Animated Map Shows How the Five Major Religions Spread Across the World (3000 BC – 2000 AD)

Hinduism, Judaism, Buddhism, Christianity, Islam…. Claims to ancient origin and ultimate authority notwithstanding, the world’s five major religions are all of recent vintage compared to the couple hundred thousand years or more of human existence on the planet. During most of our prehistory, religious beliefs and practices were largely localized, confined to the territorial or tribal boundaries of individual groups.

For people groups in the British Isles a thousand years ago, for example, the Levant may as well have been another planet. How is it that Britain became a few hundred years later one of the most zealously global evangelizers of a religion from Palestine? How is it that an Indian sect, Buddhism, which supposedly began with one man sometime in the 5th Century B.C.E., became the dominant religion in all of Asia just a few hundred years later?

Answering such questions in detail is the business of professional historians. But we know the broad outlines: the world’s major religions spread through imperial conquest and forced conversion; through cultural exchange of ideas and the adaptation of far-off beliefs to local customs, practices, and rituals; through migrant and diaspora communities moving across the globe. We know religions traveled back and forth through trade routes over land and sea and were transmitted by the painstaking translation and copying by hand of dense, lengthy scriptures.

All of these movements are also the movements of the modern globalized world, a construct that began taking shape a few thousand years ago. The spread of the “Big 5” religions corresponds with the shifting of masses of humans around the globe as they formed the interconnections that now bind us all tightly together, whether we like it or not.

In the animated map above from Business Insider, you can watch the movement of these five faiths over the course of 5,000 years and see in the span of a little over two minutes how the modern world took shape. And you might find yourself wondering: what will such a map look like in another 5,000 years? Or in 500? Will these global religions all meld into one? Will they wither away? Will they splinter into thousands? Our speculations reveal much about what we think will happen to humanity in the future.

Related Content:

5-Minute Animation Maps 2,600 Years of Western Cultural History

70,000+ Religious Texts Digitized by Princeton Theological Seminary, Letting You Immerse Yourself in the Curious Works of Great World Religions

Harvard Launches a Free Online Course to Promote Religious Tolerance & Understanding

Josh Jones is a writer and musician based in Durham, NC. Follow him at @jdmagness

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Comments (7)
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  • John the Baptist says:

    What about the East Roman/Byzantine Empire in the Middle East!?! The whole of the Middle East used to be christian before islam conquered it!?! Isn’t it!? I mean: the Kopts in Egypt, christians in Syria, Ethiopia….. And so on and so forth!

  • G. Engene says:

    Why was China ignored? Is the Tao not understood, or too diverse? Too ‘disorganized’? Or just not ‘major’ enough? Certainly China has representative groups of Christian, Islamic, Buddhist followers.

  • Stephen Roney says:

    A lot of inaccuracies in the animated map. The biggest is that the entire Middle East and North Africa is shown as pagan until Islam spreads there. It was Christian. The funniest is that it shows Newfoundland as pagan even today. Also leaves out the spread of Buddhism to Sri Lanka.

  • Aaron Abbott says:

    Interesting, but completely inaccurate.

    They forget that Christianity (believers in Jehovah who looked forward to the ‘Messiah’, Hebrew form of the Greek ‘Christ’) started before 4000 BC and that corruption of it spread. That corruption of it is the beginnings of the eastern religions, which corruption continued because of superstitions. Islam starts years after Christ, before then, they were believers in Jehovah, and looked forward to the Messiah just like their ancestors for over 4000 years. Even Moses received the priesthood by the laying on of hands by one who was an authorized priesthood holder, from Jethro, a Medianite (A south eastern Arabian). Then the doctrine became corrupt even among them. Even the Quran speaks more of Jesus than any other person. They are Christian and don’t even know it.

  • A says:

    Did any of you read the first paragraph?

  • Pure says:

    Perfect for Douglas Coupland’s DGlobe

  • John the Pope says:

    I could not agree more my dear fellow.

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