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In the intervening millennia, even though these archaic Sapiens looked just like us and their brains were as big as ours, they did not enjoy any marked advantage over other human species, did not produce particularly sophisticated tools, and did not accomplish any other special feats. In fact, in the rst recorded encounter between Sapiens and Neanderthals, the Neanderthals won. About , years ago, some Sapiens groups migrated north to the Levant, which was Neanderthal territory, but failed to secure a rm footing. It might have been due to nasty natives, an inclement climate, or unfamiliar local parasites.
Whatever the reason, the Sapiens eventually retreated, leaving the Neanderthals as masters of the Middle East. This poor record of achievement has led scholars to speculate that the internal structure of the brains of these Sapiens was probably di erent from ours. They looked like us, but their cognitive abilities — learning, remembering, communicating — were far more limited. Teaching such an ancient Sapiens English, persuading him of the truth of Christian dogma, or getting him to understand the theory of evolution would probably have been hopeless undertakings. Conversely, we would have had a very hard time learning his language and understanding his way of thinking. But then, beginning about 70, years ago, Homo sapiens started doing very special things.
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, years ago, they somehow crossed the open sea and landed in Australia — a continent hitherto untouched by humans. The period from about 70, years ago to about 30, years ago witnessed the invention of boats, oil lamps, bows and arrows and needles essential for sewing warm clothing. They maintain that the people who drove the Neanderthals to extinction, settled Australia, and carved the Stadel lion-man were as intelligent, creative and sensitive as we are.
If we were to come across the artists of the Stadel Cave, we could learn their language and they ours. The appearance of new ways of thinking and communicating, between 70, and 30, years ago, constitutes the Cognitive Revolution. What caused it? The most commonly believed theory argues that accidental genetic mutations changed the inner wiring 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. It was a matter of pure chance, as far as we can tell. What was so special about the new Sapiens language that it enabled us to conquer the world?
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 rst vocal language. Many animals, including all ape and monkey species, have vocal languages. For example, green monkeys use calls of various kinds to communicate. An eagle! A lion! When the same group heard a recording of the second call, the lion warning, they quickly scrambled up a tree. 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.
What, then, is so special about our language? The most common answer is that our language is amazingly supple. We can connect a limited number of sounds and signs to produce an in nite number of sentences, each with a distinct meaning. We can thereby ingest, store and communicate a prodigious amount of information about the surrounding world. She can then describe the exact location, including the di erent 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.
A second theory agrees that our unique language evolved as a means of sharing information about the world. But 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. The body is human, but the head is leonine. This is one of the first indisputable examples of art, and probably of religion, and of the ability of the human mind to imagine things that do not really exist. The amount of information that one must obtain and store in order to track the ever-changing relationships of a few dozen individuals is staggering.
In a band of fty individuals, there are 1, one-on-one relationships, and countless more complex social combinations. All apes show a keen interest in such social information, but they have trouble gossiping e ectively. 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.
Even today the vast majority of human communication — whether in the form of emails, phone calls or newspaper columns — is gossip. It comes so naturally to us that it seems as if our language evolved for this very purpose. 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 co ee breaks at scienti c conferences talking about quarks? 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.
Most likely, both the gossip theory and the there-is-a-lion-near-the-river theory are valid. Yet the truly unique feature of our language is not its ability to transmit information about men and lions. As far as we know, only Sapiens can talk about entire kinds of entities that they have never seen, touched or smelled. Legends, myths, gods and religions appeared for the rst time with the Cognitive Revolution.
But why is it important? After all, ction can be dangerously misleading or distracting. People who go to the forest looking for fairies and unicorns would seem to have less chance of survival than people who go looking for mushrooms and deer. But ction has enabled us not merely to imagine things, but to do so collectively. We can weave common myths such as the biblical creation story, the Dreamtime myths of Aboriginal Australians, and the nationalist myths of modern states.
Such myths give Sapiens the unprecedented ability to cooperate exibly 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 exibly than ants, but they can do so only with small numbers of other individuals that they know intimately.
