Manchester Historian

Student newspaper for the University of Manchester's History Department

Wednesday 23rd August 2017 | Manchester, UK

When people take flight

Mass migrations represent some of the greatest examples of human travel in history and their ebbs and flows have helped shape the world as we know it. In a modern context of increased migration towards the United States and Europe from under-developed nations, it is important to look back at other great migrations that have shaped the modern world.

There is a general consensus amongst historians that historical mass migration of human populations began with Homo erectus’ exodus out of Africa and spread across Eurasia, after crossing the Red Sea about a million years ago. This was followed by what is perhaps the most important event in human prehistory:  when Homo sapiens left their homeland in Africa 70,000 years ago to colonize the world. This migration laid the foundations for our specie’s development and eventual dominance that it has never relinquished. Indeed, Homo sapiens’ departure from Africa signaled the extinction of any of its close competitors, namely the Neanderthals in Europe and Asia, the scattered Homo erectus in the Far East and the inhabitants of the Indonesian islands of Flores. Homo sapiens spread into Australia, Asia and Europe thereby starting to populate much of the world as we know it today, before reaching America some 20,000 years ago. These early migrations were responsible for the spread of mankind across the globe and provided the basis for the growth and expansion of human civilization. Indeed, at the end of this massive human migration, Homo sapiens was the last species standing.

Human migration also marked the transition between the period of Late Antiquity and the early Middle Ages. These early-modern migrations, grouped together under the umbrella term ‘Migration Period’ occurred in Europe, and brought about the creation of grassroots European states, by causing the downfall of the Holy Roman Empire through the spread of Germanic and Slavic armies across Europe between 400 and 800 A.D. Germanic tribes such as the Goths, Vandals, Angles, Saxons and Franks spread across Western Europe and lay down, among others, the foundations for the French and British territories and identities as we recognize them today, and the arrival of Slavic tribes such as the Huns and Slavs had a similar impact in Eastern Europe. Here, we see another example of human migration as a factor towards the formation of the modern world, as they helped create the early grounds for nationalism and ethnic and national identity.

More recently, mass migration was a key factor in the development of the United States as an economic and political power. During the 1800s, pushed by the hardships brought on by the Great Famine in Ireland, more than 2 million Irish workers migrated to America and settled on the Eastern Coast. This massive influx of workers lead to the country’s economic development as its workforce increased tenfold. Similarly, between 1880 and 1920, over 4 million Italians immigrated to the US mainly from impoverished areas of Southern Italy, seeking a better life across the Atlantic; thus furthering this process of economic growth and ensuring America’s rise as a world power in the years preceding the Second World War.

One of the greatest migrations in human history took place after the partition of India, which led to the creation of the Dominion of Pakistan. This partition was the result of the British withdrawal from India and sought to resolve the religious and ethnic tensions within the country by separating Muslims from Hindus and Sikhs. This partition led to the displacement of 14.5 million people who migrated across the newly created border for religious reasons. This migration flow has been the cause of a great deal of violence and tensions in the area, and contributed to the destabilization of the Punjab region.

However, an even more recent example of human migration occurred on a scale rarely seen before. It has taken place in China and has been driven by the country’s rapid industrialization which has been gathering pace ever since Mao’s ‘Great Leap Forward’ and transformed the country’s economy from a primarily agricultural based one, to one focused on manufacturing and industrial production; thus forcing many peasant workers to leave the countryside and flock to the cities where the new jobs are to be found. According to some reports, since 1979, China’s urban population has grown by a staggering 440 million people, and of these approximately 340 million are attributable to migration, making this the largest rural-urban migration in human history.

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