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The Big History of Civilizations

The Big History of Civilizations

Professor Craig G. Benjamin, Ph.D.
Grand Valley State University

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The Big History of Civilizations

Course No. 8060
Professor Craig G. Benjamin, Ph.D.
Grand Valley State University
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4.3 out of 5
21 Reviews
85% of reviewers would recommend this series
Course No. 8060
  • Audio or Video?
  • You should buy audio if you would enjoy the convenience of experiencing this course while driving, exercising, etc. While the video does contain visual elements, the professor presents the material in an engaging and clear manner, so the visuals are not necessary to understand the concepts. Additionally, the audio audience may refer to the accompanying course guidebook for diagrams, illustrations, and examples that are cited throughout the course.
  • You should buy video if you prefer learning visually and wish to take advantage of the visual elements featured in this course. While the video version can be considered lightly illustrated, there are 40-50 images per lecture, maps, timelines, images of artifacts, and spelling, language, and definitions provided on the screen, which may help reinforce material for visual learners.
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What Will You Learn?

  • Learn what "big history" is and how scholars apply this approach to the story of humanity.
  • Gain new understanding of the complete sweep of human history, across all civilizations and around the world.
  • Use the lens of history to find out what makes us human, why the world exists as it does today, and where we might be going in the future.
  • See how the environment, population growth, social complexity, and more have driven the rise and fall of civilizations over the millennia.

Course Overview

The history of human civilization is an astonishing story of migration, innovation, and social development. Over 200,000 years, humans have populated the planet, adapted to environmental challenges, experimented with systems of government, and left such a strong mark on the earth that scientists now refer to our era as the Anthropocene—the era of humanity.

Now, the exciting new field of Big History allows us to explore human civilizations in ways unavailable to historians of previous generations. Scholars of this multidisciplinary approach study great spans of time, unlocking important themes, trends, and developments from around the world that have occurred over millennia.

The Big History of Civilizations is your chance to apply this leading edge historical approach to the epic story of humanity around the world. Taught by acclaimed Professor Craig G. Benjamin of Grand Valley State University, these 36 sweeping lectures trace the story of human civilizations from our evolution as a species, through our major adaptations and revolutions, and into the future.

Unlike a traditional survey of history—with its focus on dates and events, kings and battles—Big History takes an expansive approach that allows you to:

  • Ask the big questions about the rise of civilizations around the world, and lay out key similarities and differences among different civilizations.
  • Consider the necessary conditions for modern civilizations to exist, from trade and media of exchange to ideas about religion and approaches to governance.
  • Find out how the environment—including geography and climate—has driven human migration and population growth over the millennia.
  • Examine the evolution and adaptations of our species to discover what makes humans unique in the animal kingdom.
  • Draw from the work of anthropologists, biologists, geneticists, chemists, linguists, and more to gain deeper insights into human history.

It only takes a few minutes of one lecture for you to discover that Big History offers a distinctive vantage point from which to view the story of humanity. Its grand vision will give you powerful new insights into human civilization, and it offers a profound analysis of some of our biggest questions: What makes us human? Where did we come from? And where are we going? There are no easy answers, but The Big History of Civilizations frames them in a unique and captivating way.

What makes this course so fascinating is the way Professor Benjamin uses a comparative perspective and outlines the big-picture themes of human civilization. For instance, among other topics, you will:

  • Apply the work of archaeologists and anthropologists to consider the evolution of Homo sapiens 200,000 years ago.
  • See why the agricultural revolution may not have been the boon to humanity that traditional history narratives might suggest.
  • Compare the development of civilizations in the world’s four geographic zones—Afro-Eurasia, the Americas, Australia, and the Pacific Islands—to see what broad lessons each region can tell us.
  • Find out what cutting-edge DNA analysis can tell us about early experiments with agriculture.
  • Reflect on the role of the climate in guiding human civilization, and explore how humans have adapted to changing climate patterns.
  • Use the themes of Big History to peer into the near and distant future to consider what might be in store for humanity in the coming centuries and millennia.

A Bigger View of Big History

What makes the Big History approach so unique? Whereas a traditional survey might take you through the major events of a period and introduce you to key dates and people (the “kings and battles” approach), Big History zooms out to bring larger trends into focus, from the type of geography best suited for civilization to the way climate patterns drive human activity like the transition into agriculture.

