the plan for the future

Part I: The Cognitive Revolution


1. The Human Family

1.1. The beginning

About 13 billion years ago, matter, energy, time, and space, came into being in the Big Bang. The study of the fundamental features of our universe is called physics. Physics examines how matter, energy, time, and space interact with one another. About 300,000 years after their appearance, matter and energy started to combine into complex structures called atoms and molecules. The study of atoms, molecules, and their interactions is called chemistry. About 4 billion years ago on a planet called Earth, certain molecules combined to form even larger and more complex structures called organisms. The study of organisms is called biology.

About 70,000 years ago, organisms belonging to a very particular specie, Homo Sapiens, started to come together and combine and form even more elaborate structures, which we call cultures. History concerns the formation and development and interaction of human cultures from about 70,000 years ago until today. From this perspective, what is essential to realise is that there is no unbridgeable gap between history on the one side, and physics, chemistry, and biology on the other side. History is simply the next stage in the process of ongoing complexity in the universe.

The whole of history can be summarised in just three main revolutions or three main events. The first big revolution is the Cognitive Revolution that began about 70,000 years ago. In this revolution, Homo Sapiens, which previously was just an insignificant specie of African ape, evolved unique cognitive abilities. Cognitive abilities means thinking, remembering, communicating, and learning. Homo Sapiens developed unique cognitive abilities that gave it immense power and turned it into the most important animal in the world.

The second big revolution of history is the agricultural revolution. It began about 12,000 years ago. During the agricultural revolution, Homo Sapiens domesticated certain kinds of animals and plants, established villages, cities and other permanent settlements, and began to create ever more complex societies, cities, kingdoms, empires and churches.

The third big revolution, revolution of history is the scientific revolution. It began about 500 years ago. During the scientific revolution, Homo Sapiens understood, better and better, the rules that govern the natural world around it and inside it. Thereby, Homo Sapiens gained more and more power and became the master of the entire planet. It has become so powerful that today it actually begins to change the most basic rules of life.

For about 4 billion years life on earth evolved according to the laws of natural selection. Thanks to technologies like genetic engineering and direct brain computer interfaces, it is expected that in the next century or two, it will really completely change the way that life evolves on planet Earth. Humans existed long before history began about 70,000 years ago. Animals like like modern humans first appeared about 2.5 million years ago in East Africa. For most of these 2.5 million years our human ancestors were just another kind of animal. They did not have more impact upon the world than other species.

Biologists classify animals into species with Latin names. Animals belong to the same species if they tend to mate with one another and give birth to fertile offspring. Species that evolved from common ancestors are taken together by biologists under the title genus. Homo Sapiens is the scientific name of humans. The genus Homo is a Latin word meaning men. The species Sapiens is a Latin word meaning wise. The meaning of the scientific name Homo Sapiens is wise men. For thousands of years, Homo Sapiens preferred to view itself as totally different from all the other animals.

Homo Sapiens have a family called the great apes, which includes the chimpanzees, the gorillas, and orangutans. The chimpanzees are the closest to humans. Humans and chimpanzees had common ancestors just 6 million years ago. Homo Sapiens belongs to a family that also included other human species on planet Earth. Australopithecus was the ancient ancestor of humans that lived in East Africa about 2.5 million years ago. about 2 million years ago, some of these archaic men and women left their homeland in east Africa and spread around the world, settling various areas in North Africa, the Middle East Europe and Asia.

In each area, these humans encountered different conditions, a different climate, different geography, animals and plants. In order to adapt to these different conditions, the human populations, in each of those areas began to evolve in different ways. And this created, with time, completely different human species. In Europe and the Middle East lived a specie of humans which scientists call Homo Neanderthalensis. This is Latin for man from the Neander Valley as the first remains of these ancient humans were discovered by archaeologists in the Neander Valley in Germany. They are more commonly known as the Neanderthals.

Neanderthals were well adapted to the cold climate of ice age Europe and the Middle East. They were bigger, more muscular than modern humans. They had insulating layers of fat covering their bodies to protect them from the cold and they even had bigger brains than modern humans. On the island of Java in Indonesia Homo Soloensis evolved. This means man from the Solo Valley, because the first remains of this human specie were discovered by archaeologists in the Solo Valley on Java Island. Java had a tropical climate so Homo Soloensis evolved to become better adapted to living in the jungles and swamps of tropical Java.

On the very small Indonesian island of Flores evolved the Homo Floresiensis. The unique thing about these humans is that they were dwarfs. Flores used to be connected to the mainland but when sea levels rose, Flores was disconnected from the mainland. Flores is a small island and there is not much to eat. Big people died first as big people need a lot of food. Over generations, the people who got stuck on Flores Island became smaller and smaller, until they became dwarves. Homo Floresiensis reached a maximum height of no more than one metre and a maximum weight of just 25 kilogrammes.

In the big open spaces of Asia evolved a different human specie, called Homo Erectus. Homo Erectus means upright man because these people were tall, reaching heights of 1.8 to 1.9 metres. Homo Erectus probably was the most successful human species ever in terms of how many years it managed to survive. Homo Erectus first appeared about 1.5 million years ago and survived until about 500,000 years ago. In contrast, Homo Sapiens exists only about 200,000 to 300,000 years. It is very unlikely that Homo Sapiens will break the record of Homo Erectus and live for more than 1 million years.

In 2010, scientists discovered in the Denisova cave in Russia the fossilised bone of a human finger and they managed to extract DNA from this fossilised bone and to map it to all other known human species. They did not match so they came to the conclusion that there existed, at least in central Asia, another specie of humans, called Homo Denisova. It is unknown how many other ancient human species existed in the past.

At the same time, evolution in East Africa, where humans first emerged did not stop. Natural selection continued to put pressure on humans in East Africa. This resulted in the evolution of more human species in Africa, such as Homo Rudolfensis, whose remains were found near Lake Rudolph, and Homo Ergaster, which means working men because archaeologists discovered alongside the bones of this species many stone tools.

Eventually Homo Sapiens appeared in East Africa about 200,000 to 300,000 years ago. The human family consists many human species and not just one. From about 2 million years ago until about 10,000 years ago, the world was home at one in the same time to several human species simultaneously. 100,000 years ago, there were at least six different species of humans living side by side on planet Earth. Currently only Homo Sapiens still inhabits the planet Earth. Homo Sapiens had a hand in the disappearance of all the other human species.

1.2. The characteristics of humans


A Brief History of Humankind: Lecture 1.2

All human species shared defining characteristics that make them humans. The first characteristic is that they all had extraordinary large brains compared to other animals. Mammals weighting 60 kilogrammes usually have a brain size of about 200 cubic centimetres. In contrast, Homo Sapiens weighing 60 kilos have a brain averaging between 1200 and 1400 cubic centimetres. The brains of earlier humans were smaller, but still very large compared to other animals of equal weight. More brains is not always better, otherwise evolutionary pressures should have produced other animals with similar big brains, but this did not happen.

A big brain is also a very big problem. It has to be carried around all the time. It is even more hard to fuel the brain with energy. In homo sapiens the brain accounts for about 2 to 3% of total body weight but it consumes 25% of the body's energy when the body is at rest. By comparison, the brains of other great apes need only 8% while they have relatively very large brains compared to other animals.

Ancient humans paid for their larger and larger brains in two main ways. First of all humans had to spend more time looking for food. A second way for paying the energy budget of the brain is that humans became less muscular as their brains became bigger. It is far from obvious that this is a good strategy for survival in the Savannah. A chimpanzee that weighs 60 kilogrammes is estimated to be at least five times stronger than a human being weighing a equal weight.

Today big brains seem very advantageous because those big brains really paid off. Thanks to our big brains we have cars and guns so we can drive much faster than a chimpanzee can run and shoot a chimpanzee from afar. We are now much more powerful. But this is only today. Two million years ago, humans had very little advantage from their big brains, apart from the ability to make some flint knives and pointed sticks. The evolution of the human brain, and why it became so big, is one of the greatest mysteries in evolution.

The second defining characteristic is that all of humans walk upright on two legs. The advantages of walking upright are more obvious than the advantages of big brains. When walking on two legs it is much easier to scan the savannah in search of prey and predators. Moreover, after the hands are freed, they can be used for many other purposes, like signalling or throwing stones and sticks. Once the hands were free from walking, humans over generations evolved increasing concentrations of nerves and small finely tuned muscles in the palms and in the fingers, which enables humans to preform complicated delicate tasks with their hands like producing and using tools. The first evidence for humans producing and using tools dates back to about 2.5 million years ago in East Africa, which is the first sign that they are humans.

Everything in evolution comes with a cost. Walking upright also has its downsides. The first problem with walk upright is that the skeleton of our primate ancestors evolved for millions upon millions of years to support a creature that walked on all fours and had a relatively small head and brain. When humans moved to walking upright on just two legs, this created stress on the spine and on the skeleton, and on the muscles in general. The skeleton and the muscles evolved over the generations to do better, but it was never perfect. Even today, people still suffer a lot from back aches, stiff necks and all kinds of other problems in the skeleton and in the muscular system which result from a moving to an upright position.