Sapiens can cooperate in extremely exible ways with countless numbers of strangers. The Legend of Peugeot Our chimpanzee cousins usually live in small troops of several dozen individuals. They form close friendships, hunt together and ght shoulder to shoulder against baboons, cheetahs and enemy chimpanzees. Their social structure tends to be hierarchical. Other males and females exhibit their submission to the alpha male by bowing before him while making grunting sounds, not unlike human subjects kowtowing before a king. The alpha male strives to maintain social harmony within his troop.
When two individuals ght, he will intervene and stop the violence. Less benevolently, he might monopolise particularly coveted foods and prevent lower-ranking males from mating with the females. When two males are contesting the alpha position, they usually do so by forming extensive coalitions of supporters, both male and female, from within the group. Ties between coalition members are based on intimate daily contact — hugging, touching, kissing, grooming and mutual favours.
Just as human politicians on election campaigns go around shaking hands and kissing babies, so aspirants to the top position in a chimpanzee group spend much time hugging, back-slapping and kissing baby chimps. These coalitions play a central part not only during overt struggles for the alpha position, but in almost all day-to-day activities. Members of a coalition spend more time together, share food, and help one another in times of trouble. There are clear limits to the size of groups that can be formed and maintained in such a way. In order to function, all members of a group must know each other intimately. Two chimpanzees who have never met, never fought, and never engaged in mutual grooming will not know whether they can trust one another, whether it would be worthwhile to help one another, and which of them ranks higher.
Under natural conditions, a typical chimpanzee troop consists of about twenty to fty individuals. As the number of chimpanzees in a troop increases, the social order destabilises, eventually leading to a rupture and the formation of a new troop by some of the animals. Only in a handful of cases have zoologists observed groups larger than a hundred. Separate groups seldom cooperate, and tend to compete for territory and food. Humans, like chimps, have social instincts that enabled our ancestors to form friendships and hierarchies, and to hunt or ght together.
However, like the social instincts of chimps, those of humans were adapted only for small intimate groups. When the group grew too large, its social order destabilised and the band split. Even if a particularly fertile valley could feed archaic Sapiens, there was no way that so many strangers could live together. How could they agree who should be leader, who should hunt where, or who should mate with whom? In the wake of the Cognitive Revolution, gossip helped Homo sapiens to form larger and more stable bands. But even gossip has its limits. Most people can neither intimately know, nor gossip e ectively about, more than human beings. Even today, a critical threshold in human organisations falls somewhere around this magic number.
Below this threshold, communities, businesses, social networks and military units can maintain themselves based mainly on intimate acquaintance and rumour-mongering. There is no need for formal ranks, titles and law books to keep order. A small family business can survive and ourish without a board of directors, a CEO or an accounting department. But once the threshold of individuals is crossed, things can no longer work that way. You cannot run a division with thousands of soldiers the same way you run a platoon.
Successful family businesses usually face a crisis when they grow larger and hire more personnel. If they cannot reinvent themselves, they go bust. How did Homo sapiens manage to cross this critical threshold, eventually founding cities comprising tens of thousands of inhabitants and empires ruling hundreds of millions? The secret was probably the appearance of ction. Large numbers of strangers can cooperate successfully by believing in common myths. 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 esh and allowed Himself to be cruci ed 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 ag. Judicial systems are rooted in common legal myths. Two lawyers who have never met can nevertheless combine e orts 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. What we fail to appreciate is that our modern institutions function on exactly the same basis. Take for example the world of business corporations. Modern business-people and lawyers are, in fact, powerful sorcerers. The principal di erence between them and tribal shamans is that modern lawyers tell far stranger tales. The legend of Peugeot affords us a good example. An icon that somewhat resembles the Stadel lion-man appears today on cars, trucks and motorcycles from Paris to Sydney.
Peugeot began as a small family business in the village of Valentigney, just kilometres from the Stadel Cave. Today the company employs about , people worldwide, most of whom are complete strangers to each other. These strangers cooperate so e ectively that in Peugeot produced more than 1. There are many Peugeot vehicles, but these are obviously not the company. Even if every Peugeot in the world were simultaneously junked and sold for scrap metal, Peugeot SA would not disappear. It would continue to manufacture new cars and issue its annual report.
