This bestseller by Israeli historian Yuval Noah Harari launched in 2011 in his home country, before hitting the rest of the world in 2014. Wouldn’t you know it, the extensive history book examines human history from roughly 100,000 years ago up until right here and right now. Back then, there were six human species around. Six! Now there only remains homo sapiens.
What happened during such an evolutionary rush for survival? This is, as the title states, a brief history of all of it wrapped into one 450 page book. We found it to be like the adult version of E.H. Gombrich’s memorable A Little History of the World (1935), but with more science bits and big words the layperson will be able to wrap their tiny minds around. What more could you want?
Sapiens – A Brief History of Humankind
There’s a neat little summary video above, but to really get the most out of this topic (and to learn a thing or two about human history), we’d highly advise getting the book and reading the whole thing. This is an accessible and highly enjoyable account of human activities to date, starting with the cognitive revolution (circa 70,000 BCE) which provided us with a big advantage over our hairy counterparts.
Prior to this, around 2.5 million years back, humans evolved from a species of ape called Australopithecus (this is based on the findings of archaeologists and paleontologists). By modern estimates, there were at least seven species of humans around at the time, such as the brilliantly named homo erectus (duh huh huh huuuuh!) and the famous neanderthals. The former was extinct by 140,000 years ago, whilst the latter waved goodbye a mere 40,000 years back (a blink of an eye in terms of the history of the Earth).
What happened to these dudes, then? Why are homo sapiens the only species of humans still around? Harari gets round to that soon enough, but off topic, if you ever wondered, the term “homo sapiens” is Latin and stands for “wise man” (well, that’s sexist!) – it was introduced in 1758 by Carl Linnaeus. In effect, this guy named his own species which, of course, hasn’t happened to any others in history (except giraffes).
Anyway, our historian sets the scene with lively prose for these early years of humanity (and he does use “humankind” on the front cover, which is a positive step) and lays forth the arguments for our success (it’s thanks to our brains, basically). This is followed by analysis of the agricultural revolution (12,000 BCE), human unification, and the scientific revolution (1,500 BCE).
In short, he examines the scientific arguments for why humans have come to structure the world around them in the way we do; political beliefs, nationalism, human rights, religion, and culture – what has this provided us with and, more importantly, what is the future for the species?
Provocatively, he suggests homo sapiens will be extinct within 1,000 years. We’re not raging misanthropes here, but as tyrannical humans have a propensity to ascend to power through demagogues and corruption, coupled with the damage big business is wreaking on the globe, it does mean things don’t look bright and shiny. However, don’t let this put you off reading this excellent book – it’ll provide you with plenty of hope thanks to the achievements of intelligent humans who dug up all these astonishing facts about our history.
Yuval Noah Harari
Highly active in the cultural and scientific communities, Harari has since written Homo Deus: A Brief History of Tomorrow (2016). It’s that uncanny, and quite rare, ability to turn complex topics into page turning, bestselling material that makes him stand out. Right now, Carlo Rovelli is doing the same thing in the world of physics with books such as Seven Brief Lessons on Physics and Reality Isn’t What It Seems.
Despite some accusing him of being contradictory at times, and a Guardian review of the book accused him of sensationalism, he is always interesting to listen to (as you can hear in his interesting comments in the clip above). More recently, in April 2018, he stated sugar to be more deadly than gunpowder. What do you think?
There’s also been an adaptation of Harari’s book to the stage (rather impressively, we must admit). It started off its run in Edinburgh last year and is now showing in London, where it’s met with strong reviews. We’re not sure if it’ll be going further afield, so folks from non-UK nations (or whatever the nomenclature is) may just have to make do with the book. Enjoy.