A Brief History of Humankind

An idea isn’t responsible for the people who believe in it. —Don Marquis In the early twentieth century, anthropologists commonly referred to particular groups of people as "savages." Technically peaking, this was not an insult (though it seldom came off as a compliment). "Savagery" was just a stage in the orderly history of human cultures. […]

The Way We Were (A Brief History of Humankind)

A common principle of intelligence meets us in the savage, in the barbarian, and in civilized man. —Lewis Henry Morgan Mark Twain considered the Shoshone Indians of western North America "the wretchedest type of mankind I have ever seen up to this writing." They "have no villages, and no gathering together into strictly defined tribal […]

Add Technology and Bake For Five Millennia (A Brief History of Humankind)

The propensity to truck, barter, and exchange one thing for another . . . is common to all men. —Adam Smith What is society, whatever its form may be? The product of men’s reciprocal action. . . . Assume a particular state of development in the productive faculties of man and you will get a […]

The Invisible Brain (A Brief History of Humankind)

All thought draws life from contacts and exchanges. —Fernand Braudel Explaining the affluence of the Northwest Coast Indians seems simple at first. They lived amid natural abundance. And abundance, after all, is affluence. Presumably that’s why so many of the affluent hunter-gatherer societies recently discerned by archaeologists lived near large bodies of water. If you […]

War: What Is It Good For? (A Brief History of Humankind)

If we think how many things besides frontiers of states the wars of history have decided, we must feel some respectful awe, in spite of all the horrors. Our actual civilization, good and bad alike, has had past wars for its determining condition. —William James Ah, Tahiti. The lush island whose carefree natives the painter […]

The Inevitability of Agriculture (A Brief History of Humankind)

The farmer takes a wife, the farmer takes a wife . . . —From the nursery song "The Farmer in the Dell" A favorite pastime of archaeologists is to invent competing explanations for the domestication of plants and animals, which first happened around 10,000 years ago. Perhaps, one theory has it, a hotter climate, by […]

The Age of Chiefdoms (A Brief History of Humankind)

When the philosophers of the eighteenth century made religion out to be an enormous error conceived by priests, at least they were able to explain its persistence by the interest the sacerdotal caste had in deceiving the masses. But if the peoples themselves have been the artisans of these systems of erroneous ideas, at the […]

The Second Information Revolution (A Brief History of Humankind)

Their function as a stamp of ownership on this item or that was mundane, but the best of them carry images of astonishing vivacity and refinement. —An art critic’s view of ancient cylinder seals The oldest surviving written reference to King Solomon’s Temple is an inscription on a shard of clay from the seventh century […]

Civilizations and so on (A Brief History of Humankind)

Whenever rulers and military classes tolerated merchants and refrained from taxing them so heavily or robbing them so often as to inhibit trade and commerce, new potentialities of economic production arising from regional specialization and economies of scale in manufacture could begin to show their capacity to increase human wealth. —William McNeill There is an […]

Our Friends The Barbarians (A Brief History of Humankind)

We have to remember that the annals of this warfare between "civilization" and "barbarism" have been written almost exclusively by the scribes of the "civilized" camp. —Arnold Toynbee In A.D. 410, the Visigoths sacked Rome. Saint Jerome, who had studied in Rome and had translated the Bible into its language, was in Bethlehem when he […]