Women paid extra. Hips have to be relatively narrow and close to one another in order to walk upright. This also means that the birth canal must be narrow while at the same time the brains and the heads of the babies became bigger. The solution to this problem that evolved by natural selection was to give birth to babies earlier. Women that gave birth earlier, when the child was still small, had a better chance of surviving and passing on their genes to the next generation. Humans are now born prematurely and many of the vital systems, especially the brain, are still underdeveloped at birth.

This had immense importance for the future of humankind and societies today. First of all, because human children are born prematurely, they need a lot of care and attention of many people. This is why humans evolved very strong social ties with one another. Natural selection favoured humans who are capable of forming strong social ties and living in tribes because this is essential for taking care of the babies. The second important impact is that humans can be educated and socialised to a far greater extent than any other animal. Most animals have fixed patterns of behaviour and limited learning capabilities. Children can socialised in various ways, and this is why today people can educate children to have different religions or views on life.

We tend to assume, that having a large brain, being able to produce and use tools, having a complex societies are huge advantages, and that it is obvious why humans became the most powerful and most important animals on Earth. Surprisingly, humans enjoyed all these advantages for more than two million years. During all these years, they remained weak and marginal creatures, without much impact on the environment. There were less than one million humans one million years ago and they were hunted by bigger animals such as lions, bears, and alligators. Humans themselves were not very good hunters.

Most humans subsisted by eating vegetable vegetable foods. Like nuts and fruits, and mushrooms, by hunting small animals like rabbits and frogs and turtles, and also by eating the leftovers of other animals such as lions. One of the most common uses of early stone tools was not to hunt animals but to crack open the bones of dead animals in order to get the marrow. Some researchers believe that eating marrow was the original niche, the original speciality of humans in the world. This was because after the lions had their fill, other scavengers like the hyenas and the wolves ate all the meat there was left. Only after they all have left, humans could pick up the bones.

Only about 400,000 years ago, several species of humans like Neanderthals began to hunt large animals on a regular basis. Only in the last hundred thousand years, with the rise of Homo Sapiens, did humans jump from the middle to the top of the food chain and became top predators of planet Earth. This spectacular leap had enormous consequences, not only in what people could eat and do, but also psychologically and socially. There was not enough time for the humans to adapt themselves to this new position. Many historical calamities, many things about the way that humans behave towards others and toward the environment, from the deadly wars between humans to the ways that people treat the ecosystem around them, result from this over-hasty jump.

1.3. The domestication of fire


A Brief History of Humankind: Lecture 1.3

Perhaps the first significant step on the way to the top was the domestication of fire. About 300,000 years ago humans like Neanderthals, and later homo sapiens, were using fire on a daily basis. Fire offered important advantages. It gave humans a source of light in darkness and a source of warmth in winter when it is cold. Fire also gave our ancestors the first really effective weapon against dangerous animals like lions and bears. A fire could also be used to start changing the environment. For example, people could use fire to burn down forests. Once the flames had died down humans could collect dead animals that were cooked in the fire and eat them.

Cooking was of immense importance. First of all, cooking made it possible to eat more types of food. There are many types of food humans cannot digest without cooking them, such as wheat, rice, and potatoes. Another advantage was that cooking kills germs and parasites that infest food, especially in meat. Another big advantage of cooking, is that it reduces the time that humans have to invest in chewing their food as well as the time and energy needed to digest food. Much of our digestion is actually done by fire. This means that humans in contrast for example, to chimpanzees, can survive with smaller teeth, less powerful jaws and shorter intestines.

The really big jump in the size of human brains came only in the last 300,000 to 400,000 years, with the appearance of species like the Neanderthals and sapiens. Many scholars believe that there is a direct link between the beginning of cooking, the shortening of the human intestines and the growth of the human brain. The two greatest consumers of energy in the body are the brain and the digestive system. Once the intestines are shortened because less intestines are needed to digest food, the way is opened for a really a big brain.

Many scholars believe that the first really significant gulf between men and all the other animals was the domestication of fire. The power of almost of the other animals in nature depends upon their body such as the strength of the muscles, the size of the teeth, and the breadth of the wings in case of birds. Some animals can harness natural forces, such as water currents and winds, to increase the power, but in such cases there is still a very close connection to the physical abilities of their bodies. For example, eagles can identify currents of hot air that can carry them upwards, but they cannot control the location and time of these hot air columns and the maximum carrying capacity is still proportional to their wingspan.

Unlike eagles, humans can choose when and where to ignite a fire. More importantly, the power of fire is not limited by the power of the body of the human who ignited it. A single woman who carries a torch or a flint can burn down an entire forest in a matter of hours. The domestication of fire was a sign of things to come. Fire made humans different from all the other animals, and more powerful. Even after the domestication of fire, humans were still not the most powerful animal in the world. The real jump to the top of the food chain had to wait a few hundred thousand years more until the appearance and the spread and the triumphs of sapiens.

1.4. The rise of Homo Sapiens


A Brief History of Humankind: Lecture 1.4

The real revolution in the status of humans came only after the appearance of Homo Sapiens. Our species evolved in East Africa between 200,000 and 300,000 years ago. Around 70,000 years ago, some of these sapiens left East Africa and reached the Middle East. From the Middle East they quickly spread over the Europe and Asia. When sapiens arrived in the Middle East, most of Europe and Asia were already populated by other humans, such as the Neanderthals, Homo Erectus, and Homo Soloensis. There are two conflicting theories about what happened to all the other human species.

According to the interbreeding theory, when sapiens spread into Neanderthal lands in the Middle East and Europe, they bred and the two populations merged. Similarly, according to the interbreeding theory, when sapiens reached China about 60,000 years ago, they met and bred there with the local population of Homo Erectus and Homo Denisova, and merged with them. If this is true then the only people who are really pure Homo Sapiens maybe Africans.

According to the replacement theory, there was no merger between Homo Sapiens and other human species. Sapiens and Neanderthals had different anatomies and most likely had different mating habits. Because Homo Sapiens and Neanderthals were different species, they were not able to produce fertile offspring, just like horses and donkeys. If this is the case then all living humans today, not just Africans, are pure Homo Sapiens.

The debate between these two theories is not only an academic debate. It also has very important political implications. If the replacement theory is correct and all humans today are the descendants of the same African ancestors then the differences between Africans, Europeans, Chinese and Aboriginal Australians are negligible. If the interbreeding theory is correct, then there are more significant genetic differences between races that may result in different physical and mental qualities. Scientists tended to prefer the replacement theory because it had firmer archaeological backing and also because it was more politically correct.

Recent research shows that about 4% of the unique human genes of modern people in the Middle East and Europe are actually Neanderthal genes. Also up to 6% of the unique human genes of modern Melanesians and Aboriginal Australians are Denisovan genes. If these results are valid then there were at least some sexual encounters between Homo Sapiens and other species of humans and they produced fertile offspring. There was no real merger between Homo Sapiens and other species as the percentage of genes from other species is relatively small. The different human species may have intermingled to a certain extent, but they remained distinct populations.

If the Neanderthals did not simply merge with Homo Sapiens, what happened to them? One possibility is that Neanderthals became extinct because Homo Sapiens outcompeted them. If sapiens had more sophisticated techniques of hunting and gathering than Neanderthals, this means that with time as the population grew, sapiens ate more of the food, whereas Neanderthals were left with less and less food and their population dwindled and eventually disappeared, except for perhaps a few Neanderthals that joined Homo Sapiens.

Another possibility is that the competition between sapiens and Neanderthal for the same food resources flared up into violence and war and genocide. This is quite a likely scenario because tolerance is not a human trademark. we do not know which of these possibilities is correct. In all likelihood it did not happen the same way in all the areas. In some areas, Homo Sapiens may have outcompeted the Neanderthals without using violence. In some other areas they may have used some violence. In other areas they may have used a lot of violence and they actually drove away or exterminated the Neanderthals by force.

The disappearance of the Neanderthals was one of the most important events in history. It changed the way that sapiens understand themselves, the place in the world, and the relations to all the other animals. It changed religion, society and politics. Homo Sapiens has grown so accustomed to being the only human specie around that, it's hard for us today even to conceive of any other possibility. The lack of brothers and sisters makes it very easy for us to imagine that we are the epitome of creation. When Charles Darwin in the 19th century indicated that Homo Sapiens is actually just another kind of animal, people were outraged.

We do not know for sure what happened. What we do know for sure is that, no sooner had sapiens arrived at a particular location on planet Earth, the native population of other human species went extinct. The last remains of Homo Soloensis on the island of Java dates to about 50,000 years ago, just when Homo Sapiens arrived there. Homo Denisova disappeared shortly thereafter about 40,000 years ago. The Neanderthals disappeared about 30,000 years ago. The last dwarfs vanished from Flores Island about 12,000 years ago.

