Book Summaries History

Chapter 1: An Animal of No Significance (Sapiens)

Sapiens by Harari tells the story of humankind. First, some numbers to get a better historical sense. The universe started approximately 13.5 billion years ago. Around 4 billion years ago, the earth formed, and around 200 thousand years ago, the first humans walked the earth.

Sapiens is a branch of the human species. In the same way that different animals belong to species, we belong to the species of human. That is, there were other types of human that walked the earth, and for a long time, our ancestors co-existed with them. Today, we are the only human species left, and we have become the most dominant animal, but Harari reminds us that while we take our position for granted now, most of our history was spent in trepidation.

We only hunted small animals, and mostly fed on plants. We avoided large game and lived in constant fear of predators. We were specialists at extracting bone marrow because it was the only thing we could eat (we had to wait for other more powerful animals to finish eating the better types of meat). Further, Neanderthals survived for over 2 million years before being wiped out. We are unlikely to last that long. We would be lucky to survive for another 1 million years.

One of the game changers for humans was fire. Because we could choose when and where to use fire, we had an ability than no other animal had. We could burn forests down, and we could hunt. Fire allowed us to cook food, and that meant that we didn’t have to spend 5 hours a day chewing the way chimps do. Instead, we spent an hour a day. We have smaller intestines than chimps, and scholars believe that there is an inverse relationship between brain size and intestinal size because each takes up so much energy. Our brain only makes up 2-3 percent of our weight but consumes around 25 percent of our energy. Not only that but using fire for cooking killed germs in foods that would have been harmful to us.

Walking upright was another advantage, it allowed us to use our hands to make tools and gesture to each other. It freed them up for more useful things, not least of which is hunting. Another advantage was superior vision. But there was a disadvantage to walking upright, and superior vision. We developed back and neck problems. And women had narrower hips because of being upright, and this made child rearing very painful. Child mortality was extremely high for this reason.

We have modestly called ourselves Homo Sapiens (Wise Man). Our relationship with other species of humans is still ambiguous. There is a controversial debate that is taking place today. Some think that Sapiens, our species of human, mated with Neanderthals (who we recently learned were nor barbarous and stupid. They were smart and powerful, and they took care of their sick and disabled).

The first theory says that we never mated with any other human species, and that they died out because they had inferior technology. The second theory says that we did mate with them, and more than that, different parts of the world mated with different species of human. China and Korea with Homo Erectus while Sapiens in Eurasia with Neanderthals. The truth may be somewhere in between. The evidence is not yet conclusive, but some results were published that shocked the scientific community. They revealed that a percentage of people in the Middle East and Africa had Neanderthal DNA.

How come we are the only species of human that managed to survive? The secret to our current dominance may be in language. This is the subject of the next chapter.

Read Sapiens

"Silence is the best expression of scorn" - G.B. Shaw

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