One major trend you’ll uncover is that, regardless of time or place, civilizations require certain “Goldilocks factors” to succeed. At all scales—the cosmic, the planetary, the ecological, and the human—you can view moments where a combination of just-right ingredients creates the necessary conditions to cross the next threshold of complexity. A few such unique conditions that Professor Benjamin examines are:

  • Climate changes during the Paleolithic Era
  • The relationship between the agricultural revolution and human population growth
  • The relationship between power and the rise of early city-states
  • The spread of ideas along Silk Roads and other trade routes
  • The Industrial Revolution and the development of consumer capitalism
  • Peak oil, climate change, over-population, and other near-future scenarios

In addition to these global trends, Professor Benjamin also zeroes in on the many great civilizations across time and around the globe, including Mesopotamian cities and empires; ancient Egypt, Greece, and Rome; South Asian civilizations; Chinese dynasties; Mongols and other militarized nomadic tribes. You’ll also move beyond many of the cultures traditionally covered in survey courses to study North American native cultures, the Olmecs, the Aztecs, the Incas, and other cultures of Meso- and South America; little-studied civilizations in sub-Saharan Africa such as the Bantu and the Swahili kingdom; the golden age of the Islamic civilization; and myriad cultures across Australia and the Pacific islands. From Jericho to Mohenjo-Daro and from Egypt to New Zealand, this course takes you into every corner of the globe to give you a truly comprehensive understanding of humanity.

Take a Multidisciplinary Approach to History

What differentiates Big History from other historical perspectives is the way it combines divergent fields to give you a holistic view of human civilization, including:

  • Geography: From rivers to mountain ranges, and bluffs to islands, explore the relationship between the natural landscape and civilization.
  • Geology: Study the role of plate tectonics in forming habitable environments—and reflect on the difference between geologic time and human time.
  • Anthropology: Discover the origins of our species and trace its development from early hominids to Homo sapiens.
  • Genetics: Employ the latest techniques to analyze human, animal, and even plant DNA to learn about humanity’s impact on the environment.
  • Linguistics: Find out why a shared language and collective learning are one of the primary markers for what makes us human.
  • Economics: Unpack the impact of trade and exchange, and review big-picture ideas such as Malthusian cycles, global trade routes, and consumer capitalism.

Archaeology, history, science, philosophy, religion, ecology, botany—the list goes on and on. Big History ties these fields together, which allows you to take a step back and see patterns in the warp and weft of human civilization.

Stories with Large-Scale Impact

Consider this explanation for the origins of agriculture: foragers adopt a less nomadic lifestyle and begin to live in one spot. From there, population growth slows their ability to migrate while also increasing the need for food—a condition called the “trap of sedentism.” Ultimately, perhaps the only remaining survival strategy is the adoption of agriculture.

Does this story explain the entirety of the Agricultural Revolution? Of course not, but scientists and historians have seen accounts similar to this across different—and independent—geographic zones, suggesting a unifying pattern. Big History thrives on such accounts, and Professor Benjamin will leave you enraptured with this approach to history and human civilization.

What Makes Us Human

While the big-picture lens on human civilization is fascinating, ultimately it is a uniquely human story. Stories of the invention of agriculture, or Malthusian expansions and contractions, or the Industrial Revolution are only interesting insofar as they tell us where we have come from as a species—and therefore why we are the way we are.

You’ll journey around the world to meet a range of peoples, from the Bushmen of South Africa to the Longshan farmers of China. You’ll uncover the secrets of ancient cities such as Sumer, Uruk, Catul Hayuk. You’ll delve into cultures and explore innovations ranging from the invention of paper in China’s Han Dynasty to the expansion of railroads across the United States to the explosion of consumer capitalism in the technological age.

Step into the Future

This is the human story of our relationship to the planet, and at the end of the course Professor Benjamin devotes two special lectures to apply the methods of Big History to the future. Scientists, economists, philosophers, policy-makers, and everyday citizens alike will soon face extremely tough choices about energy production, population growth, innovation, and the human impact on the environment.

What lies in front of us? Will we continue to adapt as our forebears have been doing for thousands of years, or will we push our resources to the breaking point? Can we imagine life in the year 2100? 2600? 3100? Professor Benjamin gives you the tools to consider the possibilities and what will impact humanity in the future.

