“On a hike in East Africa 2 million years ago, you might well have encountered a familiar cast of human characters: anxious mothers cuddling their babies and clutches of carefree children playing in the mud; temperamental youths chafing against the dictates of society  and weary elders who just wanted to be left in peace; chest-thumping machos trying to impress the local beauty and wise old matriarchs who had already seen it all. These archaic humans loved, played, formed close friendships and competed for status and power – but so did chimpanzees, baboons and elephants. There was nothing special about humans. Nobody, least of all humans themselves, had any inkling that their descendants would one day walk on the moon, split the atom, fathom the genetic code and write history books. The most important thing to know about prehistoric humans is that they were insignificant animals with no more impact on their environment than gorillas, fireflies or jellyfish.”

Sapiens. A brief history of humankindSo writes Yuval Noah Harari in the opening pages of Sapiens: A Brief History of Humankind. And he goes on to decode the indomitable rise of this insignificant species to being the demigods of the earth. Sapiens was first published in Hebrew in 2011. It was released in English in 2015 and has since been translated into 65 languages. It is a New York Times best-seller, appearing for 182 weeks (as of May 2022) including 96 consecutive weeks. The Guardian listed the book as among the ten “best brainy books of the decade”. The British daily, The Times, also gave the book a rave review, “Sapiens is the kind of book that sweeps cobwebs out of your brain”. The Indian edition of the book is about 500 pages (the foreign edition somewhat slimmer) and it makes for a riveting albeit somewhat lengthy read.

Homo sapiens, literally means ‘the species’ or sapiens (wise) of the genus Homo (man). A substantial part of the opening chapter is dedicated to proving just how ordinary and insignificant we have been to begin with. “Homo sapiens, too, belongs to a family. … Like it or not, we are members of a large and particularly noisy family called the great apes. Our closest living relatives include chimpanzees, gorillas and orang-utans. The chimpanzees are the closest. Just 6 million years ago, a single female ape had two daughters. One became the ancestor of all chimpanzees, the other is our own grandmother.”

Not only were Homo sapiens insignificant among other species of animals, we were also insignificant among other species of humans. “The truth is that from about 2 million years ago until around 10,000 years ago, the world was home, at one and the same time, to several human species. And why not? Today there are many species of foxes, bears and pigs. The earth of a hundred millennia ago was walked by at least six different species of man. It’s our current exclusivity, not that multi-species past, that is peculiar – and perhaps incriminating.” How then, did we humans become the demigods that we are today?

The beginning of the ascent

It all started around 70,000 years ago, when researchers believe, the cognitive abilities of the Sapiens underwent some kind of revolution. “Around that date Sapiens bands left Africa for a second time. This time they drove the Neanderthals and all other human species not only from the Middle East, but from the face of the earth. Within a remarkably short period, Sapiens reached Europe and East Asia. About 45,000 years ago, they somehow crossed the open sea and landed in Australia – a continent hitherto untouched by humans. The period from about 70,000 years ago to about 30,000 years ago witnessed the invention of boats, oil lamps, bows and arrows and needles (essential for sewing warm clothing). The first objects that can reliably be called art date from this era as does the first clear evidence for religion, commerce and social stratification.” This constitutes what is widely known as the Cognitive Revolution. No one’s sure what caused it but it is widely believed to be some accidental genetic mutation of the brains of Sapiens, “enabling them to think in unprecedented ways and to communicate using an altogether new type of language. We might call it the Tree of Knowledge mutation.”

Why was the Sapiens’ language so special? “It was not the first language. Every animal has some kind of language. Even insects, such as bees and ants, know how to communicate in sophisticated ways, informing one another of the whereabouts of food. Neither was it the first vocal language. Many animals, including all ape and monkey species, have vocal languages. For example, green monkeys use calls of various kinds to communicate. Zoologists have identified one call that means, ‘Careful! An eagle!’ A slightly different call warns, ‘Careful! A lion!’ … Sapiens can produce many more distinct sounds than green monkeys, but whales and elephants have equally impressive abilities. A parrot can say anything Albert Einstein could say, as well as mimicking the sounds of phones ringing, doors slamming and sirens wailing. Whatever advantage Einstein had over a parrot, it wasn’t vocal. What, then, is so special about our language?”

Language rules: Expression, Gossip, Myth

Harari points to three distinct features of our vocal language that really set us apart and led us to making all others subservient to our will – the ‘suppleness’ of our spoken language, the ability to gossip, and the ability to create myths.

Ability to express in our Language: The sheer variety and range of thoughts that can be expressed in our language is staggering. “… our language is amazingly supple. We can connect a limited number of sounds and signs to produce an infinite number of sentences, each with a distinct meaning. We can thereby ingest, store and communicate a prodigious amount of information about the surrounding world. A green monkey can yell to its comrades, ‘Careful! A lion!’ But a modern human can tell her friends that this morning, near the bend in the river, she saw a lion tracking a herd of bison. She can then describe the exact location, including the different paths leading to the area. With this information, the members of her band can put their heads together and discuss whether they ought to approach the river in order to chase away the lion and hunt the bison.”