2. The Cognitive Revolution

2.1. A sudden change


A Brief History of Humankind: Lecture 2.1

For more than 2 million years, Earth was populated by a number of human species. About 70,000 years ago, sapiens spread out of East Africa, settled the entire world, drove to extinction all the other human species, and became the most powerful animal on planet Earth. How did this happen? Homo Sapiens had been around for much more than 70,000 years and previous to that time did not do anything special. Homo Sapiens did not enjoy any marked advantage over the other human species. In fact, when some sapiens migrated to the Middle East about 100,000 years ago, they were driven back by the Neanderthals who lived there.

About 70,000 years, Homo Sapiens began doing very special things. The first indication is that some sapiens bands left Africa for a second time and migrated to the Arabian Peninsula in the Middle East. This time they drove all the other human species but from the face of the Earth. Within a remarkably short time, sapiens managed to settle not only the Middle East but also Europe, and Central Asia, and South Asia, and East Asia. Sapiens reached China and Korea about 60,000 years ago. About 45,000 years ago sapiens crossed the open sea and landed in Australia. About 15,000 years ago sapiens reached America.

These were extraordinary achievements because in order to reach Australia sapiens had to cross the ocean, and in order to reach America sapiens first had to find out how to survive in the very cold arctic climate of Northern Siberia and Alaska. In order to do this sapiens had to adapt very quickly in evolutionary terms to completely new ecological conditions. The same sapiens, who lived for 100,000 to 200,000 years in East Africa, and was well adapted to the climate of the African savannah, suddenly entered areas like Russia, India and New Guinea.

The second indication that something truly amazing was happening to Homo sapiens about 70,000 years ago, was the appearance of new technologies. One of the most important technologies that started appearing around 70,000 years ago is probably boats and other kinds of sailing craft. Around 45,000 years ago, sapiens reached the continent of Australia, which no previous human specie has managed to do. It was a very difficult to do because in order to reach Australia one had to cross the ocean. Most scholars estimate that around 45,000 years ago sapiens in Indonesia developed sailing craft and began developing a sea faring society.

Lionman from Germany
Lionman from Germany
Source: Wikimedia Commons
One of the most important inventions, which can be seen in the archaeological records from about 40,000 to 50,000 years ago, is the needle. Humans could make all kinds of cloth even before the invention of the needle. Neanderthals could kill a bear or a deer and take the skin to put it on them to to warm themselves. Once sapiens invented needles, they were able to make all kinds of new things, especially thermal clothes made from layers of fur and layers of skin sewn together, but also boots and tents. This was the key to the settlement of very cold areas like Siberia and Alaska.

Another interesting invention that people that sapiens probably made around that time is oil lamps. Small lamps made of stone or clay in which sapiens put the fat of animals that they hunted. This enabled them to crawl into caves and to produce cave paintings on the walls of the caves. From about 70,000 years ago onwards, there were also regular developments in other technologies like stone knives, spear points, hammers, and axes, every few hundreds or thousands of years. Up to about 70,000 years ago we find that humans like Neanderthals, Erectus, and also sapiens, were making exactly the same tools in exactly the same way for hundreds of thousands of years.

Beginning 70,000 years ago, there is the first evidence for art and for jewellery as well as the first evidence for trade between different bands. There is also the first evidence for complex societies comprising hundreds of people and not just dozens of people. There is the first evidence of religion, for example a remarkable ivory statue made by sapiens in Germany about 30,000 years ago. The body is human with a head of a lion. This is one of the earliest pieces of evidence, not only for art, but also for the ability of sapiens to imagine things that do not really exist.

Lion men only existed only in the fertile imagination of sapiens. What caused this wave of new inventions and changes, the sudden appearance of art and religion and the new political structures and the quick spread of sapiens over the entire world, the extinction of the other human species and the settlement of new territories like Australia and America? Most scholars believe that all these achievements were the result of a revolution in sapiens' cognitive abilities. Cognitive abilities are the abilities to communicate, remember, learn, and think. It seems that sapiens who lived 100,000 years ago in East Africa had more limited, cognitive abilities.

They could not talk and think like people today. They thought in some way but in a much more restricted and less sophisticated way than people today. The appearance of new ways of talking and thinking between about 70,000 and 30,000 years ago is called the Cognitive Revolution. It is the first big revolution of history and the revolution that started history. What caused this revolution? Most scholars believe that there must have been some relatively small change in the internal structure of the brain that led to all the big revolutions in sapiens' abilities. There is no hard evidence of this but it is the best idea available.

As far as we know it was be pure chance that might well have been the result of some tiny biological reaction in sapiens DNA that lead to the mutation. If this tiny biochemical reaction did not take place, then sapiens may well have remained insignificant animals to this day or the world today might have been governed by Neanderthals and sapiens would have become extinct. There is no clear theory about the biological factors that lead to the cognitive change.

2.2. The unique language of sapiens


A Brief History of Humankind: Lecture 2.2

The language of sapiens is not the only language in the world. Almost all animals have some kind of language. Even insects like bees and ants have a language. Animals can communicate about the whereabouts of food or enemies. Ants and bees can transmit all kinds of information using chemicals. Vocal language is also not unique to sapiens. Many animals such as monkeys have vocal languages. For example, green monkeys have a call that warns for a lion and another call that warns for an eagle. It is also not vocal abilities. Whales and elephants, for example, have more impressive vocal abilities than sapiens. What then is so special about our language?

There are several answers. The first answer is that sapiens' language is amazingly complex in the way that it can transmit information about the world. We can connect a limited number of sounds and signs in order to produce an infinite number of sentences, each with a distinct meaning. For example, green monkeys can tell one another be careful there is a lion nearby, but that is about it. A human can say I saw a big scary lion, tracking down a herd of bison.

A second theory agrees that the unique language of sapiens evolved as a means of sharing information about the world, but this theory emphasises that the most important information that humans in general, and sapiens in particular, conveyed to one another, is information about humans themselves. The second theory argues that the unique sapiens language has evolved in order to gossip. Homo Sapiens lives in groups so social cooperation is key for their survival and reproduction. If you want to stay alive and to have children, it is important to know what is happening in the band. Who in the band hates whom? Who is sleeping with whom? Who is honest?

If you go hunting, and a lion starts chasing you, you want to know who is likely to come to your assistance and who is likely to run away. Similarly, if two people in your band start fighting with each other, and both of them ask for your assistance, you have to decide who of them you are going to help. One of them may be nice and the other may be selfish and not a very nice guy, but the selfish one may be very well connected to the most influential people in the band. You have to make your calculations who to help in this situation, or perhaps to help nobody and just walk away.

In order to function in society, you need to have a large amount of information about fellow band members. Scientists have calculated that in a band of 50 people, there are about 1,225 one on one relationships. If you want to keep track of everybody in your band, who likes whom, who hates whom, who had a fight with whom, you need to keep a track record of 1,225 different relationships. There are also more complex relationships between three persons, four persons or more. This shows how much information we need in order to function well within even relatively small societies.

Other apes like chimpanzees, baboons and gorillas all show a very keen interest in social information, but they have trouble gossiping effectively because of the limitation of their language. Scholars think that Neanderthals and Homo Sapiens before the Cognitive Revolution were also very keenly interested in social information about band members, but because of the limitations of their language, they could not talk behind each other's backs. This made it difficult for them to live in large bands and to cooperate effectively with a large number of other individuals.

The new sapiens language that began to appear around 70,000 years ago enabled sapiens to gossip and to exchange information about what other people are doing and thinking. This gave sapiens reliable information about other people in society. This meant that sapiens could start living in larger bands and could start developing tighter and more sophisticated ways of cooperating with other people. Even today, the majority of human communication in the world is gossip. People talked about other people in the band, breaking the norms of doing what they should not do in order to be rid of them. 50,000 years ago, if nobody wanted to be your friend, you were as good as dead.

2.3. Fictive language


A Brief History of Humankind: Lecture 2.3

The truly unique feature of human language is not its ability to transmit information about lions or other people, rather, it is the ability to transmit information about things that do not exist at all. Legends, myths, gods, and religions appeared for the first time with the Cognitive Revolution. Thanks to the Cognitive Revolution, Homo Sapiens acquired the ability to say things like the lion is the guardian spirit of our tribe or there is a lion man spirit which is guarding our tribe. For example, you can never convince a monkey to give you a banana by promising that after it dies, it will go to monkey heaven. Only sapiens can believe such stories.

It may seem a disadvantage for sapiens as legends and myths can be dangerously misleading, while much time and effort can be spent on praying and dancing for a nonexistent guardian spirit. It may seem that this time could better be spent on doing something for survival or reproduction. But the fact is that fictive language has not been a disadvantage but the most important advantage of sapiens over other human species and animals. Fictive language is so important because it enables sapiens to imagine things collectively. Myth gave sapiens the unprecedented ability to cooperate flexibly in very large numbers.