And these questions raise fundamental questions about human nature. Are we essentially driven by violence and greed to construct imperial societies based on a ruthless competition for power and treasure? Or are violence and greed only parts of human nature, tendencies tempered by instincts of cooperation, empathy, and self-sacrifice for the greater good?

The old adage says that those who fail to understand history are doomed to repeat it. The Big History of Civilizations offers a powerful—even necessary—way of understanding our history so that, with any luck, we will be able to make a better future for everyone.

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36 lectures
 |  29 minutes each
  • 1
    A Tale of Two Ancient Cities
    Jericho and Anau are two of the world's oldest cities, and their stories have much to tell us about the scope of human history. Begin the course by examining what made these cities successful, and how they differed from each other. This starting point will introduce the concept and key themes of Big History. x
  • 2
    The Rise of Humanity
    Trace the origins of the human species from the emergence of proto-humans 2.5 million years ago to the rise of Homo sapiens from about 200,000 years ago. Professor Benjamin offers perspectives from biology, anthropology, archeology, and linguistics to show what makes the human species unique-and why we have been able to flourish. x
  • 3
    Foraging in the Old Stone Age
    Although it is often skimmed over in the history books, the Paleolithic Era is the longest time in human history, ranging from 200,000 to 11,000 years ago. Understanding this period is crucial for understanding the human history that follows. See how family dynamics, migration patterns, climate change, and more affected life in this fascinating era. x
  • 4
    Origins of Agriculture
    Archaeologists continue to debate precisely why and how humanity transitioned from foraging to agriculture 10,000 years ago. Delve into the agricultural revolution to find out how some combination of climate change, population growth, and human ingenuity led to one of the most important revolutions in human history. x
  • 5
    Power, Cities, and States
    After the agricultural revolution, the next major transition in human history was the rise of cities. After introducing you to life in the early farm communities, Professor Benjamin investigates the origins of power and its relationship to the state. Discover several of the abiding features of the world's early cities. x
  • 6
    The Era of Agrarian Civilizations
    The vast Era of Agrarian Civilizations stretches nearly 5,000 years, from 3,200 B.C.E. to 1750 C.E. and the dawn of the Industrial Revolution. Tease out the large-scale trends and patterns of this period to find out what led to the growth of agrarian civilizations as well as the key barriers these civilizations faced. x
  • 7
    Innovations of Mesopotamia
    Gain new insights into civilization by looking at one of the first: the Sumerians of Mesopotamia. Here, use techniques from linguistics, genetics, archeology, climatology, and more to see how this society unfolded-and what lessons it has to offer us today. The approach in this lecture is Big History" at its most engaging." x
  • 8
    The Downfall of Sumer
    Wars and rumors of war abound in this next lecture on Mesopotamia. Survey the rise and fall of empires in the 1,000 years after the collapse of the Sumerians. See how laws and language barriers impacted the Babylonians, the Hittites, and the Assyrians, and how the changing environment inevitably had the last word. x
  • 9
    Egypt: Divine Rule in the Black Land
    Dive into the world of Ancient Egypt during the time of the great pharaohs. In this sweeping lecture, Professor Benjamin shows you how environmental circumstances led to Egyptian power. Examine the work of modern-day geneticists, chemists, and other scientists who are shedding new light on this mythical civilization. x
  • 10
    Society and Culture of Egypt
    Shift your attention from Ancient Egyptian power to the society's fascinating social, economic, and cultural achievements. Investigate Egyptian urban life, its system of trade, hieroglyphics, and religion. Thanks to its important heritage and influence on subsequent civilizations, Ancient Egyptian society remains truly astonishing. x
  • 11
    Early Mediterranean Civilizations
    The Mediterranean Sea played a key role in the development of the ancient world. Here, explore four smaller cultures that had an enormous influence on subsequent history, particularly trade and cultural exchange: the Phoenicians, the Hebrews, the Minoans, and the Mycenaeans. x
  • 12
    Mysteries of the Indus Valley