Ability to gossip: According to this theory, our intrinsic knack to gossip, is what made our language truly unique. “The most important information that needed to be conveyed was about humans, not about lions and bison. Our language evolved as a way of gossiping. According to this theory Homo sapiens is primarily a social animal. Social cooperation is our key for survival and reproduction. It is not enough for individual men and women to know the whereabouts of lions and bison. It’s much more important for them to know who in their band hates whom, who is sleeping with whom, who is honest, and who is a cheat.

…Neanderthals and archaic Homo sapiens probably also had a hard time talking behind each other’s backs – a much maligned ability which is in fact essential for cooperation in large numbers. The new linguistic skills that modern Sapiens acquired about seventy millennia ago enabled them to gossip for hours on end. Reliable information about who could be trusted meant that small bands could expand into larger bands, and Sapiens could develop tighter and more sophisticated types of cooperation.”

Gossip comes so naturally to us that it seems our language evolved for gossiping itself! “Even today the vast majority of human communication – whether in the form of emails, phone calls or newspaper columns – is gossip. … Do you think that history professors chat about the reasons for World War One when they meet for lunch, or that nuclear physicists spend their coffee breaks at scientific conferences talking about quarks? Sometimes. But more often, they gossip about the professor who caught her husband cheating, or the quarrel between the head of the department and the dean, or the rumours that a colleague used his research funds to buy a Lexus. Gossip usually focuses on wrongdoings. Rumour-mongers are the original fourth estate, journalists who inform society about and thus protect it from cheats and freeloaders.”

Both, the ability of our language to be every expressive, as well as our inherent tendency to gossip, have contributed to the uniqueness of our language but what really was astounding was “it’s the ability to transmit information about things that do not exist at all. As far as we know, only Sapiens can talk about entire kinds of entities that they have never seen, touched or smelled.” The ability to imagine and create myths is the most unique feature of the Sapiens’ language.

Ability to create myth: Legends, myths, gods and religions appeared for the first time in the evolution of our species. “Many animals and human species could previously say, ‘Careful! A lion!’ Thanks to the Cognitive Revolution, Homo sapiens acquired the ability to say, ‘The lion is the guardian spirit of our tribe.’”

And the key was not just imagining things, but doing so collectively. Weaving stories that others believed as well. “Such myths give Sapiens the unprecedented ability to cooperate flexibly in large numbers. Ants and bees can also work together in huge numbers, but they do so in a very rigid manner and only with close relatives. Wolves and chimpanzees cooperate far more flexibly than ants, but they can do so only with small numbers of other individuals that they know intimately. Sapiens can cooperate in extremely flexible ways with countless numbers of strangers. That’s why Sapiens rule the world, whereas ants eat our leftovers and chimps are locked up in zoos and research laboratories.”

Stories rule: From Gossip to ‘Shared Imagination’

figureThough gossip helped Homo sapiens form larger and more stable bands, it has its shortcomings as well. “Sociological research has shown that the maximum ‘natural’ size of a group bonded by gossip is about 150 individuals. Most people can neither intimately know, nor gossip effectively about, more than 150 human beings.” But Homo sapiens as we know, did manage to cross this critical threshold, founding cities comprising tens of thousands of inhabitants and empires ruling hundreds of millions. The secret probably lies in the appearance of fiction. Common myths can bind large numbers of strangers and make them cooperate successfully.

“Any large-scale human cooperation – whether a modern state, a medieval church, an ancient city or an archaic tribe – is rooted in common myths that exist only in peoples collective imagination. Churches are rooted in common religious myths. Two Catholics who have never met can nevertheless go together on crusade or pool funds to build a hospital because they both believe that God was incarnated in human flesh and allowed Himself to be crucified to redeem our sins. States are rooted in common national myths. Two Serbs who have never met might risk their lives to save one another because both believe in the existence of the Serbian nation, the Serbian homeland and the Serbian flag. Judicial systems are rooted in common legal myths. Two lawyers who have never met can nevertheless combine efforts to defend a complete stranger because they both believe in the existence of laws, justice, human rights – and the money paid out in fees.

Yet none of these things exists outside the stories that people invent and tell one another. There are no gods in the universe, no nations, no money, no human rights, no laws, and no justice outside the common imagination of human beings.”

The difficulty of course, lies in convincing others of the story that one may spin. “Much of history revolves around this question: how does one convince millions of people to believe particular stories about gods, or nations, or limited liability companies? Yet when it succeeds, it gives Sapiens immense power, because it enables millions of strangers to cooperate and work towards common goals. Just try to imagine how difficult it would have been to create states, or churches, or legal systems if we could speak only about things that really exist, such as rivers, trees and lions.”