The ability to cooperate flexibly with large numbers of individuals really made sapiens masters of the world. There are other species of animals that know how to cooperate with large numbers of individuals, such as ants and bees, but they do not have much flexibility in the way they cooperate. Their cooperation is based on their genetic code. Social animals like chimpanzees, elephants, wolves and dolphins can cooperate more flexibly, but they are unable to cooperate in very large numbers. Cooperation in a chimpanzee band, an elephant band or a wolf pack is based on intimate familiarity of the band members.

In order to understand the unique sapiens ability of cooperating flexibly with large numbers of strangers, a closer look at chimpanzees may provide more insights. Chimpanzees usually live in small troops of about several dozen individuals. They form close friendships and hunt together. The social structure within the chimpanzee band is often hierarchical. The dominant member of the band, who is almost always a male, is called the alpha male. Other males and females exhibit their submission to the alpha male by bowing before him while making grunting sounds, a bit similar to human subjects bowing before a king.

The alpha male usually strives to maintain social harmony within his troop, like a king maintaining harmony between his subjects. The alpha male might also monopolise particularly coveted pieces of food like government taking taxes. He also tends to prevent lower ranking males from mating with the females. Becoming an alpha male is not a question of physical strength alone. Alpha males gain the top position by building an extensive coalition of supporters in the group, both males and females. Ties between the coalition members are based on intimate daily contact. They hug each other, they touch, kiss, groom and take fleas from each other furs. They do each other mutual favours, just like human politicians, who before an election go around, shake hands, make deals and kiss babies.

Coalitions dominate not only the struggle for the top alpha position, but also many other aspects of a chimpanzee's daily life. There are still good relations, most of the time, between different coalitions, because the chimpanzees have to protect themselves against outside enemies. But within the group, members are friends with some and have more distant and colder relationships with others. There is a limit to the size of a group that can be maintained in such a way, because in order to function in a chimpanzee band, all members of the band must know each other intimately. Chimpanzee groups that have more than several dozen individuals tend to suffer from instability because the different chimpanzees do not know each other very well and have difficulty establishing a hierarchy.

Separate groups of chimpanzees seldom cooperate and tend to compete for territory and food. There have been cases of prolonged warfare between neighbouring groups of chimpanzees including a few instances of genocide. Similar patterns probably dominated the social lives of early humans including Homo Sapiens. Like the social instincts of chimpanzees, those of ancient humans were adapted only for small intimate groups. When the group grew too large, the social order was destabilised, and the group split. After the Cognitive Revolution, the ability to to gossip began to help homo sapiens to forge larger and more stable bands.

But even gossip has its limits. Sociological research has shown that the maximum natural size of a group which is bonded only by gossip is about 150 individuals. This is why even today, a critical threshold in human organisational abilities is somewhere around this magical number of 150. Below this number, communities, businesses, social networks, and military units can maintain order based mainly on intimate acquaintance between all the people involved and gossiping about about each other. There is no absolute need for the formal discipline, ranks and regulations.

The secret that enabled sapiens to go beyond the 150 individuals mark and establish cities, kingdoms, empires and churches, is fictive language. All large-scale human cooporations in the world, such as a modern state, a mediaeval church, an ancient city or an archaic tribe, are rooted in common fictions that exist only in the collective imagination of human beings. For example, churches are based on common religious beliefs. Two Catholics who never met before and do not know each other can nevertheless go together on crusade or pull funds and cooperate in order to build a hospital.

States are also rooted in common national myth. Two Japanese who never met before, might nevertheless risk their lives to save one another because both believe in the existence of the Japanese nation. Business corporations are rooted in common economic myth. For example, two employees of Google who never met before, can nevertheless combine their efforts to develop a new game or a new website, simply because they both believe in the existence of Google, in the existence of dollars, which is what Google is paying them for the job. Judicial systems are rooted in common legal myth. Two lawyers who never met before can neverthless combine efforts to defend a complete stranger because they both believe in the existence of laws.

None of these things exist outside the imaginary stories that people invent and tell one another. There are no nations, corporations, and money. There is no such thing as human rights and there are no laws, and there is no justice anywhere outside the common imagination of sapiens and the stories which we tell each other. The main difference between modern sorcerers like lawyers, and old tribal shamans is simply that modern lawyers tell far stranger stories than ancient shamans did. Tribal Shamans told stories about the ghosts of ancestors that may punish you if you did not behave. Modern lawyers tell that you should behave in a certain way otherwise a corporation like Google or Microsoft may punish you. These stories about Google or Microsoft are much more difficult to understand than the stories about ghosts.

2.4. Stories create reality


A Brief History of Humankind: Lecture 2.4

It is easy to understand that primitives tribes in the jungle thousands of year ago cemented their social order by believing in ghosts and spirits. What is much harder to appreciate is that modern institutions like corporations and governments function on exactly the same basis. One particular legend, the legend of Peugeot Company, can be used to provide more insight. The trademark of Peugeot Company is a lion walking on two legs, similar to the lionman from Stadel cave. According to Professor Harari, this similarity is not only in the trademark, but also in the way that the entire system functions.

Peugeot is one of the important and oldest car manufacturers in Europe. It began as a small family business around 1896 in the village of Valentigney in northeastern France. Today, Peugeot employs about 200,000 people that cooperate effectively so that Peugeot makes each year 1.5 million automobiles and billions of euros in revenues. What exactly is Peugeot? Peugeot is not the cars they make, not the factories, not the stockholders, not the management and not the employees of the company. A judge can pronounce a few magical words and the Peugeot Company will immediately disappear.

Peugeot is a fiction, something that humans invented, that exists only in our own imagination. It belongs to a particular kind of fictions, called limited liability companies. So what is a limited liability company? During most of history, property could only be owned by flesh and blood humans. Businesses were owned by people that were liable for all the risks. Their property could be confiscated if something went wrong. This made people afraid of opening new businesses. Unlimited liability was a big obstacle for entrepreneurship, so people began to collectively imagine the existence of limited liability companies.

A limited liability company is legally independent of the people who set them up, the people who invested money in them, and of the people who manage them. Over the last few centuries such limited liability companies have become the main players. We have become so accustomed to them that we forget that we invented them ourselves and that they exist only in our imagination. How exactly is such a company created? For example, how was Peugeot Company created? Armand Peugeot did roughly the same thing that shamans and priests and sorcerers have been doing for thousands of years. He told a story and convinced people to believe in the story.

For the, for the sake of comparison, consider the way in which Catholic priests create the body of Christ each Sunday in church during the ceremony of mass. How do Catholic priests create the flesh and blood of God each Sunday in church. According to Catholic dogma, which is a story, if a Catholic priest is dressed in all his sacred garments, stands in church on Sunday and carefully says the right words at the right moment, then normal bread and wine miraculously are transformed into the flesh and blood of Jesus Christ. The priest exclaims, hoc est corpus meum. It means this is my body and it refers to the body of Christ.

Peasants, who did not know Latin did not understand and it got jumbled in their minds to hocus pocus. This is the origin of the magical words hocus pocus that are used to transform one thing into another thing or to create new things. If you believe the story of Catholic dogma, then once the priest says hoc est corpus meum, you start to treat this piece of bread as if it was indeed the flesh of Christ. According to the story of business laws, if a certified lawyer follows all the proper rituals, writes all the necessary spells and oaths on a piece of paper, and places his signature at the bottom of the document, a corporation comes into being. So did Peugeot. If you believe business law, then you start treating Peugeot as if it really exists.

Telling effective stories like the stories of business law or Catholic dogma is not easy. The difficult thing is to convince everybody else to believe in this story. Much of human history revolves around the question of how to convince millions of people, who are strangers to one another, to believe the same stories about gods, limited liability companies, nations or human rights? When it succeeds, it gives sapiens immense power, because it enables millions of strangers to cooperate towards common goals. The kind of things that people create through all of these imaginary stories are known in academic circles as fictions, social constructs or imagined realities.

An imagined reality is not a lie. There is nothing special about lies. Green monkeys and chimpanzees can also lie. For example, scholars have documented cases where a green monkey saw another green monkey eating a banana. Because the monkey wants the banana, it makes a call signalling that there is a lion, even though he knows that there is no lion around, in order to make the other monkey flee and leave the banana behind. Unlike lying, an imagined reality is something that everybody believes in. As long as this common belief persists, the imagined reality is a real force in the world.

Armand Peugeot really believed in the existence of Peugeot company. The sculptor from Stadel cave, who made this ancient lion man 30,000 years ago, probably really believed in the existence of lion men spirits. Most sorcerers and priests believe in the existence of gods and daemons. Similarly, most human rights activists believe in the existence of human rights. As the centuries progressed, the imagined reality became more and more powerful. The ability to speak with others about things that do not really exist was of immense importance to sapiens. It enabled large numbers of strangers to cooperate flexibly.

2.5. Changing stories


A Brief History of Humankind: Lecture 2.5

The ability to speak about things that do not really exist, enabled sapiens to cooperate flexibly in large numbers. Since large scale cooperation between sapiens is based on stories, the way people cooperate and build their societies can be changed quickly by changing the stories. Under the right circumstances, stories can change dramatically within a few years. For example, in 1789, the French population switched almost overnight from believing in the story about the divine right of kings to believing in the story about the sovereignty of the people.