The company owns factories, machinery and showrooms, and employs mechanics, accountants and secretaries, but all these together do not comprise Peugeot. Even then, the company could borrow money, hire new employees, build new factories and buy new machinery. Peugeot has managers and shareholders, but neither do they constitute the company. All the managers could be dismissed and all its shares sold, but the company itself would remain intact. If a judge were to mandate the dissolution of the company, its factories would remain standing and its workers, accountants, managers and shareholders would continue to live — but Peugeot SA would immediately vanish. In short, Peugeot SA seems to have no essential connection to the physical world.
Does it really exist? Peugeot is a gment of our collective imagination. But it exists as a legal entity. Just like you or me, it is bound by the laws of the countries in which it operates. It can open a bank account and own property. It pays taxes, and it can be sued and even prosecuted separately from any of the people who own or work for it. Homo sapiens lived for untold millennia without them. If in thirteenth-century France Jean set up a wagon-manufacturing workshop, he himself was the business.
If Jean had borrowed 1, gold coins to set up his workshop and the business failed, he would have had to repay the loan by selling his private property — his house, his cow, his land. He might even have had to sell his children into servitude. He was fully liable, without limit, for all obligations incurred by his workshop. If you had lived back then, you would probably have thought twice before you opened an enterprise of your own.
And indeed this legal situation discouraged entrepreneurship. People were afraid to start new businesses and take economic risks. It hardly seemed worth taking the chance that their families could end up utterly destitute. This is why people began collectively to imagine the existence of limited liability companies. Such companies were legally independent of the people who set them up, or invested money in them, or managed them.
Over the last few centuries such companies have become the main players in the economic arena, and we have grown so used to them that we forget they exist only in our imagination. Despite their having no real bodies, the American legal system treats corporations as legal persons, as if they were flesh-and-blood human beings. And so did the French legal system back in , when Armand Peugeot, who had inherited from his parents a metalworking shop that produced springs, saws and bicycles, decided to go into the automobile business. To that end, he set up a limited liability company.
He named the company after himself, but it was independent of him. If one of the cars broke down, the buyer could sue Peugeot, but not Armand Peugeot. If the company borrowed millions of francs and then went bust, Armand Peugeot did not owe its creditors a single franc. The loan, after all, had been given to Peugeot, the company, not to Armand Peugeot, the Homo sapiens. Armand Peugeot died in Peugeot, the company, is still alive and well. How exactly did Armand Peugeot, the man, create Peugeot, the company? It all revolved around telling stories, and convincing people to believe them. Seeing that the priest had properly and assiduously observed all the procedures, millions of devout French Catholics behaved as if God really existed in the consecrated bread and wine.
In the case of Peugeot SA the crucial story was the French legal code, as written by the French parliament. According to the French legislators, if a certi ed lawyer followed all the proper liturgy and rituals, wrote all the required spells and oaths on a wonderfully decorated piece of paper, and a xed his ornate signature to the bottom of the document, then hocus pocus — a new company was incorporated. When in Armand Peugeot wanted to create his company, he paid a lawyer to go through all these sacred procedures. Once the lawyer had performed all the right rituals and pronounced all the necessary spells and oaths, millions of upright French citizens behaved as if the Peugeot company really existed.
Telling e ective stories is not easy. The di culty lies not in telling the story, but in convincing everyone else to believe it. 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 di cult 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.
Over the years, people have woven an incredibly complex network of stories. Within this network, ctions such as Peugeot not only exist, but also accumulate immense power. 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. 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.
The sculptor from the Stadel Cave may sincerely have believed in the existence of the lion-man guardian spirit. 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 , 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, Sapiens has thus been living in a dual reality. On the one hand, the objective reality of rivers, trees and lions; and on the other hand, 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.
Bypassing the Genome The ability to create an imagined reality out of words enabled large numbers of strangers to cooperate e ectively. But it also did something more. Since large- scale human cooperation is based on myths, the way people cooperate can be altered by changing the myths — by telling di erent stories. Under the right circumstances myths can change rapidly. In 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 tra c 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. The behaviour of other social animals is determined to a large extent by their genes. DNA is not an autocrat. Animal behaviour is also in uenced by environmental factors and individual quirks. Nevertheless, in a given environment, animals of the same species will tend to behave in a similar way. Signi cant changes in social behaviour cannot occur, in general, without genetic mutations. For example, common chimpanzees have a genetic tendency to live in hierarchical groups headed by an alpha male.
