Ancient Immigration (Part 1)
Immigration is a hot topic in the U.S. today, loaded with political meaning and characterized by heated debates over who is coming to this country and why, and who should be allowed to come here and who shouldn’t. It seems like a very modern issue, but immigration has always been a part of human life.
From migration to immigration
Of course, in prehistoric times, there was no immigration, only migration. The “im” means “into”, and was adopted once kingdoms and then nation states were created and people had a political identity based on where they were born. If they left the state they were born in, they weren’t just moving to unclaimed land; they had to move “into” another political state. Before this political in-migration, there was only migration—moving from one territory to another—and that’s what humans did, constantly.
As we’re learning with each new fossil discovery, moving over long distances did not start with homo sapiens: very early human species were leaving east Africa and covering thousands of miles to move into Asia and northwest Africa. This travel wasn’t just something we did, it’s likely what made us who we are. The “Human Migrations” unit of Bridging World History (discontinued) explains how traveling and encountering new climates, landscapes, animals, foods, and challenges led to the development of the first human cultures. Language, music, tool-making, and social organization were all responses to the needs and challenges of migration.
Why did we move so far and so often?
Anthropologists believe that climate change was the key motivator. During the Pleistocene Era which lasted from about 2.6 million years ago to about 11,700 years ago, there were a series of ice ages. Each one drove humans to leave the places they were in as they became colder or dryer, following familiar livestock or searching for new sources of food. We can never know what really happened then. Did people communicate with each other about their growing problems? Did advance groups travel and return to tell about better lands elsewhere? Did people compete with each other, racing to be the first to reach better territory?
What we do know is that over tens of thousands of years, moving became ingrained in the human lifeway. City-states, empires, kingdoms, and nations with borders you have to get official permission to cross are all recent, upstart ideas invented mere seconds ago on the historical scale. When the Sumerian city-states were formed in the fourth millennium BCE, they were a sharp rebuke to millions of years of free human travel. Creating Great Walls, sentry posts, border crossings, citizenship tests, and passports were all steps away from the old human tradition of free migration.
How do we begin to teach about immigration?
Knowing that free, long-distance migration is in our genes and our blood, how do we teach it today to students who will likely never experience it for themselves? First, we introduce them to this part of their human heritage by studying the past. Anthropologists have debated the date for the first arrival of humans into the Americas for decades, but now they are also questioning long-accepted timelines for human entry into Asia, Australia, northwest Africa, and Europe. Homo sapiens were not the first humans to enter these regions, and different species of humans did not fight each other to the death, leaving only homo sapiens to inherit the Earth. Different types of early humans mingled and produced new generations of mixed humans, who then mixed with homo sapiens. We all carry Neanderthal, Denisovan, Erectus, and other human DNA. Different types of early humans lived and worked side-by-side. Migration was not a threat but an opportunity to the first humans.
We can study how that attitude changed over the millennia, as human societies became richer and more organized, and humans began to claim land as their own and fight anyone who tried to enter it. This eventually leads to the history of city-states, empires, and kingdoms, and right up to the modern nation-state. That’s where we’ll pick up in our next post on the topic of immigration.