to this new order? Some. But most people had been shocked by the collapse of civilisation into acceptance of the new rules.

For a time the whole world had been shocked into frankness; nearly all the clever people who had hitherto sustained the ancient belligerent separations had now been brought to realise the need for simplicity of attitude and openness of mind; and in this atmosphere of moral renascence, there was little attempt to get negotiable advantages out of resistance to the new order

So a new World Government isn’t imposed from the outside; it grows organically out of the needs of a world brought to the edge of destruction and is the result of intelligent people everywhere realising that they can’t go back to the old ways – to capitalism, unbridled competition, to the chaos and anarchy of industrial over-production. From now on everything is planned rationally and logically.

And, the narrator boasts, once liberated from the restraint of physical or long-hour labour, it turns out that most people want to be artists and to beautify life.

The world broke out into making, and at first mainly into aesthetic making. This phase of history, which has been not inaptly termed the ‘Efflorescence,’ is still, to a large extent, with us. The majority of our population consists of artists, and the bulk of activity in the world lies no longer with necessities but with their elaboration, decoration, and refinement.

The entire population of the world turns into Radio 4 listeners.

Wells then gives us a chapter about the need for, and implementation in his Brave New World, of universal education.

He then gives us an interesting short chapter suggesting that the central theme of the novel since its inception has been the conflict between the restrictions of society and the impulse to overthrow and escape them, an impulse which quickened and gained force among the protagonists of late-nineteenth century and early twentieth century fiction.

The Last Days of Marcus Karenin

And just when you’d have thought Wells had written all he had to say on the subject, there is a last, long chapter devoted to ‘The Last Days of Marcus Karenin’.

Who was Marcus Karenin? The bad-tempered hunchback who helped introduce universal education to the New Order. He goes to a sanatorium in the Himalayas for an operation he knows will kill him. In his last days various young people are brought on stage so he can tell them about the stupidity of the pre-atomic age and they can ooh and ah at its greed and violence and narrow-mindedness.

It is exactly the same tone of the narrator in In The Days of The Comet, another novel where the world is transformed out of all recognition and where the future narrator addresses the young, post-change generation living in the New World, who can barely believe how spendthrift of resources, selfish, competitive and destructive the old system was.

While this sort of talk creates an emotional thrill – the thrill of looking back on our present civilisation from an imagined future – it is liable to the same criticism as all the other future histories: that it takes a cataclysm to get from here to there. That the world has to be all but destroyed to bring about the Millennium.

To gas-and-water socialists like the Fabians, Well’s books were, ultimately, thrill-providing fantasies – all very exciting for thrill-seekers but absolutely useless as any kind of practical guide on to how to improve the lot of the poor, the uneducated, the unhoused and so on in the here and now.

Among the group brought in to chat to the dying seer, Karenin, is a poet who tries to persuade the old man that a great awakening of love is taking place, of sexual love.

But Karenin corrects him and says sex is fine in its place, but we will all live longer lives now and outlive the sex drive of the young. Long life will free our minds of the dominance of sex and give us the peace to think about infinitely higher things.

The book ends (rather surprisingly) with some pages of feminism, in which Well’s mouthpiece says that the very notion of gender is stone age, out of date. Both sexes must rise above it and become pure, ungendered human intelligences.

‘Karenin?’ asked Rachel, ‘do you mean that women are to become men?’
‘Men and women have to become human beings…’ [said Karenin]
‘To think of yourselves as women is to think of yourselves in relation to men. You can’t escape that consequence. You have to learn to think of yourselves – for our sakes and your own sakes – in relation to the sun and stars. You have to cease to be our adventure, Rachel, and come with us upon our adventures.’

Which is fine, which is interesting, but this final scene hasn’t really been earned by the book, doesn’t really evolve organically out of the narrative. Instead it is another scene placed in the sequence of scenes which make up this revue of the future. And, very obviously, it is one of Mr Wells’s hobby horses, another example of Wells’s compulsion to throw everything he’s thinking about into a book, along with the kitchen sink.

With some of his last words, Karenin predicts that this ungendered human intelligence will eventually break free of the planet and set off into space, exploring and becoming one with the great universe.

‘These old bodies, these old animal limitations, all this earthly inheritance of gross inevitabilities falls from the spirit of man like the shrivelled cocoon from an imago. And for my own part, when I hear of these things I feel like that – like a wet, crawling new moth that still fears to spread its wings. Because where do these things take us?’

‘Beyond humanity,’ said Kahn.

‘No,’ said Karenin. ‘We can still keep our feet upon the earth that made us. But the air no longer imprisons us, this round planet is no longer chained to us like the ball of a galley slave….

‘In a little while men who will know how to bear the strange gravitations, the altered pressures, the attenuated, unfamiliar gases and all the fearful strangenesses of space will be venturing out from this earth. This ball will be no longer enough for us; our spirit will reach out…. Cannot you see how that little argosy will go glittering up into the sky, twinkling and glittering smaller and smaller until the blue swallows it up. They may succeed out there; they may perish, but other men will follow them….’

These are extraordinary visions to be having in 1913. They must have dazzled his readers. But a hundred years later, we know that these fine fantasies, which fuelled a century of scientific endeavour… are not to be. We are very much locked up in our own planet. And we are very much destroying it through the small-minded selfishness which Wells so feared.

Some science prophecies

Wells’s predictions of the future are hugely enjoyable if often completely wrong.

He thought airplanes would use flapping wings and a central helicopter set of rotors. In all his novels which feature air battles, the pilots or their co-pilots fire rifles at each other, sometimes getting up or leaning out of the plane to do so.

