David Christian (historian)

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David Christian
David Gilbert Christian

(1946-12-08) December 8, 1946 (age 77)
New York, N.Y. USA
AwardsWorld History Association
Book Prize Maps of Time (2005)
Academic background
EducationOxford University
B.A., D. Phil (1974)
University of Western Ontario
Alma materOxford University
InfluencesWilliam H. McNeill[1]
Academic work
Sub-disciplineBig History
History of Russia
InstitutionsMacquarie University in Sydney
San Diego State University
Notable worksMaps of Time
Notable ideasPioneering the field of Big History

David Gilbert Christian (born June 30, 1946), a historian and scholar of Russian history, has become notable for teaching and promoting the emerging discipline of Big History.[2][3] In 1989 he began teaching the first course on the topic, examining history from the Big Bang to the present using a multidisciplinary approach[4][5] with the assistance of scholars in diverse specializations from the sciences, social sciences, and humanities.[4] Big History frames human history in terms of cosmic, geological, and biological history.[6] Christian is credited with coining the term Big History[7][8] and he serves as president of the International Big History Association.[6] Christian's best-selling Teaching Company course entitled Big History caught the attention of philanthropist Bill Gates, who is funding Christian's efforts to develop a program to bring the course to secondary-school students worldwide.[6][9]

Early life[edit]

Christian was born in Brooklyn, New York, to British and American parents. He grew up in Nigeria and England. He completed his pre-university education at Atlantic College, an international sixth form in Wales.[10] He then earned his B.A. from Oxford University, an M.A. in Russian history from the University of Western Ontario, and a Ph.D. in nineteenth century Russian history from Oxford University in 1974.[2][11][12]

Academic career[edit]

Christian's early research interests focused on the history of Russia and the Soviet Union, with particular emphases on the Russian peasantry, including their diet and the role of vodka in their lives. He published several books on these subjects. In 1984, he co-wrote, along with R. E. F. Smith, a history about the Russian peasantry entitled Bread and Salt that showed, among other things, how such foods along with dairy products were used as seasonings.[13] He taught at Macquarie University in Sydney from 1975 to 2000.[11]

During the 1980s, he read widely and began a program to describe human history in the context of very large time scales from cosmology and astronomy, covering the almost fourteen billion years since the Big Bang. He began teaching his first course, what he described as Big History, in 1989.[14] It was a novel approach that emphasizes summary findings from biology, cosmology, astronomy, geology, and anthropology to show what happened before homo sapiens became prevalent on the Earth. Generally, humans are not mentioned much in the course until halfway through the 15-week semester.[2] He wrote the book Maps of Time that mirrored the course content. The course was chosen by The Teaching Company's Great Courses and Christian recorded 48 half-hour lectures.[15]

In 1998 he published A History of Russia, Central Asia and Mongolia in which he studied the steppe and forest peoples of Inner Eurasia as opposed to 'outer Eurasia' – the crescent of agrarian civilizations from Europe, the Middle East, and India to China.

Christian transferred to San Diego State University in California in 2001.[11] He taught students in subjects such as world history and the history of the environment, as well as the history of Inner Eurasia.[11] In 2005, his 600-page book Maps of Time was published, which a reviewer described as a "remarkable work of synthesis and scholarship."[16] Christian has additional teaching affiliations with the University of Vermont and Ewha Womans University in Seoul.[11] In 2009, he transferred back to Macquarie University.[11][9]

In 2010, Christian predicted that historical scholarship would have less emphasis on document-based research and more on empirical research, and he wrote:[11][16]

...Over the next fifty years we will see a return of the ancient tradition of "universal history"; but this will be a new form of universal history that is global in its practice and scientific in its spirit and methods.

— David Christian in History and Theory, 2010[16]

Philanthropist Bill Gates presented David Christian at the TED 2011 Conference in Long Beach, California. At that time, Christian announced his Big History Project initiative to teach the subject to secondary school students in Australia and the United States. Currently, he is serving as president of the International Big History Association.