We have inherited a world where incredibly complex network of stories, not only exists but also rules. “The kinds of things that people create through this network of stories are known in academic circles as ‘fictions’, ‘social constructs’, or ‘imagined realities’. An imagined reality is not a lie. I lie when I say that there is a lion near the river when I know perfectly well that there is no lion there. There is nothing special about lies. Green monkeys and chimpanzees can lie. A green monkey, for example, has been observed calling ‘Careful! A lion!’ when there was no lion around. This alarm conveniently frightened away a fellow monkey who had just found a banana, leaving the liar all alone to steal the prize for itself. Unlike lying, an imagined reality is something that everyone believes in, and as long as this communal belief persists, the imagined reality exerts force in the world. …

Most millionaires sincerely believe in the existence of money and limited liability companies. Most human-rights activists sincerely believe in the existence of human rights. No one was lying when, in 2011, the UN demanded that the Libyan government respect the human rights of its citizens, even though the UN, Libya and human rights are all figments of our fertile imaginations.”

Ever since the Cognitive Revolution, the lives of Sapiens have been straddling dual realities, the objective reality of rivers, trees and lions, and the imagined reality of gods, nations and corporations. “As time went by, the imagined reality became ever more powerful, so that today the very survival of rivers, trees and lions depends on the grace of imagined entities such as gods, nations and corporations.”

Moreover, since large-scale human cooperation is based on myths, people can be manipulated and made to cooperate differently by telling different stories. “Under the right circumstances myths can change rapidly. In 1789 the French population switched almost overnight from believing in the myth of the divine right of kings to believing in the myth of the sovereignty of the people. Consequently, ever since the Cognitive Revolution Homo sapiens has been able to revise its behaviour rapidly in accordance with changing needs. This opened a fast lane of cultural evolution, bypassing the traffic jams of genetic evolution. Speeding down this fast lane, Homo sapiens soon far outstripped all other human and animal species in its ability to cooperate.”

And as prehistoric Sapiens made all other creatures subservient to its will, it was responsible to a large part, for the extinction of other human species such as the Neanderthals and numerous other megafauna (like giant ground sloths, oversized lions, Native American horses, Native American camels, the giant rodents and the mammoths). That our treatment of most other species is far less than humane, is a theme that runs throughout the book.

Before going on to the next big revolution, the Agricultural Revolution, Harari goes on to describe the lives of such typical humans who might have walked the earth some 30,000 years ago, during the millennia separating the Cognitive from the Agricultural Revolution.  These people, for example , who carved the Stadel lion-man around this time had the same physical, emotional and intellectual abilities that we have. So how did their societies look like, did they have nuclear families and monogamous relationships, what about their religions, ceremonies, and wars?

Foraging ancestors

We have lived as hunters and gatherers for tens of thousands of years, which constitute nearly our entire history when compared to the past 200 years, during which Sapiens have started started living as urban labourers and office workers, and the preceding 10,000 years, during which Sapiens mostly lived as agriculturists.

Hence many evolutionary psychologists argue that many of our current social and psychological traits were actually formed during this long pre-agricultural era. “… our brains and minds are adapted to a life of hunting and gathering. Our eating habits, our conflicts and our sexuality are all the result of the way our hunter-gatherer minds interact with our current post-industrial environment, with its mega-cities, aeroplanes, telephones and computers. This environment gives us more material resources and longer lives than those enjoyed by any previous generation, but it often makes us feel alienated, depressed and pressured.”

Food, Families, Foraging

For example, why do we gorge down high-calorie food, in spite of knowing they may not be good for our health? Harari argues that the only sweet food available to ancient foragers were ripe fruit. So if ever a band of foraging Sapiens came across a tree loaded with ripe sweet fruits, they would immediately gorge them down – an instinct that still inhabits us.

Some other theories are bound to quote greater controversy. For example, it is likely that  like our closest relatives, chimpanzees and bonobos, ancient foraging bands did not have nuclear families centred on monogamous couples. “Rather, foragers lived in communes devoid of private property, monogamous relationships and even fatherhood. In such a band, a woman could have sex and form intimate bonds with several men (and women) simultaneously, and all of the band’s adults cooperated in parenting its children. Since no man knew definitively which of the children were his, men showed equal concern for all youngsters.”

Harari argues that such a concept of ‘ancient commune’ is not new – it has not only been seen in other animal species but among other human species too, like the Barí Indians. “According to the beliefs of such societies, a child is not born from the sperm of a single man, but from the accumulation of sperm in a woman’s womb. A good mother will make a point of having sex with several different men, especially when she is pregnant, so that her child will enjoy the qualities (and paternal care) not merely of the best hunter, but also of the best storyteller, the strongest warrior and the most considerate lover. If this sounds silly, bear in mind that before the development of modern embryological studies, people had no solid evidence that babies are always sired by a single father rather than by many.”

This ‘ancient commune’ theorists argue that the “frequent infidelities that characterise modern marriages, and the high rates of divorce, not to mention the cornucopia of psychological complexes from which both children and adults suffer, all result from forcing humans to live in nuclear families and monogamous relationships that are incompatible with our biological software.” There are scholars who oppose such a view too.

Though we popularly believe men to be ‘hunters and gatherers’ in this age – they were actually much more ‘gatherers’ than ‘hunters’. “In most habitats, Sapiens bands fed themselves in an elastic and opportunistic fashion. They scrounged for termites, picked berries, dug for roots, stalked rabbits and hunted bison and mammoth. … gathering was Sapiens’ main activity, and it provided most of their calories, as well as raw materials such as flint, wood and bamboo.”