Members of a closely related chimpanzee species, bonobos, usually live in more egalitarian groups dominated by female alliances. Female common chimpanzees cannot take lessons from their bonobo relatives and stage a feminist revolution. For similar reasons, archaic humans did not initiate any revolutions. As far as we can tell, changes in social patterns, the invention of new technologies and the settlement of alien habitats resulted from genetic mutations and environmental pressures more than from cultural initiatives.
This is why it took humans hundreds of thousands of years to make these steps. Two million years ago, genetic mutations resulted in the appearance of a new human species called Homo erectus. Its emergence was accompanied by the development of a new stone tool technology, now recognised as a de ning feature of this species. As long as Homo erectus did not undergo further genetic alterations, its stone tools remained roughly the same — for close to 2 million years! In contrast, ever since the Cognitive Revolution, Sapiens have been able to change their behaviour quickly, transmitting new behaviours to future generations without any need of genetic or environmental change.
As a prime example, consider the repeated appearance of childless elites, such as the Catholic priesthood, Buddhist monastic orders and Chinese eunuch bureaucracies. The existence of such elites goes against the most fundamental principles of natural selection, since these dominant members of society willingly give up procreation. This abstinence does not result from unique environmental conditions such as a severe lack of food or want of potential mates. Nor is it the result of some quirky genetic mutation. In other words, while the behaviour patterns of archaic humans remained xed for tens of thousands of years, Sapiens could transform their social structures, the nature of their interpersonal relations, their economic activities and a host of other behaviours within a decade or two.
Consider a resident of Berlin, born in and living to the ripe age of one hundred. She had managed to be a part of ve very different sociopolitical systems, though her DNA remained exactly the same. In a one-on-one brawl, a Neanderthal would probably have beaten a Sapiens. Without an ability to compose ction, Neanderthals were unable to cooperate effectively in large numbers, nor could they adapt their social behaviour to rapidly changing challenges. Archaeologists excavating 30,year-old Sapiens sites in the European heartland occasionally nd there seashells from the Mediterranean and Atlantic coasts.
In all likelihood, these shells got to the continental interior through long-distance trade between di erent Sapiens bands. Neanderthal sites lack any evidence of such trade. Each group manufactured its own tools from local materials. The Catholic alpha male abstains from sexual intercourse and childcare, even though there is no genetic or ecological reason for him to do so. Another example comes from the South Paci c. Sapiens bands that lived on the island of New Ireland, north of New Guinea, used a volcanic glass called obsidian to manufacture particularly strong and sharp tools. Laboratory tests revealed that the obsidian they used was brought from deposits on New Britain, an island kilometres away.
Some of the inhabitants of these islands must have been skilled navigators who traded from island to island over long distances. Yet the fact is that no animal other than Sapiens engages in trade, and all the Sapiens trade neworks about which we have detailed evidence were based on ctions. Trade cannot exist without trust, and it is very di cult to trust strangers. The global trade network of today is based on our trust in such ctional entities as the dollar, the Federal Reserve Bank, and the totemic trademarks of corporations.
When two strangers in a tribal society want to trade, they will often establish trust by appealing to a common god, mythical ancestor or totem animal. If archaic Sapiens believing in such ctions traded shells and obsidian, it stands to reason that they could also have traded information, thus creating a much denser and wider knowledge network than the one that served Neanderthals and other archaic humans. Hunting techniques provide another illustration of these di erences. Neanderthals usually hunted alone or in small groups. Sapiens, on the other hand, developed techniques that relied on cooperation between many dozens of individuals, and perhaps even between di erent bands.
One particularly e ective method was to surround an entire herd of animals, such as wild horses, then chase them into a narrow gorge, where it was easy to slaughter them en masse. If all went according to plan, the bands could harvest tons of meat, fat and animal skins in a single afternoon of collective e ort, and either consume these riches in a giant potlatch, or dry, smoke or in Arctic areas freeze them for later usage. Archaeologists have discovered sites where entire herds were butchered annually in such ways.