    While agrarian civilizations were flourishing in Egypt and the Mediterranean, the extraordinary Indus civilization was emerging in South Asia. Witness the development of one of the most advanced and intriguing civilizations of its time, and then tour two of its most important cities, Harappa and Mohenjo-Daro. x
  • 13
    South Asian Civilizations and Beliefs
    Continue your study of South Asia. Here, Professor Benjamin traces the rise of Hinduism, Buddhism, and other religious traditions during the millennium between 1500 and 500 B.C.E. He then turns to the political and social organizations of the subcontinent, from the Indo-Aryan settlements through the Mauryan Empire. x
  • 14
    China: Born in Isolation
    Although contemporaneous with civilizations emerging in Mesopotamia, Egypt, and South Asia, East Asia's geographic isolation allowed for the development of unique ideas about government, society, and the individual. Find out about East Asian culture by exploring the rise and fall of the Shang and Zhou dynasties. x
  • 15
    China's Dynasties and Influence
    In this second lecture on early East Asian civilization, follow the history from the Warring States Period through the Qin and Han dynasties. Along the way, examine many of Chinese culture's most important contributions to world history, including its legal codes, and the invention of paper and printing. x
  • 16
    The Importance of the Nomads
    Go inside the steppe environment to learn about the role militarized pastoral nomads played in world history. As you see how these societies responded to climate pressures and influenced neighboring civilizations, you will also chart the rise of the horse, which played an important role in nomadic society. x
  • 17
    Oxus Civilization and Powerful Persia
    Pastoral nomads weren't the only early settlers of Central Asia. The recently discovered Oxus civilization and the Persians reveal a number of key themes for Big History, including the role of climate and geography, intensified social complexity, innovations in warfare and farming, and more. x
  • 18
    Greece in Its Golden Age
    Geography plays one of the most important roles in a civilization's development, and this holds true for the ancient Greeks. But it is the Greek experiments in government that drove much of their success. Tour the ancient Greek city-states of Athens, Sparta, and more to find out how they were governed, and how they dealt with conflicts. x
  • 19
    Greek Gods, Philosophy, and Science
    The Greeks created one of the richest and most influential cultures in human history. From myths to music to philosophy, as you delve into this world, you'll explore the major Greek thinkers and the big questions they tackled-and gain a new understanding not just of their world, but also to better understand humanity today. x
  • 20
    Alexander's Conquests and Hellenism
    Although Big History looks at the macro lens, sometimes one individual truly shapes the course of human history. Alexander of Macedon is one of those people. As you'll find out in this lecture, his conquests reshaped the ancient world, leading to tremendous economic expansion, flourishing cities, and monumental advancements in science and art. x
  • 21
    Building the Roman Republic
    Rome began as an unremarkable city-state with a monarchy, but once the city established itself as a republic, Roman conquests spread dramatically across the Mediterranean. Here, review some of Rome's great leaders from its beginning through the assassination of Julius Caesar and the reign of Octavian, Caesar Augustus. x
  • 22
    Triumphs and Flaws of Imperial Rome
    Pick up the story of Rome in the Augustan Golden Age and follow it through the infamous sack by the Visigoths. Explore the literature and propaganda of the empire, and examine the reign of some of Rome's most notorious rulers before concluding with a look at the emergence of Christianity. x
  • 23
    New Ideas along the Silk Road
    The Era of Agrarian Civilizations was one of fluid borders and nomadic activity, which eventually led to dynamic trade routes between east and west. Here, Professor Benjamin transports you into the Han Dynasty's world of luxurious silks and spices. And see how the less tangible exports like ideas, arts, religion, and more were transmitted along the Silk Roads. x
  • 24
    Chaos and Consolidation in Eurasia
    Between the 3rd and 6th centuries, Afro-Eurasian civilization experienced a crisis with the collapse of the Han Dynasty in the east and the end of Roman administration in the west, leading to near-universal economic contraction. Employ Big History analysis to understand the different outcomes to these events-and their influence on future history. x
