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Geology: The Phantom Science that Shaped Human History
by Don Beaumont (This paper has been ACCEPTED for publication at the University of Pennsylvania and the complete paper is now located at
How four geological processes and five events made Eurasia the most favored continent for the early development of human
civilizations, Central Africa the unique location for the evolution of the human species, China the most favored geological land for
a sustained civilization, and Northwestern China and Western Europe the world’s greatest concentration of iron and
coal natural resources.
1. Setting the stage and the scenery: Continental drift and plate tectonics configure two very
different hemispheres, equatorial Africa is shaped by rifting and tectonics, and India is
welded into Asia: 140 to 10 million years ago.
2. In the beginning (early Stone Age): Humans emerge from the central African rifts,
erosion and glaciation segregate humans: 10 to 1 million years ago.
3. The segregation of earliest humans by glaciation, weathering, and erosion: habitats
shaped by climate, soils, and topography: 1 million years ago to 12,000 years ago.
4. The Stone Ages: Uneven distribution of resources segregated developing societies: 1
million years ago to 3000
5. The Copper and Bronze ages: Large-scale farming creates the six earliest civilizations in
the worlds’ six major river flood plains in the temperate zone not affected by the melting
continental glaciers. The invention of metal tools and weapons requires extensive west to
east trade. 3300
. to 1400
6. The Iron Age: Out of the flood plains and into the green hills of Europe and China: 1400
. to 1099
.: Greece, Rome, early Chinese dynasties, the Muslim Empire, and the
7. The 1000-year contest for the natural wealth of Europe: 500
. to 1500
8. The struggle for the resources of China: selected events of the last 2000 years.
9. The Iron and Coal Age: 1700 to 1912
., Europe develops and uses its vast iron and
10. The Iron, Coal, and Oil Age: 1912 to 1950
., two world wars and the growing
dependence on oil.
11. The Iron, Coal, Petroleum, and Uranium age: 1950 to 20??, The approaching depletion of
iron and coal resources in Europe, USA, and China; the growing consolidation of iron,
coal, and petroleum resources in the former Soviet Union.
12. Weighed in the balance and found wanting?
The role of geology in shaping human history is not widely recognized. Much of the geological
knowledge acquired during human history in finding and mining copper, tin, iron, coal, and
petroleum has not been and probably never will be made part of the public record. Geology will,
unfortunately, remain an under-recognized, “phantom,” science in that its role in explaining the
foundations for human society may never be fully appreciated.
This work proposes that four geological processes and five geological events shaped
human history. The geological processes are: (1) continental drift, (2) plate tectonics, (3)
weathering, and (4) erosion. Continental drift and plate tectonics segregated, shaped, and
configured the continents and positioned them with respect to the equator and the poles.
Weathering and erosion created areas of unique soils and topographies, developed the major river
drainage systems, and exposed at or near the earth’s surface natural resources that shaped human
history. I suggest that copper, tin, zinc, iron, coal, petroleum, and uranium are the primary natural
resources that shaped and will continue to shape human history.
The five geological events that shaped human history are: (1) the segregation, shaping,
and positioning of the Eastern and Western hemispheres, (2) the elevation and rift faulting of
central Africa, (3) the collision of India with southern Asia and Africa with Europe, (4) the
melting of the last continental glacier beginning about 17,000 years ago, and (5) the erosion in
the last 20,000 years that exposed flint, obsidian, copper, tin, iron, coal, and petroleum at or close
to the present-day surface of the earth.
Beginning about 150 million years ago, continental drift and plate tectonics determined
the location, the shape, and the orientation of the continental crust and segregated the continents
into the Eastern and the Western hemispheres. It can be argued that the different configurations
of the two hemispheres determined when, where, and how civilizations developed.
About 40 million years ago the Indian continental plate initially collided with the
southern Asian continental plate, and 10 million years ago it was welded onto Asia. During this
period the African plate collided several times with the European plate. The mountains and
basins created by these collisions produced the west–east Tethys Seaway trend, which extended
from Spain to China. After India was welded onto southern Asia 10 million years ago, only the
Mediterranean and Red seas remained of the Tethys Seaway. However, the mountains on the
north side of the Tethys produced geological provinces that delineate the present-day Asian
countries of China, India, Pakistan, Iran, and Iraq, and in Europe the present-day areas of Spain,
England, France, and north-central Europe. The post-Indian-collision Tethys mountain trend
facilitated the west-to-east and east-to-west commerce of much of Eurasian human history.
About 35 million years ago, and continuing to the present time, central Africa was
positioned by continental drift at the equator. Subsequent plate uplift of central Africa by plate
tectonic forces created the high-elevation, volcanically active rift valleys. The unique
environment of the rift valleys determined the
of the evolution of the human
species. It can be argued that the human species might never have evolved if the Rift Valleys had
not been formed 35 million years ago.
In the Eastern Hemisphere, the Eurasian continent was oriented by continental drift in a
west–east direction in two climate zones. This orientation favored long-distance, east-west
commerce in the northern temperate zone. Africa, in contrast, was oriented in a north–south
direction across four climate zones. The subsequent human history of the Eastern Hemisphere
suggests that the east-west orientation of a continent in a temperate climate zone favors the
creation of major early civilizations, while north–south orientations mostly in the tropics do not.
This observation is consistent with the history of the Western Hemisphere. The supercontinent
of North, Central, and South America has a north–south orientation, and it crosses five
climate zones. This configuration restricted human commerce, which resulted in a fragmented
The flow of human history has demonstrated how readily humans could move in a single
climate zone along the mountain trends, e.g., within the Eurasian temperate zone, and how
difficult it was to move along a mountain trend that crossed climate zones, e.g., in the Western
Hemisphere and in Africa. Also, the lack of a continuous history of major civilizations in the
tropical climate zones suggests that tropical climates are not favorable to the development of a
major civilization. This appears to be true even where there are significant metallic ore deposits
and major river flood plains. Examples are the Amazon and Orinoco rivers in South America,
and the Niger and Congo rivers in Africa.
In addition to the large-scale processes of continental drift and plate tectonics, the local
geological processes of weathering, erosion, and river sedimentation produced soils and
vegetation, topography, and major river flood plains that segregated early humans into clans,
tribes, and small nations. When these local processes affected the large-scale topographic
features produced by continental drift and plate tectonics, natural resources, especially copper,
tin, iron, coal, and petroleum, were exposed at or near the surface. I propose that the occurrence
of, followed by the struggle for control of, these resources has shaped and will continue to shape
Human history was profoundly shaped in the Stone Age by access to flint and obsidian;
in the Copper and Bronze ages by access to copper, tin, arsenic, and zinc; in the Iron Age, control
of iron and coal; in the twentieth century, control of iron, coal, and oil; and now and in the
foreseeable future it will be control of iron, coal, petroleum, and uranium.
---------- For the complete paper, please see