Let's Think

No country will escape impact of migration – again

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Very few, if any, people in the world are not the descendants of migrants and probably no country will now be left untouched by migration – a phenomenon as old as mankind itself.

The present flood of migrants into Europe is in many ways a replay of a period in its history more than a thousand years ago, known as the Barbarian Invasions. It happened roughly between the 300th and 700th century.

The first of the Germanic and Slavic tribes to enter the territories of the then Roman Empire were refugees fleeing assaults by the Huns – something that has a familiar ring to it in view of what is happening today in Western Europe.

But the Goths, Vandals, Bulgars, Alans, Suebi, Frisians and Franks of the time were not by a long shot the first human migrants in history.

The study of migration through the ages is not an exact science and the start of the movement of people is placed by various sources at anywhere between 90 000 and 60 000 years ago.

About one thing, however, there seems to consensus: it all started in what we today know as Africa, where the human race made its first appearance on the face of the earth, roughly 200 000 years ago, before setting off at least a 100 000 years plus ago to colonise the rest of the world.

According to the site How Stuff Works the first wave of humans leaving Africa did so along the continent’s east coast into the Middle East and from there into southern Asia via Sri Lanka and eventually around Indonesia and into Australia. A few thousand years later another wave went more north into Europe.

To what extent climatic and environmental conditions played a role in the spread of Human Sapiens across the globe is illustrated by the fact that the frozen north gave them a bridge into North America. That happened some 175 000 years after the species made its first appearance in Africa.

What the driving factors behind these first waves of migration were, is not absolutely clear, but there are strong indications that climatic changes played a major role. As James Sullivan puts it in an article on the Finding Dulcinea website in reference to the last Ice Age: “This cold snap would have made life difficult for our African ancestors, and the genetic evidence points to a sharp reduction in population size around this time. In fact, the human population likely dropped to fewer than 10,000. We were holding on by a thread.”

Enter technology and politics

As humanity was facing a near-extinction event, the climate improved and there was the rise of agriculture on the back of which a population explosion developed.

As population concentrations became separated, distinctive groups developed with tribal links, own languages and cultures.  

By around 3000 BC the phenomenon of clearly identifiable groups, embarking on migration made its appearance.

Probably the first such an occasion originated in southern Arabia when a group of tribes, among other things linked by their language – the Semitic tribes – moved through Sinai into the Syrian Desert. It saw the development of a Semitic dynasty.

This pattern of events would repeat itself throughout history in different parts of the world with so-called ‘nation states’ and empires developing in its wake. 

In the 6th century BC, after the destruction of Jerusalem by Nebuchadnezzar, many Jews migrated to Egypt and Babylon.

The Barbarian Invasions marked the transition from Late Antiquity to the Early Middle Ages, changing the face of Europe. So did the huge migration of people after the big strides made in seafaring technology and the era of colonialism that followed in its wake. That changed the face of much of the rest of the world – especially North and South America, Africa and large parts of Asia.

Various other events in modern history have caused waves of migration. The persecution of Protestants in France brought the French Huguenots to South Africa and America, where in Charleston, South Carolina, the oldest Huguenot church outside Europe can be found.

In antiquity climate seems to have delivered the main drivers of migration waves. Since then religion, technology, power politics and economic considerations seem to have dominated this human phenomenon. The one thing that all these waves have in common is that they were almost always accompanied by some turmoil in the countries or regions where they started or ended.

As the wine industry in South Africa, the pyramids from antiquity in Central America and the links between languages across the globe testify, migrants never leave the communities where they arrive untouched.

In the present worldwide wave of migration there seems to be a convergence of almost all the factors that drove mass migration in the past. Only two things seem certain: the wave will not be stopped and very few, if any, country or region will be left untouched by it.

And, lastly, despite all the experience through the millenniums, humanity does not seem better prepared to deal with it this time round.

by Piet Coetzer

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