Not only did Sapiens forage for food and materials, they also searched for knowledge. “To survive, they needed a detailed mental map of their territory. To maximise the efficiency of their daily search for food, they required information about the growth patterns of each plant and the habits of each animal. They needed to know which foods were nourishing, which made you sick, and how to use others as cures. They needed to know the progress of the seasons and what warning signs preceded a thunderstorm or a dry spell. They studied every stream, every walnut tree, every bear cave, and every flint-stone deposit in their vicinity. Each individual had to understand how to make a stone knife, how to mend a torn cloak, how to lay a rabbit trap, and how to face avalanches, snakebites or hungry lions. Mastery of each of these many skills required years of apprenticeship and practice. The average ancient forager could turn a flint stone into a spear point within minutes. When we try to imitate this feat, we usually fail miserably. Most of us lack expert knowledge of the flaking properties of flint and basalt and the fine motor skills needed to work them precisely.

In other words, the average forager had wider, deeper and more varied knowledge of her immediate surroundings than most of her modern descendants. Today, most people in industrial societies don’t need to know much about the natural world in order to survive. What do you really need to know in order to get by as a computer engineer, an insurance agent, a history teacher or a factory worker? You need to know a lot about your own tiny field of expertise, but for the vast majority of life’s necessities you rely blindly on the help of other experts, whose own knowledge is also limited to a tiny field of expertise. The human collective knows far more today than did the ancient bands. But at the individual level, ancient foragers were the most knowledgeable and skilful people in history.”

Foragers not only mastered the external physical world of animals, plants and objects, but also the internal world of their own bodies and senses. “They listened to the slightest movement in the grass to learn whether a snake might be lurking there. They carefully observed the foliage of trees in order to discover fruits, beehives and bird nests. They moved with a minimum of effort and noise, and knew how to sit, walk and run in the most agile and efficient manner. Varied and constant use of their bodies made them as fit as marathon runners. They had physical dexterity that people today are unable to achieve even after years of practising yoga or t’ai chi.”

Overall, foragers seem to have “a more comfortable and rewarding lifestyle” than most of its descendants like the peasants, shepherds, labourers and modern day office clerks. “While people in today’s affluent societies work an average of forty to forty-five hours a week, and people in the developing world work sixty and even eighty hours a week, hunter-gatherers living today in the most inhospitable of habitats – such as the Kalahari Desert work on average for just thirty-five to forty-five hours a week. They hunt only one day out of three, and gathering takes up just three to six hours daily. In normal times, this is enough to feed the band. It may well be that ancient hunter-gatherers living in zones more fertile than the Kalahari spent even less time obtaining food and raw materials. On top of that, foragers enjoyed a lighter load of household chores. They had no dishes to wash, no carpets to vacuum, no floors to polish, no nappies to change and no bills to pay.”

The forager economy provided most people with more interesting lives than agriculture or industry do. Today, a Chinese factory hand leaves home around seven in the morning, makes her way through polluted streets to a sweatshop, and there operates the same machine, in the same way, day in, day out, for ten long and mind-numbing hours, returning home around seven in the evening in order to wash dishes and do the laundry. Thirty thousand years ago, a Chinese forager might leave camp with her companions at, say, eight in the morning. They’d roam the nearby forests and meadows, gathering mushrooms, digging up edible roots, catching frogs and occasionally running away from tigers. By early afternoon, they were back at the camp to make lunch. That left them plenty of time to gossip, tell stories, play with the children and just hang out. Of course the tigers sometimes caught them, or a snake bit them, but on the other hand they didn’t have to deal with automobile accidents and industrial pollution.”

Foraging also provided ideal nutrition. “That is hardly surprising – this had been the human diet for hundreds of thousands of years, and the human body was well adapted to it. Evidence from fossilised skeletons indicates that ancient foragers were less likely to suffer from starvation or malnutrition, and were generally taller and healthier than their peasant descendants. Average life expectancy was apparently just thirty to forty years, but this was due largely to the high incidence of child mortality. Children who made it through the perilous first years had a good chance of reaching the age of sixty, and some even made it to their eighties. …

The foragers’ secret of success, which protected them from starvation and malnutrition, was their varied diet. Farmers tend to eat a very limited and unbalanced diet. Especially in premodern times, most of the calories feeding an agricultural population came from a single crop – such as wheat, potatoes or rice – that lacks some of the vitamins, minerals and other nutritional materials humans need. The typical peasant in traditional China ate rice for breakfast, rice for lunch, and rice for dinner. If she were lucky, she could expect to eat the same on the following day. By contrast, ancient foragers regularly ate dozens of different foodstuffs. The peasant’s ancient ancestor, the forager, may have eaten berries and mushrooms for breakfast; fruits, snails and turtle for lunch; and rabbit steak with wild onions for dinner. Tomorrows menu might have been completely different. This variety ensured that the ancient foragers received all the necessary nutrients.”