There are even sites where fences and obstacles were erected in order to create artificial traps and slaughtering grounds. We may presume that Neanderthals were not pleased to see their traditional hunting grounds turned into Sapiens-controlled slaughterhouses. However, if violence broke out between the two species, Neanderthals were not much better o than wild horses. Fifty Neanderthals cooperating in traditional and static patterns were no match for versatile and innovative Sapiens. And even if the Sapiens lost the rst round, they could quickly invent new stratagems that would enable them to win the next time.
What happened in the Cognitive Revolution? New ability Wider consequences Planning and carrying out The ability to transmit larger quantities of complex actions, such as information about the world surrounding Homo avoiding lions and hunting sapiens bison Larger and more cohesive The ability to transmit larger quantities of groups, numbering up to information about Sapiens social relationships individuals The ability to transmit information about things a. Cooperation between very that do not really exist, such as tribal spirits, large numbers of strangers nations, limited liability companies, and human b.
The Cognitive Revolution is accordingly the point when history declared its independence from biology. From the Cognitive Revolution onwards, historical narratives replace biological theories as our primary means of explaining the development of Homo sapiens. To understand the rise of Christianity or the French Revolution, it is not enough to comprehend the interaction of genes, hormones and organisms. It is necessary to take into account the interaction of ideas, images and fantasies as well. This does not mean that Homo sapiens and human culture became exempt from biological laws. We are still animals, and our physical, emotional and cognitive abilities are still shaped by our DNA.
It is, however, a mistake to look for the di erences at the level of the individual or the family. One on one, even ten on ten, we are embarrassingly similar to chimpanzees. Signi cant di erences begin to appear only when we cross the threshold of individuals, and when we reach 1,—2, individuals, the di erences are astounding. If you tried to bunch together thousands of chimpanzees into Tiananmen Square, Wall Street, the Vatican or the headquarters of the United Nations, the result would be pandemonium. By contrast, Sapiens regularly gather by the thousands in such places. Together, they create orderly patterns — such as trade networks, mass celebrations and political institutions — that they could never have created in isolation. The real di erence between us and chimpanzees is the mythical glue that binds together large numbers of individuals, families and groups.
This glue has made us the masters of creation. Of course, we also needed other skills, such as the ability to make and use tools. Yet tool-making is of little consequence unless it is coupled with the ability to cooperate with many others. How is it that we now have intercontinental missiles with nuclear warheads, whereas 30, years ago we had only sticks with int spearheads? Physiologically, there has been no signi cant improvement in our tool-making capacity over the last 30, years. Albert Einstein was far less dexterous with his hands than was an ancient hunter-gatherer. However, our capacity to cooperate with large numbers of strangers has improved dramatically. The ancient int spearhead was manufactured in minutes by a single person, who relied on the advice and help of a few intimate friends.
The production of a modern nuclear warhead requires the cooperation of millions of strangers all over the world — from the workers who mine the uranium ore in the depths of the earth to theoretical physicists who write long mathematical formulas to describe the interactions of subatomic particles. To summarise the relationship between biology and history after the Cognitive Revolution: a. Biology sets the basic parameters for the behaviour and capacities of Homo sapiens. The whole of history takes place within the bounds of this biological arena. However, this arena is extraordinarily large, allowing Sapiens to play an astounding variety of games.
Thanks to their ability to invent ction, Sapiens create more and more complex games, which each generation develops and elaborates even further. Consequently, in order to understand how Sapiens behave, we must describe the historical evolution of their actions. Referring only to our biological constraints would be like a radio sports-caster who, attending the World Cup football championships, o ers his listeners a detailed description of the playing eld rather than an account of what the players are doing.
What games did our Stone Age ancestors play in the arena of history? As far as we know, the people who carved the Stadel lion-man some 30, years ago had the same physical, emotional and intellectual abilities we have. What did they do when they woke up in the morning? What did they eat for breakfast — and lunch? What were their societies like? Did they have monogamous relationships and nuclear families?