Ever since the Cognitive Revolution, Homo Sapiens has been able to change its social, economic, and political behaviour very rapidly in accordance with changing conditions and needs. This opened a kind of fast lane of cultural evolution, which enabled sapiens to bypass genetic evolution, which is very slow. Because of the fastness of cultural evolution, Homo Sapiens soon outstripped all the other human species and all the other animal species in its ability to cooperate and to accumulate power.

Animals such as monkeys can develop and transmit completely new ways of behaviour. But these things are relatively rare, and they usually happen only with relatively minor behaviours such as washing. The basic social patterns do not change, unless there is a change in the DNA or a dramatic change in the environment. For similar reasons, it is estimated by scholars that humans who lived hundreds of thousands of years ago did not initiate any social, political or cultural revolution. Changes in social patterns, the invention of new technologies, or settlement of alien habitats resulted either from genetic mutations or environmental pressures. For example, during the 1.5 million years Homo Erectus lived, Homo Erectus society and technology remained the same.

In contrast, ever since the Cognitive Revolution about 70,000 years ago, sapiens have been able to change their behaviour quickly without any need of genetic or environmental change. For example, the repeated appearance of childless elites in history such as the Catholic priesthood goes against the most fundamental principle of natural selection, since these dominant members of society willingly gave up procreation. They did gain their power by passing on the stories of the New Testament, Catholic law and the stories of saints from one generation to the next.

Sapiens can change the social structures, the nature of their relations, economic activities and politics and a host of other of other activities within a decade or two, just by telling new stories or changing the previous stories. For example, a woman born in Berlin, Germany, around 1900, who lived to the old age of 100, had been part of five different societies with their own stories, which are the second German empire, the Weimar Republic, Nazi Germany, the communist People's Republic of Germany and finally a liberal democratic reunited Germany. Her DNA did not change, only the stories that people around her told and believed in.

This was then fundamental to sapiens' success in the world. In a one on one fight, a Neanderthal would probably have defeated a sapiens, because one on one a Neanderthal was stronger, but Neanderthals were unable to cooperate effectively in large numbers and they could not adapt their social behaviour to rapidly changing conditions. Their inferior social skills manifested for example in trade and in hunting. Archaeologists have never found any evidence of trade between different Neanderthal bands. In contrast, archaeologists found clear evidence for trade in sites of Homo Sapiens from 30,000 years ago. And if sapiens were able to trade with their neighbours, they could also have traded in information.

Other differences manifested, for example in hunting techniques. Sapiens could hunt sometimes in very large bands whereas Neanderthals usually hunted individually or in very small numbers like three or four. Sapiens could arrange dozens or even hundreds of people to go on a hunting expedition. Archaeological evidence shows sapiens being able not only surround large herds of animal from all sides and butcher them, but also constructing sophisticated traps. They would spend days and weeks building fences and digging ditches to block escape routes. And then one day a large number of sapiens would drive herds of animals like horses or bison into the trap. The ability to cooperate in large numbers would also have served sapiens in conflicts with Neanderthals.

Before the Cognitive Revolution, sapiens was just another kind of animal. Everything that happened to sapiens and everything the sapiens did could very well be explained using the same biological models and theories used to explain what other animals do. From the Cognitive Revolution onwards, we need also to start taking into account all kinds of stories, ideas and religions, otherwise we can not understand what sapiens is doing. We need to start constructing historical narratives.

3. Daily Life in the Stone Age

3.1. The human way of life


A Brief History of Humankind: Lecture 3.1

In order to really understand how sapiens behave and think, you have to get inside the heads of stone age hunter-gatherers, because our species was shaped during the tens of thousands of years in which sapiens lived as hunter gatherers and not as peasants, industry workers or office workers. Only in the last 10,000 years were there any peasants, and only in the last 200 or 300 years do people start to live in large industrial cities. For most of the time sapiens lived like hunter gatherers. Their way of life shaped to a large extent the bodies and the minds which we still carry with us today.

Subconsciously, we still live in the stone age, even if the world around us is the industrial world of the 21st century. This is the basic argument of the field of study known as evolutionary psychology. In order to understand psychology today, we need to understand the evolutionary conditions that shaped this psychology. For example, our eating habits that are shaped by evolutionary pressures, have led to a plague of obesity in the affluent world. 50,000 years ago when sapiens was living in the savannah, it made sense to eat as much as possible when food was found because the next day it could be gone. People who did that, had the better chance of surviving and passing their genes on to the next generation.

Another example concerns sexual and family relations. This is a controversial issue. Some scholars believe that the ancient foragers lived in communes and not in nuclear families where people could have had sexual and romantic relations with several people at the same time. This was not promiscuous sex as these people lived in very small an intimate communities. In fact back then, people knew the other members of their band much better in some ways than people today know their spouses. People had a chance to see the others behave in very extreme conditions such as a mammoth hunt or a lion chasing them. Children were raised by the entire tribe.

The mothers were important as they suckled them but the concept of fatherhood did not exist as men could never be sure whether a child was theirs. Anthropologists have actually found some tribes today who believe in collective fatherhood. According to the belief of such people, a child could have more than one father. They believe that that when a child is growing in the womb of a woman, it can be nourished by the sperm of different men. when a woman was pregnant. The women have sex during their pregnancy with many men so the child that is growing in their womb would receive the good qualities from all kinds of men.

This school of evolutionary psychologists think that many of the problems in current sexual and family lives, such as high rates of infidelity, are the result of a mismatch between the biological programme and the actual conditions of our life today. Humans have been programmed to live in communes but society expects humans to live in a nuclear family with just two parents raising the children together.

Many scholars vehemently reject these ideas. They insist that the nuclear family and monogamy were an integral part of sapiens society tens of thousands of year ago. They argue that even though the bands of hunter gatherers 40,000 years ago were more communal than the way that humans live today, they had nuclear families composed of two parents raising their children together. In order to resolve this controversy, we need to have some hard evidence about how our ancestors actually lived tens of thousands of years ago. Unfortunately, there is little evidence on this matter.

The last main source of information we have in order to understand the lives of the ancient hunter gatherers is direct observation of modern hunter gatherers who survive in places such as Australia or the Kalahari desert until recent times and in some places even until this day. The most noticeable characteristic of hunter-gatherers, of hunter-gatherer societies is how different they are one from the other. Prior to the agricultural revolution, it is estimated that the world was populated by about 5 to 8 million hunter-gatherers who were probably divided into thousands of separate tribes, each with its own language and culture and religion and behaviour patterns.

Groups that lived in completely different ecological zones probably had different behaviour, but even two groups living in the same area under identical ecological conditions might have had very different societies, cultures and beliefs, thanks to the appearance of fictive language and the ability to create imagined realities. This implies that the heated debates about the natural way of life of Homo Sapiens missed the main point, which is that ever since the Cognitive Revolution, there has not been a single natural way of life. There are however some common characteristics that all hunter-forager societies shared.

3.2. Common characteristics


A Brief History of Humankind: Lecture 3.2

There are some generalisation which were probably true for at least most of ancient societies. The vast majority of people lived in small bands, each band numbering perhaps several dozen or at most several hundred individuals, and that all these individuals were humans. After the Agricultural Revolution, most members of human societies were not humans but domesticated animals. One important exception are dogs. The dog was the first animal that Homo Sapiens domesticated. When this first happened is not clear but about 15,000 years ago, domesticated dogs were already part of at least some human societies.
Dog skeleton in human tomb, Israel 10,000 BC
Dog skeleton in human tomb, Israel 10,000 BC

For example, a tomb from about 12,000 ago that archaeologists found in Northern Israel contains the skeleton of a 50 years old woman next to the skeleton of a small puppy. Dogs were used for hunting and as an alarm system against enemies and intruders, both human enemies and all kinds of dangerous animals. When the band went to sleep at night, it could rely on the dogs to sound the alarm.

Wolves hardly bark at all but dogs bark quite often. Scholars estimate that one of the selection pressures for dogs was whether they were serving as a good alarm system or not. Dogs that barked received most of the food and care so the genes of dogs that barked were passed on to the next generation. Over the generations, mutual bonds of understanding and affection developed between dogs and people.

Dogs who were good at manipulating humans by being very cute and demanding attention and food were the dogs who survived. Dogs and humans learned how to understand each other, how to communicate one with the other, and how to manipulate one another. Not only humans learned how to manipulate dogs, but dogs also learn how to manipulate humans.

Another thing that characterised the human bands was a high level of intimacy. Members of a band knew each other very intimately, and were surrounded throughout their lives by friends and relatives. Neighbouring bands could sometimes compete for resources and even fight one another, but they also had all kinds of friendly contacts. Several bands might combine efforts for a big hunt. Different bands traded some items, especially luxury items. They might have come together a few times a year to celebrate common religious festivals. Such cooperation in the economy, politics, and religion gave sapiens a crucial advantage over the other human species.