Moreover, since they were not dependent on any single source of food, they were less likely to suffer when any particular food source failed. “Agricultural societies are ravaged by famine when drought, fire or earthquake devastates the annual rice or potato crop. Forager societies were hardly immune to natural disasters, and suffered from periods of want and hunger, but they were usually able to deal with such calamities more easily. If they lost some of their staple foodstuffs, they could gather or hunt other species, or move to a less affected area.”

Lives of ancient foragers were also less plagued from infectious diseases. “Most of the infectious diseases that have plagued agricultural and industrial societies (such as smallpox, measles and tuberculosis) originated in domesticated animals and were transferred to humans only after the Agricultural Revolution. Ancient foragers, who had domesticated only dogs, were free of these scourges. Moreover, most people in agricultural and industrial societies lived in dense, unhygienic permanent settlements – ideal hotbeds for disease. Foragers roamed the land in small bands that could not sustain epidemics.”

However it would be premature to think of such ancient foraging societies as ‘the original affluent societies’. “Though they lived better lives than most people in agricultural and industrial societies, their world could still be harsh and unforgiving. Periods of want and hardship were not uncommon, child mortality was high, and an accident which would be minor today could easily become a death sentence. Most people probably enjoyed the close intimacy of the roaming band, but those unfortunates who incurred the hostility or mockery of their fellow band members probably suffered terribly. Modern foragers occasionally abandon and even kill old or disabled people who cannot keep up with the band. Unwanted babies and children may be slain, and there are even cases of religiously inspired human sacrifice.

The Aché people, hunter-gatherers who lived in the jungles of Paraguay until the 1960s, offer a glimpse into the darker side of foraging. When a valued band member died, the Aché customarily killed a little girl and buried the two together. Anthropologists who interviewed the Aché recorded a case in which a band abandoned a middle-aged man who fell sick and was unable to keep up with the others. He was left under a tree. Vultures perched above him, expecting a hearty meal. But the man recuperated, and, walking briskly, he managed to rejoin the band. His body was covered with the birds’ faeces, so he was henceforth nicknamed ‘Vulture Droppings’.

When an old Aché woman became a burden to the rest of the band, one of the younger men would sneak behind her and kill her with an axe-blow to the head. An Aché man told the inquisitive anthropologists stories of his prime years in the jungle. ‘I customarily killed old women. I used to kill my aunts … The women were afraid of me … Now, here with the whites, I have become weak.’ Babies born without hair, who were considered underdeveloped, were killed immediately. One woman recalled that her first baby girl was killed because the men in the band did not want another girl. On another occasion a man killed a small boy because he was ‘in a bad mood and the child was crying’. Another child was buried alive because ‘it was funny-looking and the other children laughed at it’.”

However we should not to judge the Aché too quickly. “Anthropologists who lived with them for years report that violence between adults was very rare. Both women and men were free to change partners at will. They smiled and laughed constantly, had no leadership hierarchy, and generally shunned domineering people. They were extremely generous with their few possessions, and were not obsessed with success or wealth. The things they valued most in life were good social interactions and high-quality friendships. They viewed the killing of children, sick people and the elderly as many people today view abortion and euthanasia. It should also be noted that the Aché were hunted and killed without mercy by Paraguayan farmers. The need to evade their enemies probably caused the Aché to adopt an exceptionally harsh attitude towards anyone who might become a liability to the band.

The truth is that Aché society, like every human society, was very complex. We should beware of demonising or idealising it on the basis of a superficial acquaintance. The Aché were neither angels nor fiends – they were humans. So, too, were the ancient hunter-gatherers.”

But the foragers didn’t remain foragers and all this changed about 10,000 years ago when Sapiens became agriculturists.

Agriculture: ‘History’s Biggest Fraud’

Agriculture started around 9500–8500 BC in the hill country of south-eastern Turkey, western Iran, and the Levant. “It began slowly and in a restricted geographical area. Wheat and goats were domesticated by approximately 9000 BC; peas and lentils around 8000 BC; olive trees by 5000 BC; horses by 4000 BC; and grapevines in 3500 BC. Some animals and plants, such as camels and cashew nuts, were domesticated even later, but by 3500 BC the main wave of domestication was over. Even today, with all our advanced technologies, more than 90 per cent of the calories that feed humanity come from the handful of plants that our ancestors domesticated between 9500 and 3500 BC – wheat, rice, maize (called ‘corn’ in the US), potatoes, millet and barley. No noteworthy plant or animal has been domesticated in the last 2,000 years. If our minds are those of hunter-gatherers, our cuisine is that of ancient farmers.”

In typical history books, agricultural revolution is depicted as a great leap forward for mankind. It depicts that with evolution more intelligent people came to being. “Eventually, people were so smart that they were able to decipher nature’s secrets, enabling them to tame sheep and cultivate wheat. As soon as this happened, they cheerfully abandoned the gruelling, dangerous, and often spartan life of hunter-gatherers, settling down to enjoy the pleasant, satiated life of farmers.”