Did they have ceremonies, moral codes, sports contests and religious rituals? Did they ght wars? The next chapter takes a peek behind the curtain of the ages, examining what life was like in the millennia separating the Cognitive Revolution from the Agricultural Revolution. English, Hindi and Chinese are all variants of Sapiens language. Apparently, even at the time of the Cognitive Revolution, different Sapiens groups had different dialects. For nearly the entire history of our species, Sapiens lived as foragers. The past years, during which ever increasing numbers of Sapiens have obtained their daily bread as urban labourers and o ce workers, and the preceding 10, years, during which most Sapiens lived as farmers and herders, are the blink of an eye compared to the tens of thousands of years during which our ancestors hunted and gathered.
The ourishing eld of evolutionary psychology argues that many of our present-day social and psychological characteristics were shaped during this long pre-agricultural era. Even today, scholars in this eld claim, 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. To understand why, evolutionary psychologists argue, we need to delve into the hunter-gatherer world that shaped us, the world that we subconsciously still inhabit. Why, for example, do people gorge on high-calorie food that is doing little good to their bodies? In the savannahs and forests they inhabited, high-calorie sweets were extremely rare and food in general was in short supply. A typical forager 30, years ago had access to only one type of sweet food — ripe fruit. If a Stone Age woman came across a tree groaning with gs, the most sensible thing to do was to eat as many of them as she could on the spot, before the local baboon band picked the tree bare.
The instinct to gorge on high-calorie food was hard- wired into our genes. Today we may be living in high-rise apartments with over- stu ed refrigerators, but our DNA still thinks we are in the savannah. Other theories are far more contentious. For example, some evolutionary psychologists argue that ancient foraging bands were not composed of nuclear families centred on monogamous couples. Rather, foragers lived in communes devoid of private property, monogamous relationships and even fatherhood. Since no man knew de nitively which of the children were his, men showed equal concern for all youngsters. Such a social structure is not an Aquarian utopia. 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. Though ancient hunter-gatherer societies tended to be more communal and egalitarian than modern societies, these researchers argue, they were nevertheless comprised of separate cells, each containing a jealous couple and the children they held in common. This is why today monogamous relationships and nuclear families are the norm in the vast majority of cultures, why men and women tend to be very possessive of their partners and children, and why even in modern states such as North Korea and Syria political authority passes from father to son. In order to resolve this controversy and understand our sexuality, society and politics, we need to learn something about the living conditions of our ancestors, to examine how Sapiens lived between the Cognitive Revolution of 70, years ago, and the start of the Agricultural Revolution about 12, years ago.
Unfortunately, there are few certainties regarding the lives of our forager ancestors. We obviously have no written records from the age of foragers, and the archaeological evidence consists mainly of fossilised bones and stone tools. Artefacts made of more perishable materials — such as wood, bamboo or leather — survive only under unique conditions. The common impression that pre-agricultural humans lived in an age of stone is a misconception based on this archaeological bias.
The Stone Age should more accurately be called the Wood Age, because most of the tools used by ancient hunter-gatherers were made of wood. Any reconstruction of the lives of ancient hunter-gatherers from the surviving artefacts is extremely problematic. One of the most glaring di erences between the ancient foragers and their agricultural and industrial descendants is that foragers had very few artefacts to begin with, and these played a comparatively modest role in their lives. Over the course of his or her life, a typical member of a modern a uent society will own several million artefacts — from cars and houses to disposable nappies and milk cartons. Our eating habits are mediated by a mind-boggling collection of such items, from spoons and glasses to genetic engineering labs and gigantic ocean-going ships.
In play, we use a plethora of toys, from plastic cards to ,seater stadiums. Our romantic and sexual relations are accoutred by rings, beds, nice clothes, sexy underwear, condoms, fashionable restaurants, cheap motels, airport lounges, wedding halls and catering companies. Religions bring the sacred into our lives with Gothic churches, Muslim mosques, Hindu ashrams, Torah scrolls, Tibetan prayer wheels, priestly cassocks, candles, incense, Christmas trees, matzah balls, tombstones and icons.
