|The Story of Mankind|
|by Hendrik Willem Van Loon|
|Relates the story of western civilization from earliest times through the beginning of the twentieth century, with special emphasis on the people and events that changed the course of history. Portrays in vivid prose the achievements of mankind in the areas of art and discovery, as well as the political forces leading to the modern nation-states. Richly illustrated with drawings by the author. Winner of the first Newbery Award in 1922, The Story of Mankind has introduced generations of children to the pageant of world history. Ages 10-14 |
THE SETTING OF THE STAGE
 WE live under the shadow of a gigantic question mark.
Who are we?
Where do we come from?
Whither are we bound?
Slowly, but with persistent courage, we have been pushing
this question mark further and further towards that distant
line, beyond the horizon, where we hope to find our answer.
We have not gone very far.
We still know very little but we have reached the point
where (with a fair degree of accuracy) we can guess at many
In this chapter I shall tell you how (according to our best
belief) the stage was set for the first appearance of man.
If we represent the time during which it has been possible for
animal life to exist upon our planet by a line of this length,
then the tiny line just below indicates the age during which
man (or a creature more or less resembling man) has lived
upon this earth.
Man was the last to come but the first to use his brain for
the purpose of conquering the forces of nature. That is the
reason why we are going to study him, rather than cats or
dogs or horses or any of the other animals, who, all in their
own way, have a very interesting historical development behind
 In the beginning, the planet upon which we live was (as far
as we now know) a large ball of flaming matter, a tiny cloud of
smoke in the endless ocean of space. Gradually, in the course
of millions of years, the surface burned itself out, and was covered
with a thin layer of rocks. Upon these lifeless rocks the
rain descended in endless torrents, wearing out the hard
granite and carrying the dust to the valleys that lay hidden between
the high cliffs of the steaming earth.
IT RAINED INCESSANTLY
Finally the hour came when the sun broke through the
clouds and saw how this little planet was covered with a few
small puddles which were to develop into the mighty oceans of
the eastern and western hemispheres.
Then one day the great wonder happened. What had been
dead, gave birth to life.
The first living cell floated upon the waters of the sea.
For millions of years it drifted aimlessly with the currents.
But during all that time it was developing certain habits that
it might survive more easily upon the inhospitable earth. Some
of these cells were happiest in the dark depths of the lakes and
the pools. They took root in the slimy sediments which had
been carried down from the tops of the hills and they became
plants. Others preferred to move about and they grew
strange jointed legs, like scorpions and began to crawl along
the bottom of the sea amidst the plants and the pale green things
that looked like jelly-fishes. Still others (covered with scales)
depended upon a swimming motion to go from place to place
in their search for food, and gradually they populated the ocean
with myriads of fishes.
Meanwhile the plants had increased in number and they had
to search for new dwelling places. There was no more room
 for them at the bottom of the sea. Reluctantly they left the
water and made a new home in the marshes and on the
mud-banks that lay at the foot of the mountains. Twice a day the
tides of the ocean covered them with their brine. For the rest
of the time, the plants made the best of their uncomfortable
situation and tried to survive in the thin air which surrounded
the surface of the planet. After centuries of training, they
learned how to live as comfortably in the air as they had done in
the water. They increased in size and became shrubs and trees
and at last they learned how to grow lovely flowers which
attracted the attention of the busy big bumble-bees and the
 birds who carried the seeds far and wide until the whole earth
had become covered with green pastures, or lay dark under the
shadow of the big trees. But some of the fishes too
had begun to leave the sea, and they had learned how to breathe
with lungs as well as with gills. We call such creatures amphibious,
which means that they are able to live with equal ease on the land
and in the water. The first frog who crosses your path can tell you
all about the pleasures of the double existence of the amphibian.
THE PLANTS LEAVE THE SEA
Once outside of the water, these animals gradually adapted
themselves more and more to life on land. Some became reptiles
(creatures who crawl like lizards) and they shared the
silence of the forests with the insects. That they might move
faster through the soft soil, they improved upon their legs
and their size increased until the world was populated with
gigantic forms (which the hand-books of biology list under
the names of Ichthyosaurus and Megalosaurus and Brontosaurus)
who grew to be thirty to forty feet long and who could have
played with elephants as a full grown cat plays with her kittens.
Some of the members of this reptilian family began to live in
the tops of the trees, which were then often more than a hundred
feet high. They no longer needed their legs for the purpose
of walking, but it was necessary for them to move quickly from
branch to branch. And so they changed a part of their skin
into a sort of parachute, which stretched between the sides of
their bodies and the small toes of their fore-feet, and gradually
they covered this skinny parachute with feathers and made
their tails into a steering gear and flew from tree to tree and
developed into true birds.
 Then a strange thing happened. All the gigantic reptiles
died within a short time. We do not know the reason. Perhaps
it was due to a sudden change in climate. Perhaps they
had grown so large that they could neither swim nor walk nor
crawl, and they starved to death within sight but not within
reach of the big ferns and trees. Whatever the cause, the
million year old world-empire of the big reptiles was over.
The world now began to be occupied by very different
creatures. They were the descendants of the reptiles but they
were quite unlike these because they fed their young from the
"mammae" or the breasts of the mother. Wherefore modern
science calls these animals "mammals." They had shed the
scales of the fish. They did not adopt the feathers of the bird,
but they covered their bodies with hair. The mammals however
developed other habits which gave their race a great advantage
over the other animals. The female of the species
carried the eggs of the young inside her body until they were
hatched and while all other living beings, up to that time, had
left their children exposed to the dangers of cold and heat,
and the attacks of wild beasts, the mammals kept their young
with them for a long time and sheltered them while they were
still too weak to fight their enemies. In this way the young
mammals were given a much better chance to survive, because
they learned many things from their mothers, as you will know
if you have ever watched a cat teaching her kittens to take
care of themselves and how to wash their faces and how to
THE ASCENT OF MAN
But of these mammals I need not tell you much for you
know them well. They surround you on all sides. They are
your daily companions in the streets and in your home, and you
can see your less familiar cousins behind the bars of the zoological
And now we come to the parting of the ways when man
suddenly leaves the endless procession of dumbly living and
dying creatures and begins to use his reason to shape the
destiny of his race.
One mammal in particular seemed to surpass all others in
 its ability to find food and shelter. It had learned to use its
fore-feet for the purpose of holding its prey, and by dint of
practice it had developed a hand-like claw. After innumerable
attempts it had learned how to balance the whole of the
body upon the hind legs. (This is a difficult act, which every
child has to learn anew although the human race has been
doing it for over a million years.)
This creature, half ape and half monkey but superior to
both, became the most successful hunter and could make a
living in every clime. For greater safety, it usually moved
about in groups. It learned how to make strange grunts to
warn its young of approaching danger and after many hundreds
of thousands of years it began to use these throaty noises
for the purpose of talking.
This creature, though you may hardly believe it, was your
first "man-like" ancestor.
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