His prediction that the atom would be split in 1933 was close to the actual date, but atomic energy was used in weapon form in 1945 not 1955 – and then to entirely destructive result.

73 years later (!) we do use nuclear power in a general way to provide power for electricity grids, but it has turned out to be dangerous to run (Three Mile island, Chernobyl, Fukushima) and have extremely toxic by-products which we don’t know how to safely store.

Wells’s guess at how an atom bomb would work turned out to be wildly wrong – he thought it would continue churning out massive heat and explosive power indefinitely, a permanent explosion rendering areas where was one was dropped permanently uninhabitable. In the event, it turns out that they produce the same kind of one-off explosion as dynamite, just on an immensely bigger scale.

And neither Wells nor anybody else guessed at the profound damage which could be done to all living organisms by radioactivity.

It is also sweet that he thought the atom bombs would be big black round things (as in a Tom and Jerry cartoon) with two handles (a bit like 1970s spacehoppers). The co-pilot of the plane dropping them had to hold one over the edge – and then lean out and use his teeth to bite off the top of a celluloid strip – which allowed air into the mechanism and started the radioactive process. Charmingly amateurish. Like a Heath Robinson cartoon.


The need for a World Government to stop humanity blowing itself up became the over-riding, obsessive concern of Wells in all his writings for the next thirty years.

There are three obvious ripostes.

1. Joseph Conrad wrote Wells a letter pointing out that all his ideas fail to take into account the depravity and evil of people. Wells just wishes it away. But the twentieth century showed us not just that politics was tribal and judges wore silly wigs and newspapers are often little more than propaganda sheets. It also showed us that people enjoyed rounding up Jews and exterminating them. Or Armenians. Or kulaks. Or gypsies, or homosexuals, or the traitors or saboteurs or spies or whatever other names they give to ‘the other’ which must be exterminated so that the nation can be pure.

It showed us that most human nature is not waiting to be ‘set free’ to make baskets and flower arrangements. Or, if some human natures are, plenty of other are waiting to be set free to wear para-military uniforms and beat up foreigners.

2. Wells’s World Governments always come about after an event so seismic that it has more or less abolished old human nature or inaugurated an entirely new type of human: as in the magic gas which profoundly changes human nature in In The Days of The Comet or the ‘moral shocks’ administered by the complete collapse of civilisation depicted in The War In The Air.

But we now know that you can have two world wars of almost inconceivable destruction and it doesn’t change human nature one whit. In other words, human nature with all its manifold shortcomings, is simply not as malleable as Wells hopes.

3. On a narrow political view, Wells foresees the intervention of the World Government ‘withering away’:

It became more and more an established security and less and less an active intervention.

because the committees devoted to specific aspects – money, language, building, agriculture – do their jobs so well, and are so responsive to local needs, and work so rationally that they can’t be improved.

What this view of humanity leaves out is the problem that people have irreconcilable views. This is why democratic politics was, is and always will be a messy business of irrational compromises. Because people disagree about things, about everything, passionately, and the government has to somehow hold the ring and forge compromises.

In other words, government can never be rational because human beings will never be rational. Wells thinks something like a world war will shock people into becoming a new type of person.

The catastrophe of the atomic bombs which shook men out of cities and businesses and economic relations shook them also out of their old established habits of thought, and out of the lightly held beliefs and prejudices that came down to them from the past.

But two world wars came and went and nothing in human nature changed. I grew up in a world dominated by communist tyrannies (Russia, China) and military dictatorships (Chile, Spain, Portugal, Greece). As John Gray has made a living pointing out, when it comes to human nature, nothing changes.

The book’s structure

Prelude – The Sun Snarers
Chapter the First – The New Source of Energy
Chapter the Second – The Last War
Chapter the Third – The Ending of War
Chapter the Fourth – The New Phase
Chapter the Fifth – The Last Days of Marcus Karenin

Related links

Other H.G. Wells reviews

1895 The Time Machine – the unnamed inventor and time traveller tells his dinner party guests the story of his adventure among the Eloi and the Morlocks in the year 802,701
1896 The Island of Doctor Moreau – Edward Prendick is stranded on a remote island where he discovers the ‘owner’, Dr Gustave Moreau, is experimentally creating human-animal hybrids
1897 The Invisible Man – an embittered young scientist, Griffin, makes himself invisible, starting with comic capers in a Sussex village, and ending with demented murders
1898 The War of the Worlds – the Martians invade earth
1899 When The Sleeper Wakes/The Sleeper Wakes – Graham awakes in the year 2100 to find himself at the centre of a revolution to overthrow the repressive society of the future
1899 A Story of the Days To Come – set in the same London of the future described in the Sleeper Wakes, Denton and Elizabeth fall in love, then descend into poverty, and experience life as serfs in the Underground city run by the sinister Labour Corps

1901 The First Men in the Moon – Mr Bedford and Mr Cavor use the invention of ‘Cavorite’ to fly to the moon and discover the underground civilisation of the Selenites
1904 The Food of the Gods and How It Came to Earth – two scientists invent a compound which makes plants, animals and humans grow to giant size, leading to a giants’ rebellion against the ‘little people’
1906 In the Days of the Comet – a passing comet trails gasses through earth’s atmosphere which bring about ‘the Great Change’, inaugurating an era of wisdom and fairness, as told by narrator Willie Leadford
1908 The War in the Air – Bert Smallways, a bicycle-repairman from Bun Hill in Kent, manages by accident to be an eye-witness to the outbreak of the war in the air which brings Western civilisation to an end

1914 The World Set Free – A history of the future in which the devastation of an atomic war leads to the creation of a World Government, told via a number of characters who are central to the change

Other science fiction reviews

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