  • 25
    Islamic Expansion and Rule
    The expansion of the Islamic civilization between the 8th and 10th centuries played a major role in the history of Afro-Eurasian states and cultures. Survey the story of Islam from the life of Mohammed to the Sunni-Shia split to the Islamic Golden Age. Review the pillars of the faith and the culture's impact on the world. x
  • 26
    Legacy of the Mongols
    In the early 13th century, Mongol horsemen swept out of their homeland in the steppes to conquer the known world, and they would go on to create the largest contiguous empire the world has ever seen. Enter Mongol culture and look at the violent conquests that led to a little-known Pax Mongolia before the Mongols returned to obscurity. x
  • 27
    North American Peoples and Tribes
    Shift your attention to the Americas, which developed on an alternate path from Afro-Eurasia. This first lecture traces the settlement of North America and investigates societies across different regions, from the southwestern deserts to the eastern woodlands. Learn about tribes such as the Iroquois nations, the Hopewell people, Pueblos, Chinooks, and more. x
  • 28
    Agrarian Civilizations of Mesoamerica
    The unique geography of Mesoamerica-the long isthmus that runs from the present-day Panama Canal through Mexico-has driven the region's history over the millennia. Review the geologic formations and plate tectonics that created Mesoamerica, and then turn to its many cultures, including the Olmecs, the Mayans, and the Aztecs. x
  • 29
    Culture and Empire in South America
    Round out your study of the Americas with a journey down the Andean spine and up the Amazon River to discover the many civilizations of South America, including the Nazcans, the Mochicans, and the Incas. Tour archaeological sites, and then step back to consider the Big History of the Americas compared to Afro-Eurasia. x
  • 30
    African Kingdoms and Trade
    Sub-Saharan Africa has often been overlooked by outside historians who are considering the rise of human civilization, yet nations such as Mali and Ghana and the Bantu and Swahili civilizations all have a rich and fascinating history. Survey the story of Africa with a special focus on sub-Saharan geography, people, and civilizations. x
  • 31
    Lifeways of Australia and the Pacific
    The Pacific islands represent perhaps the last great chapter in humanity's colonization of the globe. The vast Pacific made migration slow until comparatively recently, yet seafaring technologies allowed many Polynesian societies to flourish. Study the aboriginal people of Australia and New Zealand, and then learn about chiefdoms in Tonga, Samoa, Hawaii, and more. x
  • 32
    The Advent of Global Commerce
    In this lecture, Professor Benjamin surveys the Malthusian Cycle" of expansion from 500 to 1750 C.E., when favorable climate, global population growth, expanding exchange networks, and rapid innovation all paved the way for modernity. Reflect on European mercantilism, global exploration, and the period's great scientific achievements." x
  • 33
    The Industrial Revolution and Modernity
    Zoom in on an obscure corner of Europe in the 18th century, where the burning of coal served as the necessary spark to launch the world into modernity. Find out why Britain was in such a good position to become a global powerhouse during the Industrial Revolution, and watch as the railroads altered the landscape of countries around the world. x
  • 34
    The Transformative 20th and 21st Centuries
    Welcome to the Anthropocene! The 20th and 21st centuries are merely an eye blink on the scale of Big History, yet these years have wrought astonishing changes in the history of human civilization-and the story of our planet as a whole. Take a look at how nationalism, global capitalism, technological advancements, and rapid population growth have transformed our world. x
  • 35
    Civilization, the Biosphere, and Tomorrow
    Historians traditionally focus solely on the past, but here you have the chance to apply what you've learned about Big History to see what might be in store for us in the near future. Will we run out of oil? How will we adapt to a changing climate? How will population growth affect energy consumption? Consider a variety of scenarios for the year 2100. x
  • 36
    Civilizations of the Distant Future
    We can envision scenarios for the year 2100, but what about 2600? Or 3100? Reflect on the possibilities, drawing from the imaginative work of futurists and science fiction writers. See where human civilization might go-and what might happen to us along the way-on this planet, or in the universe, as Homo sapiens, or even as some future species. x