Most human bands lived in a particular territory but not in one place. Their movements were dictated by the changing of the seasons. For instance, bands that hunt deer follow the migration of deer. Also the growth cycles of plants influenced human migration. There were some exceptional cases when food sources were very plentiful in a particular area that bands could settle down, most notably alongside seas and oceans and rivers or lakes. These were the first permanent settlement in history long before the Agricultural Revolution. Fishing villages might have appeared on the coast of Indonesian islands as early as 45,000 years ago. Gathering was more important than hunting. Most of the calories were obtained from gathering mainly vegetable foods, and also most of the raw materials came from gathering stones and sticks.

Survival under such conditions depended on superb physical and mental skills. The constant usage of their bodies to climb trees, to chase after rabbits and to escape from tigers, gave our ancestors the kind of physical dexterity that most people today are unable to achieve. Hunter-gatherers also needed very good mental abilities and a lot of knowledge. They needed to know their home territory very well, including the locations of different food sources and materials, the behaviours of animals. They also needed technical skills to make a stone knifes, to mend a torn cloths, and to prepare traps for rabbits or mammoths. They also needed survival skills, like how to escape from avalanches, from snakes, and what do if they encountered a lion. Mastery of these skills required years upon years of apprenticeship and practise.

Today most people in industrial societies do not need to know a lot in order to survive. They only need to know a lot about their own field of expertise. Most people do not know how to grow wheat or how to harvest it or how to even cook it. They do not know how to make their clothes or their shoes. There is some evidence that the average size of sapiens' brain has been decreasing gradually since the Agricultural Revolution, when people started to live as peasants and later as workers and city dwellers. When agriculture and industry came along, people could increasingly rely on the skills of complete strangers for their survival. You could survive in a big city just by working a machine in the factory. In an agricultural village, you could be the village idiot who survives by carrying water in buckets from the river.

The hunter-gatherers not only were more skillful and more knowledgeable, in many respects they also had a better life than the peasants and labourers who came later. Today, people in affluent societies work on average about 40 to 45 hours a week. People in developing countries often work 50 to 80 hours each week. Hunter-gatherers seem to have worked on average 35 to 45 hours each week. On average, it was enough to go hunting one out of three days, and to go gathering food just three to six hours a day. On top of that, they also enjoyed a lighter load of household jobs. There was little cleaning and washing to do.

The hunter-gatherer economy was characterised not only by the fact that people had to work less, but also by the fact that most people had more interesting careers as hunters and gathers than later on peasants or workers in industry. Imagine the daily life of a Chinese factory worker today. She lives somewhere in China, for example Shanghai. She leaves home around seven in the morning. She needs one hour to make her way through all the polluted streets on buses until she reaches her workplace, some dreary sweatshop where they produce shoes. In the sweatshop she operates the same machine in the same way, day after day for say ten long hours. When she reaches home at seven in the evening, she has to wash the dishes and do the laundry and take care of the baby.

Now, 30,000 years ago and see how a Chinese forager might have lived back then. She might have left camp with her companions at eight o'clock in the morning. They would go together to move around in the nearby forests and swamps to gather mushrooms, to find all kinds of fruits that they can eat and to catch frogs or fish. By early three o'clock in the afternoon, this group of gatherers they would be back at camp to share the food they gathered and to make lunch. That left them plenty of time afterwards to gossip and tell stories and to play with the children or just to hang out and do nothing in particular. It was not an ideal lifestyle. Tigers sometimes caught them or snakes sometimes bite them.

It is estimated that foraging not only was more interesting than working in the factory but it also provided people with better nutrition than industry or agriculture. Evidence from fossilised skeletons this archaeologist have found indicate that ancient foragers were less likely to suffer from starvation or for malnutrition and were generally taller and healthier than the peasants who came after them. Average life expectancy was about 30 to 40 years, but this was the same as the average life expectancy 200 years ago in the world. This relatively short life expectancy was due largely to the high level of child mortality. People that survived the dangerous years of childhood had a pretty good chance of living to be 70.

Foragers enjoyed a varied diet, whereas peasants suffered from an unbalanced diet, especially in pre-modern times. Most of the calories feeding the peasants usually came from just one or two crops, like wheat, potatoes or rice. When most of your food comes from a single source, you are not getting all the vitamins, minerals and all the other nutritional materials that the human body needs. In southern China, peasants have been eating rice for breakfast, for lunch and for dinner for thousands of years. In Mexico, peasants were eating maize for breakfast for lunch and for dinner. In the Middle East it was wheat. In contrast, the ancient foragers in most areas of the world ate dozens of different food stuffs. This variety of food and gave the foragers all the necessary vitamins and minerals and other nutrients.

By not being dependent on a single kind of food, the foragers were protected from all kinds of calamities which could hit a particular source of food. In agricultural societies there sometimes was famine because of drought or fire that destroy the crops. Then an agricultural society could starve because there was nothing else to eat. Hunter-gatherers could also move to another location if food was scarce. Foragers also suffered less from infectious diseases. Most of the infectious diseases that have plagued human societies from the cultural revolution onwards, like smallpox or measles or tuberculosis, originated in domesticated animals.

Another reason why the foragers were less affected by infectious diseases is that they lived in small bands roaming around the country. Cities became ideal hotbeds for infectious diseases because people lived together with their garbage, toilets, pigs, horses and cattle. Foragers did not stay in one place, close to the toilets and the garbage. The wholesome and varied diet of the ancient foragers, the relatively short working week, and the rarity of infectious diseases. have led many experts to define pre-agricultural forager societies as the original affluent society.

It would be a mistake to focus only on these good aspects and to idealise the the lives of of the ancient foragers. The were periods of difficulties and hardship and child mortality was very high. Accidents such as falling from a tree could easily become a death sentence because there was no good medical care. Most people probably enjoyed the close intimacy of the small band but if other people for some reason did not like you or your behaviour, they could make your life hell. It is also likely that at least some bands suffered from high levels of violence. It is best neither to demonise nor to idealise the lives of the ancient foragers.

3.3. Spiritual beliefs


A Brief History of Humankind: Lecture 3.3

Not much is known about the beliefs of ancient foragers because they did not leave much evidence such as writing. Most scholars nevertheless agree, that animistic beliefs were common among ancient foragers, and are the basis for most of their religions and world view. Animism is the belief that the world is full of animated beings who can communicate with one another directly. Animists believe that almost every place, every animal, and every plant has an awareness, feelings and emotions. For example, animists may believe that a big rock at the top of the hill has feelings, desires, and needs. The rock might be angry about something that people did. The rock might ask people to do something or people might come to the rock and ask the rock to do something for them.

Animists believe that there is no barrier between humans and other beings. They also think that there are immaterial entities, such as fairies, demons, and angels. Animists believe that you can communicate directly in speech, song, dance or ceremony with the wolves, clouds, rivers, and rocks. A hunter that goes hunting deer may address the herd of deer and ask that one of them be willing to sacrifice itself and to be hunted. If the hunt succeeds, the hunter may ask the forgiveness of the dead animal, so that the spirit of the dead animal will not be angry and cause damage later on to the hunter. If somebody in the band falls sick, the shaman, who is the person most proficient in talking with spirits, may contact the spirit who caused the sickness and try to either pacify it or to scare it away.

What differentiates animism from later religions, is that the entities addressed are local beings. They can be a particular tree, rock, wolf, cloud or demon. They are not great gods and there is no strict hierarchy in the world. Non-human entities like trees or elephants do not exist to provide for human needs and desires. Humans are not above them but in a similar position to them. The animist world revolves around communication between a lot of entities, which all of them have relatively similar status. Animism is not a specific religion. It is a generic name for thousands upon thousands of very different religions, cults, and beliefs. They all share the idea that there is no hierarchy and that there is direct communication with all the other entities.

In the last few thousands of years there have been many groups of people who shared a common belief in great gods. They are called theists. Examples of theist religions are the Greek pagan religion, the Hindu religion, Islam and Judaism. They all approach the world with the basic understanding that there is a hierarchy in the world, in which the single god or a few great gods are at the top, while humans and other entities are a subject to them. Most cultures after the agricultural revolution in the last thousands of years were theist but they were very diverse and included for example Roman legionnaires, Muslim Sufi mystics from 12th century Iran, Viking warriors from 10th century Scandinavia, Protestant Puritans from 17th century England and Jewish Rabbis from 18th century Poland.

Painting from Lascaux Cave, France
Painting from Lascaux Cave, France
Very little is known about animist beliefs. There are some pieces of evidence, like cave art, jewellery and statues, but unfortunately, in almost all cases, this is not enough evidence to reconstruct from it the world views of ancient people. The famous cave painting from the Lascaux Cave in France was made by people who lived there about 15,000 to 20,000 years ago. Some scholars argue that this painting depicts a man with the head of a bird and an erect penis being killed by a bison. There is another bird under the man.