Harari claims that such a depiction is a figment of imagination. “There is no evidence that people became more intelligent with time. Foragers knew the secrets of nature long before the Agricultural Revolution, since their survival depended on an intimate knowledge of the animals they hunted and the plants they gathered. Rather than heralding a new era of easy living, the Agricultural Revolution left farmers with lives generally more difficult and less satisfying than those of foragers. Hunter-gatherers spent their time in more stimulating and varied ways, and were less in danger of starvation and disease. The Agricultural Revolution certainly enlarged the sum total of food at the disposal of humankind, but the extra food did not translate into a better diet or more leisure. Rather, it translated into population explosions and pampered elites. The average farmer worked harder than the average forager, and got a worse diet in return. The Agricultural Revolution was history’s biggest fraud.”

‘We did not domesticate wheat. It domesticated us.’

How did this happen? Who was responsible? “The culprits were a handful of plant species, including wheat, rice and potatoes. These plants domesticated Homo sapiens, rather than vice versa.

Think for a moment about the Agricultural Revolution from the viewpoint of wheat. Ten thousand years ago wheat was just a wild grass, one of many, confined to a small range in the Middle East. Suddenly, within just a few short millennia, it was growing all over the world. According to the basic evolutionary criteria of survival and reproduction, wheat has become one of the most successful plants in the history of the earth. In areas such as the Great Plains of North America, where not a single wheat stalk grew 10,000 years ago, you can today walk for hundreds upon hundreds of kilometres without encountering any other plant. Worldwide, wheat covers about 2.25 million square kilometres of the globes surface, almost ten times the size of Britain. How did this grass turn from insignificant to ubiquitous?

Wheat did it by manipulating Homo sapiens to its advantage. This ape had been living a fairly comfortable life hunting and gathering until about 10,000 years ago, but then began to invest more and more effort in cultivating wheat. Within a couple of millennia, humans in many parts of the world were doing little from dawn to dusk other than taking care of wheat plants. It wasn’t easy. Wheat demanded a lot of them. Wheat didn’t like rocks and pebbles, so Sapiens broke their backs clearing fields. Wheat didn’t like sharing its space, water and nutrients with other plants, so men and women laboured long days weeding under the scorching sun. Wheat got sick, so Sapiens had to keep a watch out for worms and blight. Wheat was defenceless against other organisms that liked to eat it, from rabbits to locust swarms, so the farmers had to guard and protect it. Wheat was thirsty, so humans lugged water from springs and streams to water it. Its hunger even impelled Sapiens to collect animal faeces to nourish the ground in which wheat grew.

The body of Homo sapiens had not evolved for such tasks. It was adapted to climbing apple trees and running after gazelles, not to clearing rocks and carrying water buckets. Human spines, knees, necks and arches paid the price. Studies of ancient skeletons indicate that the transition to agriculture brought about a plethora of ailments, such as slipped discs, arthritis and hernias. Moreover, the new agricultural tasks demanded so much time that people were forced to settle permanently next to their wheat fields. This completely changed their way of life. We did not domesticate wheat. It domesticated us. The word ‘domesticate’ comes from the Latin domus, which means ‘house’. Who’s the one living in a house? Not the wheat. It’s the Sapiens.”

What did wheat offer?

Why did Sapiens get domesticated by wheat? It did not offer better diet, economic security or protection against human violence.

“It did not offer a better diet. Remember, humans are omnivorous apes who thrive on a wide variety of foods. Grains made up only a small fraction of the human diet before the Agricultural Revolution. A diet based on cereals is poor in minerals and vitamins, hard to digest, and really bad for your teeth and gums.

Wheat did not give people economic security. The life of a peasant is less secure than that of a hunter-gatherer. Foragers relied on dozens of species to survive, and could therefore weather difficult years even without stocks of preserved food. If the availability of one species was reduced, they could gather and hunt more of other species. Farming societies have, until very recently, relied for the great bulk of their calorie intake on a small variety of domesticated plants. In many areas, they relied on just a single staple, such as wheat, potatoes or rice. If the rains failed or clouds of locusts arrived or if a fungus learned how to infect that staple species, peasants died by the thousands and millions.

Nor could wheat offer security against human violence. The early farmers were at least as violent as their forager ancestors, if not more so. Farmers had more possessions and needed land for planting. The loss of pasture land to raiding neighbours could mean the difference between subsistence and starvation, so there was much less room for compromise. When a foraging band was hard-pressed by a stronger rival, it could usually move on. It was difficult and dangerous, but it was feasible. When a strong enemy threatened an agricultural village, retreat meant giving up fields, houses and granaries. In many cases, this doomed the refugees to starvation. Farmers, therefore, tended to stay put and fight to the bitter end.”

Multiplication of Sapiens’ DNA

What agriculture did offer was not at the individual level, but rather at the level of species. “Cultivating wheat provided much more food per unit of territory, and thereby enabled Homo sapiens to multiply exponentially. Around 13,000 BC, when people fed themselves by gathering wild plants and hunting wild animals, the area around the oasis of Jericho, in Palestine, could support at most one roaming band of about a hundred relatively healthy and well-nourished people. Around 8500 BC, when wild plants gave way to wheat fields, the oasis supported a large but cramped village of 1,000 people, who suffered far more from disease and malnourishment.