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Your professor

Craig G. Benjamin

About Your Professor

Craig G. Benjamin, Ph.D.
Grand Valley State University
Dr. Craig G. Benjamin is Associate Professor of History in the Frederik Meijer Honors College at Grand Valley State University (GVSU), where he teaches East Asian civilization, big history, ancient Central Asian history, and historiography. He earned his undergraduate education at The Australian National University in Canberra and Macquarie University in Sydney, and his Ph.D. in Ancient History from Macquarie University....
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Reviews

The Big History of Civilizations is rated 4.3 out of 5 by 21.
Rated 5 out of 5 by from I love this course; I learned so much! This is an excellent course. I enjoyed the lectures, and learned so much. As a retired elementary school teaches, I already knew quite a bit of history, but this course filled many gaps in my understanding of what actually happened, and why.
Date published: 2017-04-19
Rated 4 out of 5 by from Good overview of civilizations. This course provides a concise overview of civilizations from the stone age forward. It provides insight into the interactions between civilizations without getting into too much detail. Anyone interested in history should get this course. I learned many interesting facts about how the various civilizations affected each other.
Date published: 2017-04-07
Rated 5 out of 5 by from One of the best! Big History is a new and very important way to look at the world. It also helps us to understand the consequences of human activity and economic choices we will make in the future.
Date published: 2017-03-28
Rated 1 out of 5 by from Might rate it higher when we see it! Coo!!! Give us a chance!!! We haven't even broken the celophane package yet!
Date published: 2017-03-25
Rated 5 out of 5 by from Overview of the history of the World I really got a different view of history when I viewed this course. I learned so much from this excellent professor. He really knows what he is talking about!
Date published: 2017-03-18
Rated 5 out of 5 by from Truely Thoght Provoking! Combining the multidisciplinary approach of Big History, the necessary narrative and snappy presentation, this course is great. The professor uses images and overlays to great effect as he spans the globe and ages. Prof. Benjamin’s comments on the environment and wealth inequity should be sent to all elected officials. I learned more with greater ease than with the long, slow slog of the Origins of Civilization course. Watch this one instead of subjecting yourself to the halting, archaeology-oriented other course.
Date published: 2017-03-14
Rated 5 out of 5 by from A Sweeping Historical Overview The Big History of Civilizations is an audacious title that promises much in terms of coverage, if not in depth of treatment. Professor Benjamin delivers a broad and lively Toynbee-style overview of the principal individual civilizations that have come and gone in our world, starting with the Old Stone Age, but mainly covering the historical period from Sumer in 3000 BCE to the 21st century. Five lectures are devoted to Greece and Rome, the civilizations most familiar to the majority of this course’s audience. The presentation is not a straight chronological narrative history, but rather highlights of Greek and Roman political and social structures and leadership, with summaries, some detailed, of major military engagements. Dr. Benjamin skillfully captures the essence of these two outstanding civilizations that together spanned a thousand years. However, the most lasting value of this course for most viewers is the lecturer’s concise and often dramatic treatment of lesser known civilizations, including early China, the Indus Valley, the rise of Islam, and New World cultures in Mesoamerica and South America, among others, to provide true global coverage. While each of these civilizations has been treated in far greater depth in other complete Teaching Company courses, Dr. Benjamin manages to summarize vividly the known history of these early cultures, encompassing their challenges, their achievements and the likely reasons for their eventual demise, including geologic and climatic factors, as well as human interactions. The final four lectures transition into the modern age stressing the impact of the industrial revolution, mechanization, global trade and rapid advances in transportation and communication. A rapid overview of the events of the past century will be all too familiar to Teaching Company audiences. In the penultimate lecture Dr. Benjamin delivers a plaintiff warning about earth’s deteriorating environment and a plea to mitigate climate change by ending dependence of fossil fuels. The course ends with a look into the future, invoking both science and science fiction regarding how distant civilizations might evolve in both utopian and dystopian directions. I can’t resist one stylistic criticism: many of the recent Great Courses offer in the video mode imaginative and innovative settings that complement the theme of the course (e.g. a studio set representing a field dig site in Dr. Eric Cline’s popular archaeology course). Inexplicably, the backdrop of this course most closely resembles a lumberyard warehouse, with stacks of long horizontal beams in various shades of brown. Superimposed on this is a progressively increasing number of seemingly irrelevant white rectangular blocks of different lengths, possibly intended as a (too subtle) symbolic representation of the timelines of the various civilizations discussed. For me, however, this arrangement proved to be a visual distraction that persisted throughout the course. Fortunately, the quite generous visuals presented in the form of illustrations, photographs, maps and on-screen texts provided welcome relief. That churlish complaint aside, I thoroughly enjoyed this course and Dr. Benjamin’s engaging and highly articulate narrative as a reminder of the rich diversity of cultures that have risen and fallen across the several millennia of human history.
Date published: 2017-03-14
Rated 5 out of 5 by from Comprehensive history It is fascinating to get the history of Of the world and mankind in a broad but adequate detail..
Date published: 2017-03-06
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