These scholars also argue that the bird symbolises the soul, and that the people who painted this cave art 20,000 years ago believed in souls, and that they represented the soul with the shape of a bird. The painting depicts the soul being released from the body at the moment of death. This is why it goes through the head, and this is why the head is the head of a bird, because the soul is emerging from the head at the moment of death, and being released to its next incarnation.

Venus of Willendorf
Venus of Willendorf
According to these scholars, the picture does not depict a hunting accident, but rather the passage from this life to the next life. This is an interesting and imaginative theory, but there is absolutely no way of knowing whether any of these speculations are true. There is even no certainty about what is depicted in the picture, let alone about the meaning. There is no evidence such as a written record from people who lived 20,000 years ago that state that the soul is like a bird or something like that.

The famous statue called the Venus of Willendorf was made by people who lived in Austria 20,000 to 25,000 years ago. Many similar statues have been found all over Europe, Russia, and other places, made from all kinds of materials like clay, stone and ivory. There are no similar statues of men. Some scholars think that those statues are depictions of some great mother goddess. They believe that ancient foragers believed in the predominance of the maternal feminine element, that they worshiped femininity and women, and that they lived in matriarchal societies.

Hand imprints in the Cave of the Hands, Argentina
Hand imprints in the Cave of the Hands, Argentina
There are other explanations for these statues. Some scholars say that these statues are actually proof of a patriarchal society and that these statues are a relic to the male obsession with the female body and female fertility. They represent an ancient attempt by men to control female sexuality in a society dominated by men. Other scholars argue that these statutes are simply ancient pornography. There is no evidence supporting any of the positions as there are no written records from 20,000 years ago of the people who made these statues.

Argentina hosts a famous collection of hand imprints that hunter gatherers made 9,000 years ago on the walls of a cave, called the Cave of the Hands.Different people as there are many different hands on the wall. Scholars do not have a clue about its meaning but there are all kinds of theories. Instead of building theories on the basis of very flimsy evidence, the best course of action may be to be frank and to admit that we have only a very hazy notion about the religions of ancient foragers.

3.4. Politics and warfare


A Brief History of Humankind: Lecture 3.4

Not much is known about politics and warfare tens of thousands of years ago. There is little evidence to support theories that currently exist. Scholars cannot even agree on the most basic issues such as whether people had private property or whether they had nuclear families and monogamous relationships. From time to time, archaeologists do come across some rich findings that shed some more light on the world of the stone age. One of the most remarkable findings of the last few decades was made at Sungir, Russia. There, Russian archaeologists have uncovered a 30,000 year old burial site belonging to a society of mammoth hunters.

Sungir burial site, Russia
Sungir burial site, Russia
In one grave in this burial site, they discovered the skeleton of a 50 year old man which was covered with strings of ivory beads, in total 3,000 beads made from the ivory of mammoth. On the head of the dead man, there was a hat decorated with the teeth of fox. On his hand he wore 25 ivory bracelets. The same site also contained skeletons of people but with far fewer decorations and far fewer grave goods.

Scholars concluded that the Sungir mammoth hunters probably lived in a hierarchical society with the big chief, and that the dead man was probably a leader, not just of one band, but of an entire tribe comprising several different bands, because it is unlikely that a few dozen members of a single band could have produced so many grave goods by themselves.

The other tombs contained two skeletons buried head to head one, one against the other. One skeleton belonged to a boy of the age of around 12 and the other skeleton belonged to a girl of about 10 years old. The boy was covered with about 5,000 ivory beads of the same kind like as the chief. The boy wore on his head a hat decorated with dozens of teeth of foxes. The boy also wore a belt studded with 250 teeth of foxes. At least 60 foxes had to have their teeth pulled out in order to get so many teeth. The girl was covered with equally amazing and rich offerings. She was covered with about 5250 ivory beads and all kinds of other jewellery. Both children were surrounded by ivory statues and other kinds of delicate and interesting objects.

Fashioning only the 10,000 ivory beads that cover the two children, without the fox teeth and statues, required about 7,500 hours of delicate work of a very experienced craftsman. It is extremely unlikely that at a such a young age, those children of Sungir had proved themselves as big chiefs or powerful hunters. Only cultural beliefs can explain why they received such an extravagant burial.

One theory is that the children were the children of the chief in a culture that believed in family charisma and strict rules of succession. According to a second theory, the children had been identified at birth as the reincarnation of some long dead spirits. A third theory states that the children were buried in such a magnificent fashion because of the way they died. They may have been ritually sacrificed.

The children of Sungir are among the best pieces of evidence we have that 30,000 years ago sapiens could invent social political codes that went far beyond the dictate of our DNA and the behavioural patterns of other humans and other animals species. The burial at Sungir is also a clear indication that at least in some bands there were hierarchies and that social inequality already existed 30,000 years ago.

Also not much is known about warfare. The main question is whether warfare was also an ancient institution among sapiens or that it is a relatively new phenomenon. There are different schools of thoughts and many theories. Some scholars imagine that ancient forager societies were kind of peaceful paradise and they argue that war and violence between people on a large scale began only with agricultural revolution when people started to accumulate private property such as houses, livestock and fields. Other scholars maintain that the world of the ancient foragers was actually exceptionally cruel and violent, and that warfare as well as large scale violence are not the result of agriculture. Both schools of thought have very little evidence to support their arguments.

The anthropological evidence is far richer but it is very problematic also. Foragers today live mainly in isolated and inhospitable areas such as the Arctic or the Kalahari Desert where the population density is very low so there is little potential for conflict. They are also subject to the authority of modern states that do not like bands of people fighting each other within their borders. Anthropologists had only two opportunities to observe a large and relatively dense population of foragers who were independent of the control of modern states. One was in Northwestern North America and the second was in North Australia during the nineteenth and early twentieth century. The second time was in North Australia during the nineteenth and early twentieth century.

In both cases, anthropologists found that there was a relatively high frequency of armed conflict between the different bands. This supports the idea that warfare has been common among humans and among sapiens long before agriculture. This is not conclusive evidence because 40,000 years ago the situation may have been different. The archaeological evidence is meagre and ambivalent. There is no clear evidence for large scale violence between humans from more than about 20,000 years ago. From about 20,000 years ago and until the agricultural revolution there is still there 10,000 years of hunter gatherer life, from which there is much more evidence. From this era, there is evidence for different patterns.

For example, scientists studied 400 skeletons found in Portugal from the period immediately before the agricultural revolution. Only two of these 400 skeletons showed clear marks of human violence such as an arrowhead embedded in a human bone. A similar survey of 400 skeletons from the period immediately before the agricultural revolution in Israel discovered only a single crack in a single skull that could be attributed to human violence. This does not mean that there was little violence because there are ways of killing that do not leave traces for archaeologists to discover, for example slitting somebody's throat.

A third survey of 400 skeletons from pre-agricultural sites in was made of the valley of the Danube river in central Europe. There scientists found clear evidence for violence on 18 skeletons out of 400. This may not seem a lot but it is a high percentage of 4.5%. Today the global average is only 1.5% including all wars and all crimes. During the 20th Century, which was much more violent with genocides and world wars, 5% of death is the result of human violence. At Jebel Sahaba in Sudan, archaeologists found a cemetery containing 59 skeletons from 12,000 years ago, just before the agricultural revolution. 24 out of these 59 skeletons had arrowheads or spear points stuck in them.

In the Ofnet Cave in Bavaria, archaeologists discovered the remains of 38 people, mainly women and children who were all thrown together into two burial pits. Half the skeletons, including those of children and babies, bore clear signs of human weapons such as knives and clubs. The few skeletons which belonged to older males bore the worst marks of violence on them. The men may have tried to defend the band but failed and then everybody was massacred by enemies.

There are different kinds of evidence from that period. The question is which evidence is more important or representative? Just as foragers exhibited a wide spectrum of religions and social structures, so too, they probably had a variety of violence rates. We can know almost nothing about the world of ancient foragers. It is very difficult to reconstruct even the general patterns of their lives. All the time, scholars develop new kinds of research methods and come up with new kinds of evidence. For example, in the last 15 years there has been a great revolution in the study of ancient foragers with help of genetic evidence. This may help to solve the question whether they were monogamous or lived in communes.

Science is built not only on knowledge, it is also built on ignorance. We must remind ourselves how very little we actually know about the history of our species of Homo Sapiens. History has been going on for 70,000 years since the cognitive revolution. About the first 60,000 years of history, we know very little. And these 60,000 years were extremely important because during that time, the foragers shaped to a very large extent, not only the bodies and minds, which we still carry today, but also they shaped the world around us. There is hardly a place in the world, except perhaps Antarctica, which was not reshaped by the ancient foragers long before the agricultural revolution. Foragers brought profound changes to the ecology everywhere they came.

4. The Human Flood

4.1. The first significant feat


A Brief History of Humankind: Lecture 4.1

There is much more information about the relations between sapiens and the rest of the ecological system. Homo Sapiens became the most important factor in the ecology of planet Earth long before the agricultural revolution. The sea barrier prevented not just humans but also many other Afro-Asian animals and plants from reaching Australia, America, Madagascar and Hawaii. Also none of the archaic human species before Homo Sapiens Had the ability to cross the open sea. For tens of millions of years there were different separated ecological systems in those areas. Animals and plants evolved in each of these places without much connection to with what was happening meanwhile in other areas of the world.