We hardly notice how ubiquitous our stu is until we have to move it to a new house. Foragers moved house every month, every week, and sometimes even every day, toting whatever they had on their backs. There were no moving companies, wagons, or even pack animals to share the burden. They consequently had to make do with only the most essential possessions. An archaeologist working , years from now could piece together a reasonable picture of Muslim belief and practice from the myriad objects he unearthed in a ruined mosque. But we are largely at a loss in trying to comprehend the beliefs and rituals of ancient hunter- gatherers.
A reliance on artefacts will thus bias an account of ancient hunter-gatherer life. One way to remedy this is to look at modern forager societies. These can be studied directly, by anthropological observation. But there are good reasons to be very careful in extrapolating from modern forager societies to ancient ones. Firstly, all forager societies that have survived into the modern era have been in uenced by neighbouring agricultural and industrial societies. Secondly, modern forager societies have survived mainly in areas with di cult climatic conditions and inhospitable terrain, ill-suited for agriculture.
Societies that have adapted to the extreme conditions of places such as the Kalahari Desert in southern Africa may well provide a very misleading model for understanding ancient societies in fertile areas such as the Yangtze River Valley. In particular, population density in an area like the Kalahari Desert is far lower than it was around the ancient Yangtze, and this has far-reaching implications for key questions about the size and structure of human bands and the relations between them. Thirdly, the most notable characteristic of hunter-gatherer societies is how di erent they are one from the other. They di er not only from one part of the world to another but even in the same region. One good example is the huge variety the first European settlers found among the Aborigine peoples of Australia.
Just before the British conquest, between , and , hunter-gatherers lived on the continent in — tribes, each of which was further divided into several bands. These clans bonded together into tribes on a strictly territorial basis. It stands to reason that the ethnic and cultural variety among ancient hunter- gatherers was equally impressive, and that the 5 million to 8 million foragers who populated the world on the eve of the Agricultural Revolution were divided into thousands of separate tribes with thousands of di erent languages and cultures.
Thanks to the appearance of ction, even people with the same genetic make-up who lived under similar ecological conditions were able to create very di erent imagined realities, which manifested themselves in different norms and values. One band might have been belligerent and the other peaceful. Perhaps the Cambridge band was communal while the one at Oxford was based on nuclear families. The Cantabrigians might have spent long hours carving wooden statues of their guardian spirits, whereas the Oxonians may have worshipped through dance. The former perhaps believed in reincarnation, while the latter thought this was nonsense.
In one society, homosexual relationships might have been accepted, while in the other they were taboo. In other words, while anthropological observations of modern foragers can help us understand some of the possibilities available to ancient foragers, the ancient horizon of possibilities was much broader, and most of it is hidden from our view. There are only cultural choices, from among a bewildering palette of possibilities. The Original Affluent Society What generalisations can we make about life in the pre-agricultural world nevertheless? It seems safe to say that the vast majority of people lived in small bands numbering several dozen or at most several hundred individuals, and that all these individuals were humans.
It is important to note this last point, because it is far from obvious. Most members of agricultural and industrial societies are domesticated animals. They are not equal to their masters, of course, but they are members all the same. Today, the society called New Zealand is composed of 4. There was just one exception to this general rule: the dog. The dog was the rst animal domesticated by Homo sapiens, and this occurred before the Agricultural Revolution. Experts disagree about the exact date, but we have incontrovertible evidence of domesticated dogs from about 15, years ago. They may have joined the human pack thousands of years earlier.
Dogs were used for hunting and ghting, and as an alarm system against wild beasts and human intruders. With the passing of generations, the two species co- evolved to communicate well with each other. Dogs that were most attentive to the needs and feelings of their human companions got extra care and food, and were more likely to survive. Simultaneously, dogs learned to manipulate people for their own needs.
Members of a band knew each other very intimately, and were surrounded throughout their lives by friends and relatives. Loneliness and privacy were rare. Neighbouring bands probably competed for resources and even fought one another, but they also had friendly contacts. They exchanged members, hunted together, traded rare luxuries, cemented political alliances and celebrated religious festivals. Such cooperation was one of the important trademarks of Homo sapiens, and gave it a crucial edge over other human species. Sometimes relations with neighbouring bands were tight enough that together they constituted a single tribe, sharing a common language, common myths, and common norms and values.