Awards and honors[edit]


  • Bread and Salt: A Social and Economic History of Food and Drink in Russia, 1984, co-written with R. E. F. Smith[19]
  • A History of Russia, Central Asia and Mongolia, volume 1, 1998
  • Maps of Time: An Introduction to Big History, 2005, University of California Press[20]
  • Big History: Between Nothing and Everything, first edition, 2014, McGraw-Hill Education (co-written by Cynthia Stokes Brown and Craig Benjamin)
  • Origin Story: A Big History of Everything, 2018, Little, Brown and Company, ISBN 9780316392006
  • "Future Stories: What's Next", 2022, Little, Brown Spark.

See also[edit]


  1. ^ Christian, David (2004). Maps of Time: An Introduction to Big History. xxi: University of California Press. ISBN 0-520-23500-2.
  2. ^ a b c Vanessa Thorpe (27 October 2012). "Big History theories pose latest challenge to traditional curriculum: Maverick academic's 'Big History' – which is backed by Bill Gates – is subject of new documentary". The Guardian. Retrieved 13 December 2012. Big History, a movement spearheaded by the Oxford-educated maverick historian David Christian,....
  3. ^ Emily Eakin (12 January 2002). "For Big History, The Past Begins At the Beginning". The New York Times. Retrieved 13 December 2012.
  4. ^ a b Patricia Cohen (26 September 2011). "History That's Written in Beads as Well as in Words". The New York Times. Retrieved 13 December 2012.
  5. ^ Ursula Goodenough (10 February 2011). "It's Time For A New Narrative; It's Time For 'Big History'". NPR. Retrieved 13 December 2012.
  6. ^ a b c Rev. Michael Dowd (8 May 2012). "Big History Hits the Big Time". HuffPost. Retrieved 13 December 2012.
  7. ^ Craig Benjamin of Grand Valley State University (July 2012). "Recent Developments in Big History". History of Science Society. Archived from the original on 9 January 2013. Retrieved 13 December 2012. Vol. 41, No. 3,
  8. ^ "Mankind: The Story of All of Us". BBC History Magazine. 14 November 2012. Archived from the original on 2 October 2017. Retrieved 31 December 2012. ...a series informed by ideas around 'big history', David Christian's notion that we should look for common themes and patterns .....
  9. ^ a b Stephen Pritchard (3 November 2012). "For the record". The Observer. Retrieved 31 December 2012. Prof Christian ... left for San Diego in 2001 but returned to Macquarie in 2009.
  10. ^ Christian, David. Origin Story: A Big History of Everything.
  11. ^ a b c d e f g "Professor David Christian". Macquarie University. Archived from the original on 8 January 2013. Retrieved 31 December 2012.
  12. ^ The Teaching Company, David Christian Great Courses professor reference page. Retrieved Sept. 8, 2014
  13. ^ "Communism Knew Diversity Before Gorbachev..." The New York Times. 12 February 1989. Retrieved 31 December 2012. ...As R. E. F. Smith and David Christian showed in 1984, in Bread and Salt, even dairy products were generally used as seasoning.....
  14. ^ "Speakers David Christian: Historian". TED. 30 December 2012. ...David Christian is by training a historian of Russia and the Soviet Union, but since the 1980s he has become interested in world history on very large scales.
  15. ^ "Big History: The Big Bang, Life on Earth, and the Rise of Humanity". The Teaching Company's Great Courses. Retrieved 15 May 2013.
  16. ^ a b c David Christian (December 2010). "The Return of Universal History". History and Theory. Vol. 49. pp. 6–27. Archived from the original on 5 September 2012. Retrieved 31 December 2012. ...Today, however, there are many signs of a return to universal history...
  17. ^ "Fellow Profile: David Christian". Australian Academy of the Humanities. Retrieved 1 May 2024.
  18. ^ "A mark of distinction". This Week at Macquarie University. 7 October 2014. Archived from the original on 3 March 2016.
  19. ^ Roger Munting and Stephen Rashid (4 July 2010). "REF Smith obituary". The Guardian. Retrieved 31 December 2012. ...His last monograph ... jointly written with David Christian...
  20. ^ PD Smith (6 May 2005). "Time and headspace". The Guardian. Retrieved 31 December 2012. ...Christian has written a history of Wellsian scale, travelling from the physics of the Big Bang to our current nuclear age...

External links[edit]