Credit: Rosie Wilson

Review: Sapiens by Yuval Noah Harari

By Katherine Prentice

Have you ever felt curious about our common ancestral history? Writer Katherine Prentice turns a spotlight on all the Homo Sapiens theories that you didn’t know you needed.

Seen on the bookshelves of more dads, students, and borderline pseudo-archaeologists than any other, the best-seller Sapiens: A Brief History of Humankind by Yuval Noah Harari provides a fascinating insight into the entire history of Homo sapiens: a brave and surprisingly successful endeavour. The Israeli historian makes science, archaeology, anthropology, and history accessible and thrilling by starting at the very beginning of our story. 

A couple of things already need clarification. Firstly, I say the history of Homo sapiens not to sound fancy, but because the first lesson in this book is that humans are not Homo sapiens. The term “humans” refers to all of our close ancestors on the twisting evolutionary tree. There is no human march of progress: they have existed in many different places, looking perhaps very different, for many, many years. The book firmly drills in that we aren’t all that special, just good communicators and weapon-makers. 

Secondly, I say “pseudo-archaeological” not necessarily as a bad thing. The book stays firmly away from Ancient Aliens territory, but certainly makes some bold, often unconfirmed claims. This could be seen as one of Sapiens’ (yes, even as Harari’s) greatest weaknesses, but in history, archaeology, and human paleobiology, few claims or theories are ever “confirmed”. And yes, this time I am trying to sound fancy. 

Harari’s out-of-the-box thinking is arguably his greatest strength. His theories are bold, yet well-supported and convincing. Most of the ideas in the book are recognised as exactly that: theories. After all, the Neolithic isn’t set in stone. One claim which has stuck in my mind like a stone axe in peat has been the argument that the agricultural revolution was “history’s biggest fraud”. Too many hours of mine have now been spent wondering what life would be like without the agricultural revolution. As a specky girl with terrible knees, I’m not sure why I enjoy this idea so much. It’s a fascinating concept nonetheless. 

On one hand, it’s hard to disagree when dealing with eye strain from laptops; a sore back from my desk; and a crushing feeling when faced with waking up for work: problems I’m sure never plagued our hunter-gatherer ancestors. On the other hand, it’s pretty easy to forget all about it when enjoying some hot mac n’ cheese that I didn’t have to hunt myself or find in the wild. True, we have evolved to fit the lifestyle of hunter-gatherers, but I have to say I can’t picture most of my friends making a spear to go on a hunt. However, looking back a century or so, as historians are supposed to do, this concept makes even more sense. Harari posits that crops such as wheat domesticated us, rather than the other way around, which feels a bit insulting but is actually pretty logical. The tedious months put in by farmers to grow wheat, maize, and potatoes seem to have had a limited payoff. In the feudal system in particular, I doubt many serfs or peasants felt a great love for whoever first started farming. What we have to consider is whether this has paid off for sapiens in the long run. Sure I have to work in an office now, but I live a longer, safer, and easier life than hunter-gatherers or serfs did.

Harari has another slightly crushing point to hammer home though: money isn’t even real. The author makes us question if all this work and advancement was worth it to live in a world dictated by imaginary things such as money, nations, corporations, and religion. I’d say probably. I quite enjoy the very real things made possible by human development. Like penicillin and mac n’ cheese. So while Sapiens is full of some overly confident speculation on our past, it certainly leaves the reader thinking, and with a much greater grasp on the history of sapiens than most of us will have gone in with. These theories are what moves history forward, and what makes the book so engaging for an astonishing number of people. With more than 12m copies sold, it can’t be too outlandish and, after all, many bold claims have been made without archaeologists’ careers being left in ruins.


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