One of the main processes of history is the unification of the entire planet into a single ecological unit by Homo Sapiens. Homo sapiens began to forge connections between the animals of Australia, Africa, Asia, and America by moving them from place to place. This begun already shortly after the cognitive revolution when sapiens acquired for the first time the technology, the organisational skills and perhaps even the vision necessary to breakout off the Afro-Asian landmass and began to explore and settle these areas of the outer world. The first time this happened was about 45,000 years ago in Australia.

Experts today are very hard pressed to explain these amazing feat. How could ancient sapiens cross open stretches of sea of 100 or 150 kilometres and how did they manage to adapt themselves almost overnight to a completely new ecological system? Knowing the world of animals and plant was vital for being able to survive. The most reasonable theory suggests that about 45,000 years ago, sapiens living in the islands of Indonesia, developed the first seafaring societies. They learned how to build an manoeuvre ocean going vessels, and became fishermen, long distance explorers, and traders. These skills enabled the ancient Indonesians of about 45,000 years ago to reach and settle Australia.

Homo Sapiens is basically an African ape who evolved for millions of years in order to adapt to life on land, and suddenly within a few thousand years it developed societies that live by building boats and going overseas to fish and trade. This is something without precedent on Earth. There are examples of sea creatures which evolved to become land creatures and vice versa. For example, the ancestors of dolphins and whales were land creatures that evolved to live in the ocean. This took millions of years of evolution. For sapiens it took just a few thousand years without any changes in the body. Humans developed seafaring societies that are not based on new genes, but on new technological abilities and new social skills.

The journey of the first humans to Australia is not only remarkable from therefore from an evolutionary perspective, but also from an historical perspective. Of even greater importance was what the human pioneers in Australia began to do in this new world. In Australia Homo sapiens climbed from the middle to the top of the food chain and became the deadliest specie in the annals of planet Earth. Up until their landing in Australia, humans have shown showed a remarkable ability to adapt themselves to different environments, but their impact upon the environment was negligible.

The settlers of Australia began to transform the Australian ecosystem beyond recognition. Australia 50,000 years ago was full of large and strange creatures, for example a giant kangaroos, giant koalas, flightless bird twice the size of an ostrich, and diprotodons that weighted about two and a half tonnes. Within a few thousand years of the arrival of sapiens, twenty three out of these twenty four large species became extinct. The only one that managed to survive the arrival of sapiens is the red kangaroo. At the same time a large number of smaller species also disappeared. Food chains throughout the entire Australian continent were completely changed and rearranged.

After millions of years of continuity, there was a sudden big break 45,000 years ago. Some scholars put the blame on climate change, but there is very strong evidence that implicates Homo Sapiens in the extinction. The big question is how a relatively small number of hunter gatherers 45,000 years ago with technology of the stone age managed to cause such a huge ecological catastrophe? The extinction of the Australian big animals was the first significant mark that Homo sapiens left on planet Earth There are several explanations that together give a relatively complete picture of this ecological disaster.

The first explanation is that large animals breed slowly. The number of offspring per pregnancy is very low, usually just one among the very big animals, and there are long breaks Between pregnancies. Consequently, even if sapiens killed just one diprotodon every few months, it would have been enough to cause the number of death diprotodons to outnumber the number of births. This was enough to drive the diprotodons to extinction.

The second explanation is that humans also had the element of surprise on their side. In Africa and Asia, humans long before sapiens evolved slowly and gradually over hundreds of thousands of years and acquired better hunting skills. Because it happened very slowly and gradually, the animals that humans hunted in Africa and Asia, like the giraffes and the bison, gradually learned to be afraid of humans. When finally the new mega predator Homo sapiens appeared on the Afro-Asian scene, the large animals of Africa and Asia and Europe already knew to keep their distance. In contrast, the Australian giants had no time to learn to run away from humans that did not look dangerous.

The third explanation is fire agriculture, which is using fire to reshape the environment to fit your needs better. Sapiens burnt down vast areas of thickets and dense forests in which they had difficulty moving and hunting. This opened the way for the growth of open grasslands in which it was easier to move around for sapiens. There is evidence for this. Until about 45,000 years ago, eucalyptus trees were quite rare in Australia. They became very wide-spread only after sapins arrived and began to burn down large forests and woods. Eucalyptus trees are more resistant to fire than most other kinds of trees.

Another explanation is that, in addition to hunting and fire agriculture, climate also played a significant role in this in this drama. There was some kind of climate change in Australia about 45,000 years ago. It destabilised the ecological system and made it particularly vulnerable. Under normal circumstances, the ecological system could have recuperated. The diprotodon, for example, lived in Australia for more than a million years and survived many changes in the climate. But 45,000 years ago, sapiens appeared on the stage at exactly this critical junction when the ecosystem was in trouble. Lacking further evidence, it is hard to decide which of these factors is the most important.

4.2. Waves of extinction


A Brief History of Humankind: Lecture 4.2

The second really important thing that humans did was arriving at the continent of America around 14,000 BC. This resulted in an even larger ecological disaster. The first Americans arrived on foot because at the time sea levels were low enough so that a land bridge connected North Eastern Siberia with North Western Alaska. Sapiens arrived in Alaska probably in pursuit of large game animals such as mammoth and reindeer. From Alaska humans later spread down the continent of America. They soon adjusted themselves to an amazing variety of climates and habitats. They settled the swamps of the Mississippi Delta, the deserts of Mexico, the jungles of Central America, and the open Pampas of Argentina within about just 2,000 years.

The lightning speed spread across America testifies to the incomparable ingenuity and unsurpassed adaptability of Homo sapiens because no other animal had ever moved into such a huge variety of radically different habitats so quickly. It happened without undergoing any significant genetic mutation and evolution. There are types of animals which you can find in all of these various habitats such as ants. Ants in the deserts of Mexico are different from ants in the delta of the Mississippi or from the ants in the Pampas of Argentina. It took millions of years for ants to enter all these different places.

Before humans came to North America there were mammoth and mastodons, which were big species of elephants. There were rodents with the size of bears, oversized lions, fearsome saber tooth tigers, herds of horses and camels in the Great Plains and many species of giant grand sloth, that weighed up to eight tonnes and reached heights of up to six metres. Most of the unique species of large animals in America disappeared. According to current estimates, within a short interval of 1,000 to 2,000 years, North America lost about 34 out of 47 genera of large mammals. Each of the genera consisted of several species and they all disappeared after the arrival of Homo Sapiens.

Also thousands of smaller species, of smaller mammals, reptiles, birds, even insects and parasites went extinct. For example, when the mammoth died out, all species of mammoth's parasites, like mammoth's fleas and mammoth's ticks followed the mammoth to oblivion. The creatures which were closest to Homo Sapiens, the terrestrial large mammals, suffered the hardest hit. At the time of the Cognitive Revolution planet Earth was home to about 200 genera of large terrestrial mammals weighing more than 50 kilogrammes. At the time of the Agricultural Revolution, only about 100 genera survived. This means that Homo sapiens drove to extinction about half of the planet's big terrestrial mammals long before the invention of the wheel or the iron tools.

The extinction of many different species in a short time happened on a more limited scale countless times after the agricultural revolution. It happened on many islands, for example on Madagascar. It was disconnected from the African mainland. For millions of years the world evolutionary processes on Madagascar, isolated from all the rest of the world, which produced a very unique collection of animals, most notable among them was the elephant bird. It was a flightless bird that was three metres tall and weighed about 500 kilogrammes. Also notable were the giant lemurs which were the globes largest primates ever. Around 500 AD, precisely when humans arrived to Madagascar, those animals disappeared.

Similar extinctions occurred on almost every one of the thousands of islands that you can find in the Pacific ocean, the Atlantic ocean, the Indian ocean, the Mediterranean, even the Arctic ocean. Archaeologists have discovered on even the tiniest island, evidence for the existence of birds, insects, and snails that lived there for millions of years, only to vanish when the first human set foot on that island. The first wave of extinction accompanied the spread of the hunter gatherers tens of thousands of years ago. The second wave of extinction accompanied the spread of farmers to islands like Madagascar. This gives an important perspective about the third wave of extinction today due to the spread of industry around the world.

There were previous cases of mass extinction of animals. The most famous happened 65 million years ago, when an asteroid hit Planet Earth, and caused the extinction of the dinosaurs and many other animals, but it never happened before that a single animal species was responsible for the extinction of dozens or hundreds or thousands of other species. The biblical story of Noah and his ark tells that Noah saved all the animal species from the flood, but the true story is that the flood is Homo Sapiens that drove so many animals into extinction. And the only animals that we take into our ark to save them are the pigs, the horses, the chickens, the cattle, and the sheep, which we need for our own use.