The currency of evolution is neither hunger nor pain, but rather copies of DNA helixes. Just as the economic success of a company is measured only by the number of dollars in its bank account, not by the happiness of its employees, so the evolutionary success of a species is measured by the number of copies of its DNA. If no more DNA copies remain, the species is extinct, just as a company without money is bankrupt. If a species boasts many DNA copies, it is a success, and the species flourishes. From such a perspective, 1,000 copies are always better than a hundred copies. This is the essence of the Agricultural Revolution: the ability to keep more people alive under worse conditions.”

But why should rational individuals make decisions that will worsen their living conditions, even if that meant multiplication of their genes? The reason, Harari argues, is that the rise and spread of agriculture and farming was very gradual and spread over millennia and it was impossible for any band of generations to perceive the full impact of small changes that they bring about in their daily lives.

Adding millstones around the neck

“Homo sapiens reached the Middle East around 70,000 years ago. For the next 50,000 years our ancestors flourished there without agriculture. The natural resources of the area were enough to support its human population. In times of plenty people had a few more children, and in times of need a few less. Humans, like many mammals, have hormonal and genetic mechanisms that help control procreation. In good times females reach puberty earlier, and their chances of getting pregnant are a bit higher. In bad times puberty is late and fertility decreases.

To these natural population controls were added cultural mechanisms. Babies and small children, who move slowly and demand much attention, were a burden on nomadic foragers. People tried to space their children three to four years apart. Women did so by nursing their children around the clock and until a late age (around-the-clock suckling significantly decreases the chances of getting pregnant). Other methods included full or partial sexual abstinence (backed perhaps by cultural taboos), abortions and occasionally infanticide.

During these long millennia people occasionally ate wheat grain, but this was a marginal part of their diet. About 18,000 years ago, the last ice age gave way to a period of global warming. As temperatures rose, so did rainfall. The new climate was ideal for Middle Eastern wheat and other cereals, which multiplied and spread. People began eating more wheat, and in exchange they inadvertently spread its growth. Since it was impossible to eat wild grains without first winnowing, grinding and cooking them, people who gathered these grains carried them back to their temporary campsites for processing. Wheat grains are small and numerous, so some of them inevitably fell on the way to the campsite and were lost. Over time, more and more wheat grew along favourite human trails and near campsites.

When humans burned down forests and thickets, this also helped wheat. Fire cleared away trees and shrubs, allowing wheat and other grasses to monopolise the sunlight, water and nutrients. Where wheat became particularly abundant, and game and other food sources were also plentiful, human bands could gradually give up their nomadic lifestyle and settle down in seasonal and even permanent camps.

At first they might have camped for four weeks during the harvest. A generation later, as wheat plants multiplied and spread, the harvest camp might have lasted for five weeks, then six, and finally it became a permanent village. Evidence of such settlements has been discovered throughout the Middle East, particularly in the Levant, where the Natufian culture flourished from 12,500 BC to 9500 BC. The Natufians were hunter-gatherers who subsisted on dozens of wild species, but they lived in permanent villages and devoted much of their time to the intensive gathering and processing of wild cereals. They built stone houses and granaries. They stored grain for times of need. They invented new tools such as stone scythes for harvesting wild wheat, and stone pestles and mortars to grind it.

In the years following 9500 BC, the descendants of the Natufians continued to gather and process cereals, but they also began to cultivate them in more and more elaborate ways. When gathering wild grains, they took care to lay aside part of the harvest to sow the fields next season. They discovered that they could achieve much better results by sowing the grains deep in the ground rather than haphazardly scattering them on the surface. So they began to hoe and plough. Gradually they also started to weed the fields, to guard them against parasites, and to water and fertilise them. As more effort was directed towards cereal cultivation, there was less time to gather and hunt wild species. The foragers became farmers.

No single step separated the woman gathering wild wheat from the woman farming domesticated wheat, so it’s hard to say exactly when the decisive transition to agriculture took place. But, by 8500 BC, the Middle East was peppered with permanent villages such as Jericho, whose inhabitants spent most of their time cultivating a few domesticated species.

With the move to permanent villages and the increase in food supply, the population began to grow. Giving up the nomadic lifestyle enabled women to have a child every year. Babies were weaned at an earlier age – they could be fed on porridge and gruel. The extra hands were sorely needed in the fields. But the extra mouths quickly wiped out the food surpluses, so even more fields had to be planted. As people began living in disease-ridden settlements, as children fed more on cereals and less on mother’s milk, and as each child competed for his or her porridge with more and more siblings, child mortality soared. In most agricultural societies at least one out of every three children died before reaching twenty. Yet the increase in births still outpaced the increase in deaths; humans kept having larger numbers of children.

