When Was the World Widest?

We live in a narrow, constricted age. The blank spaces on the maps have all been filled in. Where before there were dragons, there are now caravan parks. When I read 19th century novels, it is easy to sense the suffocating constriction of the middle class social mores of the time. It was against this incapacitating blancmange of expectations that Nietzche raged and, from a completely different angle but with a similar analysis, Kierkegaard reimagined Christianity. But at least, there were still mountains to climb, oceans to sail, rivers to trace to their source and the possibility of wonder around the next bend or over the next ridge. But now, we’ve been there and done that.

I wonder, though, when the world was at its widest. In one sense, it must have been when that first band of humans left Africa – everything but home lay before them. However, because it was so completely unknown, the world may have seemed no wider than the next horizon.

During the Neolithic, humanity had spread over most of the world, but most of the world remained empty. But Neolithic remains – cairns, standing stones, barrows and the like – are markers as well as memorials, telling wanderers that this land belongs to us by right of the bones of our ancestors.

At the time of the early civilizations through to Rome, the world grew in one sense wider, although more explored, as strangeness dwelled in new cultures and different ways of life.

In the Early Medieval Period, travelling, raiding and piracy reached their apogee with the Vikings, and the spread of Islam and then the Mongol Empire allowed a greater degree of travel through Asia than had ever been possible before. The world grew broader still.

The world in 1513
The world in 1513

But I nominate the Age of Exploration, when navigators such as Columbus, Da Gama, Magellan and Drake found lands unknown to antiquity as the time when the world was widest, for then its extent was at least roughly known, but the vast majority of it remained terra incognita, and a thus a theatre of possibility.


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