East of Constantinople, West of Shanghai

Deep time and History


OK, so this is my blog, here I talk about my passions.
Now, passions are interesting, because once you start along a certain path, once you develop a deep interest in a certain subject, it starts popping up in the weirdest places.

Like this…

it2004In the august of 2004 I was in Florence for the 32nd International Geological Conference.
I had some research to show, some people to meet, it was my first big night on the town.
Held on the hottest days of the year in the most expensive town in Italy, the conference was an unmissable opportunity for a freelance researcher like me – well worth the expenses, and the less-than-confortable hotel room 50 kms from the seat of the conference.
My mother contributed with money from her pension to my trip and participation.

The 32nd IGC in Florence was seen by many as the first big international outing for Chinese geology – and certainly the Chinese presence was impressive.
Among the many show-pieces of the Chinese area at the conference, was a huge geological map of the Himalayas and Transhimalayas, a big colorful map taking up a whole wall.

Not detailed enough, but  to give you an idea...

Not detailed enough, but to give you an idea…

It was looking at that map that something clicked – because if the geology, with a modicum of patience, could be interpreted and understood, my very extracurricular passion for adventure stories and history, my old interest for the Silk Road and its surrounding lands, added a second layer to the map.

Because if the colors on the sheet clearly marked changes in lithology and geological history, they also marked other familiar features.
Familiar to me, at least!
Caravan routes, mountain passes, battle sites and disputed borders.
It was obvious – well, to me at least – the strong, indisputable connection between geological features and human history.
Geology determined politics, culture, economical exchanges and the mixing of genes.

"Yes, it all depends on different erosion ratios..."

“Yes, Boss, it all depends on different erosion ratios…”

A mountain range determines climate – and therefore agriculture.
And therefore commerce – which it further influences by creating barriers, marking paths and passes.
And commerce determines cultural exchanges.
And sometimes also exchanges of biological information.
And because certain features of the landscape become strategically important, the orogen also determines wars, alliances, invasions…

The epiphany in front of the big Chinese map of the Himalayas suggested to me a new pet project – setting up “some kind of thing” (a series of lectures, an exhibition, whatever) to further explore the connection between rocks and people along the Silk Road.
I started collecting books (finally having a “serious” reason to collect books about the Silk Road!) and staretd making some discreet queries around, to see if someone, somewhere, would be willing to pay for the development of my project.
A geology department, maybe a museum, some learned institution or other…

The general indifference was overwhelming.
Too much work, I was told.
Too interdisciplinary, and therefore too complicated.
And too marginal – who would be interested in the Silk Road, now, in the 21st century?

In the years since I first tried out the idea, receiving a varied palette of negative answers, a lot of exhibitions and events took place place in Italy and all over the world, but as far as I know, never has the connection between deep time and history been the focus of any event.
The idea, to me at least, remains solid.
I keep collecting stuff.
One of these nights…

Author: Davide Mana

Paleontologist. By day, researcher, teacher and ecological statistics guru. By night, pulp fantasy author-publisher, translator and blogger. In the spare time, Orientalist Anonymous, guerilla cook.

9 thoughts on “Deep time and History

  1. One of my professors once said that if one want to fully understand history, he can’t do that without a good atlas. And she used as example the many battles of the Thermopylae that have occurred throughout all history, pointing out that it was not a coincidence but the very reason that made that place so important was its geographical position and its geological features.

    After that, I started to look at historical and political maps paying attention to another layer made of orography, rivers, exploitable natural features, and so on. And with this point of view, it seemed very obvious that, in example, the boundary between Emilia-Romagna and Tuscany has been a border, a frontier-land since the antiquity, bewteen Romans and Gauls, then between Lombards and Byzantines during Early Middle Ages; and that line separated also Papal States form the Grand Duchy of Tuscany, and again, it was the site of the Gothic Line during WWII.

    Same thing can be said of the franco-german border over the Rhine river, a border where many important battles and clashes took place during all over human history.

    Two thumbs up for the interdisciplinary approach!

    P.S. I really like the different icons that you put on every post; I suppose that they are linked to the specific categories you used, aren’t they? It is a specific feature of the theme you used?


  2. The interdisciplinary approach to history is – to me- essential.
    Maybe that’s why, in the old days,”History and Geography” was considered a single subject in our schools.

    As for the icons – it’s “featured image” function of the wordpress theme.
    I’m still making some experiments, designing this blog, but the idea of graphycally tagging my posts seems fun…


  3. The cool thing about history is that you can basically use any kind of science and discipline to expand your knowledge about it. Usually it is viewed as an humanistic subject, and without any doubt it is, but humans lay in a physical context, thus history is not driven only by human will (being it collective or of single individuals) but also by the conditions where all the story takes place.
    Geology, science of materials, psychology, sociology, anthropology, biology, epidemiology, history of technology, climate sciences, archeology (of course!), political sciences, every little bit adds another layer beyond the basic and sterile chronology that often is associated (and confused) with history. The bad thing is that it is often taught in the last way…


  4. In fact I know a guy that keeps calling me “a humanist” (paleontology being “a literary subject”)

    The only real problem about a true interdisciplinary approach is, it is pretty hard to set up a fixed, standard curriculum – and therefore is not very popular with school boards and education ministries…


  5. True, having diverse interests often is viewed as not being focused, as a proof that you are not concentrating on what is supposed to be your “box” and in the end losing time. As if it were a shame for a scientist to enjoy reading Dante or for a humanist to be confident with astronomy or science in general, and as if those interests could be some sort of detriment of your main occupation; not to mention when you are just a building surveyor, without a university level degree, you are just not supposed to know about [i]anything[/i], and in a surprised mood you are questioned on how and why you know about the particular subject you are talking about.

    And sometimes also came out the argument on what is the highest and noblest form of knowledge, if the humanist or the scientific one. I usually answer that this particular problem was of no concern to Leonardo, Galileo, Einstein, just to cite the most known examples.
    Sure, given the current state of progress, today it’s not easy to be at the top of proficiency in every field, but why should we give up curiosity so easily?


  6. @ Stefano Curiosity requres a lot of time and diligence, but man is a lazy beast


  7. There’s a little glicht in this post (staretd); aside from this little inconvenience the interdisciplinary approach is what fit best to the complexity of this world. Jared Diamond got himself a Pulitzer prize with an interdisciplinary essay (to me, the best essay ever). It’s the best way to divulgate science and stimulate curiosity at all ages, a marvelous way to show that there are no real separations between the various sciences. In a specialized world, somebody got to focus on the greater picture.


  8. The confluence of geology, geography and history may not attract much academic interest, but I bet you could interest a nonfiction publisher in the project. That sounds like a book a lot of people would enjoy reading.


  9. @Cambias
    That’s true.
    And it’s the sort of thing I should try and pitch to an English-language publisher – wider audience, better royalties.
    I’ll have to look into the thing.
    Thanks for the suggestion – often, being tied to academia, one forgets about the whole wide world 🙂


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