With time, the ‘wheat bargain’ became more and more burdensome. Children died in droves, and adults ate bread by the sweat of their brows. The average person in Jericho of 8500 BC lived a harder life than the average person in Jericho of 9500 BC or 13,000 BC. But nobody realised what was happening. Every generation continued to live like the previous generation, making only small improvements here and there in the way things were done. Paradoxically, a series of ‘improvements’, each of which was meant to make life easier, added up to a millstone around the necks of these farmers.”

Miscalculation: Elusive luxury

A large part of the reason for keeping on adding millstones is because it is impossible to fathom the full consequences of one’s decisions today on future outcomes. “Whenever they decided to do a bit of extra work – say, to hoe the fields instead of scattering seeds on the surface – people thought, ‘Yes, we will have to work harder. But the harvest will be so bountiful! We won’t have to worry any more about lean years. Our children will never go to sleep hungry.’ It made sense. If you worked harder, you would have a better life. That was the plan.

The first part of the plan went smoothly. People indeed worked harder. But people did not foresee that the number of children would increase, meaning that the extra wheat would have to be shared between more children. Neither did the early farmers understand that feeding children with more porridge and less breast milk would weaken their immune system, and that permanent settlements would be hotbeds for infectious diseases. They did not foresee that by increasing their dependence on a single source of food, they were actually exposing themselves even more to the depredations of drought. Nor did the farmers foresee that in good years their bulging granaries would tempt thieves and enemies, compelling them to start building walls and doing guard duty.”

Harari explains how “luxuries tend to become necessities and to spawn new obligations. Once people get used to a certain luxury, they take it for granted. Then they begin to count on it. Finally they reach a point where they can’t live without it. Let’s take another familiar example from our own time. Over the last few decades, we have invented countless time-saving devices that are supposed to make life more relaxed – washing machines, vacuum cleaners, dishwashers, telephones, mobile phones, computers, email. Previously it took a lot of work to write a letter, address and stamp an envelope, and take it to the mailbox. It took days or weeks, maybe even months, to get a reply. Nowadays I can dash off an email, send it halfway around the globe, and (if my addressee is online) receive a reply a minute later. I’ve saved all that trouble and time, but do I live a more relaxed life?

Sadly not. Back in the snail-mail era, people usually only wrote letters when they had something important to relate. Rather than writing the first thing that came into their heads, they considered carefully what they wanted to say and how to phrase it. They expected to receive a similarly considered answer. Most people wrote and received no more than a handful of letters a month and seldom felt compelled to reply immediately. Today I receive dozens of emails each day, all from people who expect a prompt reply. We thought we were saving time; instead we revved up the treadmill of life to ten times its former speed and made our days more anxious and agitated.

The story of the luxury trap carries with it an important lesson. Humanity’s search for an easier life released immense forces of change that transformed the world in ways nobody envisioned or wanted. Nobody plotted the Agricultural Revolution or sought human dependence on cereal cultivation. A series of trivial decisions aimed mostly at filling a few stomachs and gaining a little security had the cumulative effect of forcing ancient foragers to spend their days carrying water buckets under a scorching sun.”

In the rest of the book, Harari talks of the beginning of writing, money and the unification of humankind through political and economic interdependence. Harari argues that money, empires, and universal religions are the principal drivers producing one global empire.


Lastly, Harari sees the Scientific Revolution as founded on innovation in European thought. He also emphasizes that people today are not happier than in past eras. He concludes by considering how modern technology may soon end the species as we know it, as it ushers in genetic engineering, immortality, and non-organic life. Humans have, in Harari’s chosen metaphor, become gods: they can create species.

In short, Sapiens kindles the desire for taking a relook at history and question many of the assumptions and depictions that we have been so used to. For example, standard history textbooks would talk of the benefits of agriculture and the untarnished evolution of our ancestors. Harari argues convincingly that neither is true. Sapiens rose to the top of the animal kingdom in a rather ruthless ascent leading to the termination and extinction of several other animal and even human species, and that agriculture has been more of a bane than boon to our civilisations. Whether we agree with him or not is a different question, but that he makes us grapple with our own understanding and beliefs is unquestionable.

His rather unconventional views on corporations, states, judiciary, money and other modern institutions are also very thought-provoking to say the least. We may not be able to abandon all modern luxuries and go back to hunting-gathering, but idealising a borderless world, and showing grater compassion to other animals and fellow inhabitants, may still be practiced.

He has also started “Sapienship”, https://www.sapienship.co/ a website dedicated to tackling difficult global issues, described as “Sapienship is a multidisciplinary organization advocating for global responsibility. Our mission is to clarify the global conversation, focus attention on the most important challenges and support the quest for solutions.

There are many challenges facing the world today. We highlight three: ‍technological disruption, ecological collapse, and global war.”

Finally, being human, being a Sapiens, has both its pleasures and burdens. Forcing us to rethink our place in the gigantic scheme of evolution and to take cues from it, to better the lives of future generations, is perhaps the biggest contribution of the book. After all, being the all-powerful Sapiens that we are, it is up to us, to make us into what we want to be – gods or devils.

Soumyanetra, Associate Professor, Economic Research Unit, Indian Statistical Institute, Kolkata

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