Ah. "Avatar: The Last Airbender". It gives chills just to recite the title of an outstanding, excellent, work of animated art. It is a show that I would recommend anyone to see, young or old, big or small, black or white, human or extraterrestrial, it's the kind of story that can resonate with any kind of person.
However, where did the creators get the idea to make such an epic, animated, drama that would still make us shed tears to this day?
I'll tell you where:
In our history.
See, from the writings of Presocratic philosophers we can identify the four "original" elements : Air, water, fire, and earth. It was said by them that with these four elements combining and mixing and reacting with one another, the world was formed.
Mixing with different levels of intensity, the early world came into being, and soon early signs of life started to emerge as well. When people first came about, the planet was an ever changing rock of instability, molding into new shapes rapidly, much more hostile than the world we know today. Eventually, as the planet matured and became calmer, humans developed an innate ability to control at least one of the four elements. As more and more began to populate the world, they disbanded, due to conflicts between their elements, and formed the early stages of four separate nations.
Earthbenders took to caves, manipulating the Earth to tunnel and make homes. Waterbenders on the poles, fire benders in the volcanoes, and airbenders in the clouds.
It was 1000's of years ago when everyone had the ability to carefully control their chi, and successfully master the art of bending. But it's important to keep in mind, Benders weren't the only species of human on the Earth either, neanderthals would be an example of one of the many roaming species of human.
There are theories that suggest the photo above are extraterrestrial beings, however, others claim that these are in fact some sort of species, distantly related to humans or benders, that happened to go extinct when they were unable to compete against the other species taking the world. This species could possibly date before benders even, having formed in the early days before people were born with easily controlled chis out of the elements.
As more benders came about however, they quickly took over, sending some other human lines to extinction, or close to it. As they separated into the four nations, they became a strong people, and were, as you might say, top of the food chain.
Benders lead a highly advanced society and were extremely intelligent beings. However, though the earth had matured, there were still many changes that would effect it. The atmosphere was much thinner than it is now, but as the years went by the climate slowly started to shift into new degrees, while the four nations went through cycles of battle and peace.
The bender species continued to reproduce rapidly, and if anyone knows the basic science of genetics, than they understand that mutations can be both a problem and a gift. Somewhere along the line a dominant trait began passing around that inhibited controlling the elements, and bending, being reduced to a recessive trait, became less and less common.
Our beloved series starts "when the fire nation attacked" which is already many generations after bending had become recessive and somewhat rare. That is the reason why Katarra could bend, but Sokka could not. The sequel, "The legend of Korra" starts years after even that one, where bending has become much more rare, and the tables have turned to make benders the hunted, rather than the hunter, in some instances.
It didn't take too many generations for bending to become a forgotten legend, and with no more bending to identify the separate nations, they separated even further into smaller nations or countries. There were many wars that ravaged the planet before people finally settled into their new places. Other than wars, disease was rampant, and Earth's climate, going through a violent cycle due to the switching of the poles (which happens ever few thousand years), completely changed the face of the world. Many of the documents of knowledge from the golden age of the Bender was lost, however some remained, and it was from these that the Philosophers of Ancient Greece identified the four original elements, and added to it a fifth one, Aether. They wished to study the remains of the ancient benders more carefully, and Plato devised a geometric shape of atoms that made up these elements.
They supposed that benders were actually manipulating these "atoms" in the elements to control them. As the Grecian societies grew, they stored all their information in the Great Library of Alexandria, along with the Ancient scrolls of bending. But, tragedy struck, and in a huge fire the library was burned to the ground, taking with it all the history it had collected from every ancient civilization that had existed today. Some theories suggest that the fire was started by a firebender, who by that time would have been almost completely alone in his abilities, and outcast by everyone else. Though, no evidence was ever found, except from eye witness accounts saying they saw a man "Manifest fire" from his hands, and within seconds, the great place of philosophy was gone.
Bending scrolls were already few in numbers, and with that destruction, almost obsolete. However, scraps of evidence remained, and pieces of the Grecian dissection of the elements were found too. Though, not enough information survived for it to be factual according to historians today, and the world of bending has become extinct to time.
Today, students in science learn about the Periodic Table of Elements, which all mix and connect, like ingredients to soup, to create Fire, Earth, Water, and Air. However, bending can still be found in our genes, scientists have discovered that there are many, many, many traits in our DNA that are inactive. With enough digging through the internet, some lucky few can be found claiming to have the ability to control their chi, and manage the shift air currents, or move water, but the Golden Days of the Benders have long passed us.
With these tiny bits of history that were able to survive though, theories and proof hold to Benders and this is where the creators came up with "Avatar: The Last Airbender".