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Histomaps and Euro-Centric Histories

HistomapFinal.jpg.CROP.article920-largeBy Taylor Marvin

At Slate, Rebecca Onion highlights a gorgeous vintage poster that claims to illustrate “4,000 years of world history.” This “Histomap” — created by John B. Sparks in 1931 — attempts to show the waxing and waning power of rival civilizations graphically and, in Onion’s words, “emphasizes domination, using color to show how the power of various “peoples” (a quasi-racial understanding of the nature of human groups, quite popular at the time) evolved throughout history.” Click through to Slate for an expanded view.

I’ve previously encountered the Histomap, though I wouldn’t have remembered it until seeing Onion’s post — if I recall correctly, in 7th grade a teacher showed a copy to my class during a world history lesson. But looking at the chart today, what’s most apparent is just how dated the Histomap’s view of history is; specifically, Sparks presents an enormously Western Europe-centric view of world history. This perspective draws from the chart’s vague definitions, which allow its estimations of various people’s “relative power” to fit Sparks’, and the 1931 Western culture he represents, own biases. If relative power derives from the size of empires, why do the 15th century Incas appear so minusculely insignificant? Similarly, in the first century AD the Roman Empire and Han Dynasty both controlled roughly a fifth and a quarter of humanity. By what possible criteria could Rome hold two thirds of “world power” and China almost none? Why is the 16th century Spanish Empire, which controlled one of the largest empires in history, ranked as significantly less powerful than England?

Ultimately the Histomap reflects, of course, its author’s contemporary biases rather than any real historical realities (not that this reality would be at all possible to convey is such a simplistic format). Western civilization defines itself as the heir to the ancient Greek and then Roman civilizations through early-modern Western (importantly, not Mediterranean or Catholic) European intermediaries, a self-appointed narrative much stronger in Sparks’ era than today. It’s unsurprising, but deeply illuminating, that the Histomap highlights these cultural traditions at the expense of others.

Note: To emphasize the Histomap’s uncomfortable racial connotations, Sparks’ “Histomap of Evolution” charts the history of human civilizations as well as those of “mollusks” and “protozoa”. With the implication being that human ethic groups are as biologically separate as zoological taxa, this view of history is one of the clearest example of the Social Darwinist philosophy imaginable.

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