Yet we should not overestimate the importance of such external relations. Even if in times of crisis neighbouring bands drew closer together, and even if they occasionally gathered to hunt or feast together, they still spent the vast majority of their time in complete isolation and independence. Trade was mostly limited to prestige items such as shells, amber and pigments. There is no evidence that people traded staple goods like fruits and meat, or that the existence of one band depended on the importing of goods from another. Sociopolitical relations, too, tended to be sporadic. The tribe did not serve as a permanent political framework, and even if it had seasonal meeting places, there were no permanent towns or institutions.
The average person lived many months without seeing or hearing a human from outside of her own band, and she encountered throughout her life no more than a few hundred humans. The Sapiens population was thinly spread over vast territories. First pet? A 12,year-old tomb found in northern Israel. It contains the skeleton of a fifty-year-old woman next to that of a puppy bottom left corner.
Her left hand is resting on the dog in a way that might indicate an emotional connection. There are, of course, other possible explanations. Perhaps, for example, the puppy was a gift to the gatekeeper of the next world. Most Sapiens bands lived on the road, roaming from place to place in search of food. Their movements were in uenced by the changing seasons, the annual migrations of animals and the growth cycles of plants. They usually travelled back and forth across the same home territory, an area of between several dozen and many hundreds of square kilometres.
Occasionally, bands wandered outside their turf and explored new lands, whether due to natural calamities, violent con icts, demographic pressures or the initiative of a charismatic leader. These wanderings were the engine of human worldwide expansion. If a forager band split once every forty years and its splinter group migrated to a new territory a hundred kilometres to the east, the distance from East Africa to China would have been covered in about 10, years. In some exceptional cases, when food sources were particularly rich, bands settled down in seasonal and even permanent camps. Techniques for drying, smoking and freezing food also made it possible to stay put for longer periods. Most importantly, alongside seas and rivers rich in seafood and waterfowl, humans set up permanent shing villages — the rst permanent settlements in history, long predating the Agricultural Revolution.
Fishing villages might have appeared on the coasts of Indonesian islands as early as 45, years ago. These may have been the base from which Homo sapiens launched its rst transoceanic enterprise: the invasion of Australia. 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. Sapiens did not forage only for food and materials. They foraged for knowledge as well. To survive, they needed a detailed mental map of their territory.
To maximise the e ciency 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. 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 int 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 aking properties of int 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.
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? 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. There is some evidence that the size of the average Sapiens brain has actually decreased since the age of foraging. You could survive and pass your unremarkable genes to the next generation by working as a water carrier or an assembly-line worker. Foragers mastered not only the surrounding 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 e ort and noise, and knew how to sit, walk and run in the most agile and e cient manner. Varied and constant use of their bodies made them as t as marathon runners. The hunter-gatherer way of life di ered signi cantly from region to region and from season to season, but on the whole foragers seem to have enjoyed a more comfortable and rewarding lifestyle than most of the peasants, shepherds, labourers and office clerks who followed in their footsteps.
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. 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. In most places and at most times, foraging 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 su er 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 rst years had a good chance of reaching the age of sixty, and some even made it to their eighties. Among modern foragers, forty- ve-year- old women can expect to live another twenty years, and about 5—8 per cent of the population is over sixty. 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. Tomorrows menu might have been completely di erent. This variety ensured that the ancient foragers received all the necessary nutrients.
Furthermore, by not being dependent on any single kind of food, they were less liable to su er when one particular food source failed. Agricultural societies are ravaged by famine when drought, re or earthquake devastates the annual rice or potato crop. Forager societies were hardly immune to natural disasters, and su ered 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 foodstu s, they could gather or hunt other species, or move to a less affected area. Ancient foragers also su ered less 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. It would be a mistake, however, to idealise the lives of these ancients. 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 su ered 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. He was left under a tree. But the man recuperated, and, walking briskly, he managed to rejoin the band. I used to kill my aunts … The women were afraid of me … Now, here with the whites, I have become weak.
One woman recalled that her rst baby girl was killed because the men in the band did not want another girl. 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.