The Human Web Questions

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The Human Web Questions

Use the excerpt of The Human Web by J.R. and McNeill to answer these questions.

Why did the first civilizations emerge when and where they did? How did Islam become a unifying force in the world of its birth? What enabled the West to project its goods and power around the world from the fifteenth century on? Why was agriculture invented seven times and the steam engine just once? World-historical questions such as these, the subjects of major works by Jared Diamond, David Landes, and others, are now of great moment as global frictions increase. In a spirited and original contribution to this quickening discussion, two renowned historians, father and son, explore the webs that have drawn humans together in patterns of interaction and exchange, cooperation and competition, since earliest times. Whether small or large, loose or dense, these webs have provided the medium for the movement of ideas, goods, power, and money within and across cultures, societies, and nations. From the thin, localized webs that characterized agricultural communities twelve thousand years ago, through the denser, more interactive metropolitan webs that surrounded ancient Sumer, Athens, and Timbuktu, to the electrified global web that today envelops virtually the entire world in a maelstrom of cooperation and competition, J. R. McNeill and William H. McNeill show human webs to be a key component of world history and a revealing framework of analysis. Avoiding any determinism, environmental or cultural, the McNeills give us a synthesizing picture of the big patterns of world history in a rich, open-ended, concise account.


  1. What is a “web?” What characteristics define them? Why are they important in world history?

  2. Describe the 3 major stages of the human web from 6000 BCE to present day. Indicate important milestone years in your description.

  3. How do webs change over time?

  4. How do webs remain the same over time?

Part I: The Human Apprenticeship

Rationale: By now you should have an idea of what a web is, and who the authors of the concept are.

When studying history in general, and for the AP exam in particular, it is essential that we develop a narrative. Racing through a textbook learning about this or that culture, civilization, kingdom, leader, war or economic development can make one feel like she is checking off points on a list of bullets—there is no story behind the facts. However, contextual understanding—knowing the narrative of human history—is essential for a sophisticated understanding of the events we study and the way they influence our lives and planet. Every history essay you will write next year will require you to make note of the global context of your subject, and the AP World History exam has a specific essay—the Change and Continuity over Time or CCOT essay—in which you must demonstrate your knowledge of what remains the same in human history, what changes; how and why.

Also, a key method for analyzing this narrative is Comparison. Another of your required essays requires you to directly make comparisons among peoples, nations and cultures. To make a comparison, you must be able to effectively describe and analyze both similarities and differences among the units you are asked to compare. We will practice this extensively this year. Narrative-building and social analysis go hand in hand in the AP World History course.

  1. How have historians determined there was a widespread migration around 40,000 years ago?

  2. What crucial characteristic separates humans from other species?

  3. Why is the development of a concept of a spirit world considered such a great intellectual advancement? Also describe the general beliefs held by early people about the spirit world.

  4. How did early hunter-gatherer bands interact with the environment? Explain a few ways.

  5. What are the 3 archetypal societies described by the McNeills? How are all 3 societies similar?

Part II: Shifting to Food Production - 11,000-3,000 Years Ago

  1. Copy the chart from p. 26.



Main Crops

Main Animals

Southeast Asia

Southwest Asia


Central Mexico

South America

Sub-Saharan Africa

4,000 Years Ago

North America

Squash, Sunflower, Marsh Elder

  1. Thinking Ahead: How will the differences in timing of agriculture set the stage for future conflict / superiority complexes between groups?

  2. What were the downsides to agriculture? Why did human groups still choose this lifestyle over nomadism?

  3. Explain why human societies transitioned from egalitarian to hierarchical, with women subordinate, due to agriculture.

  4. What new information was injected into the web from farming?

  5. How did domesticated animals benefit human societies?

  6. How did webs affect the diffusion and development of agriculture?

  7. How did agriculture and pastoralism, in turn, affect the development of webs?

  8. Synthesis: How did human societies change with the advent of agriculture?

  9. Synthesis: How did the environment change (land and animals) with the advent of agriculture?

Part III: Webs and Civilizations in the Old World, 3500 BCE-250CE

  1. How did the rise of civilizations alter the human web?

  1. What were the earliest civilizations in Southwest Asia, North Africa, and Asia? What did they all have in common? How were they different?

  1. What two developments had the greatest impact during this time? How did they foster the growth of societies?

  1. In what ways did Eurasia have an advantage over sub-Saharan Africa, the Americas, and Oceania during this time?

  1. Extension - Are some human groups superior to another? If not, how can you prove this? What types of historical factors explain why one group, race, ethnicity or nation may be dominant at any given time? How far back do we need to look in order to analyze these relationships of power?

Part IV: The Growth of Webs in the Old World and America 200-1000CE

Part V: Thickening Webs 1000-1500

Part VI: Spinning the Worldwide Web 1450-1800

Part VII: Breaking Old Chains, ithe New Web

Part VIII: Strains on the Web: The World Since 1890

Part IX: Big Pictures & Long Prospects

Key Concept 1.1: Big Geography & Peopling of the Earth

Key Concept 1.2: The Neolithic Revolution and Early Agricultural Societies AP World History

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