The Oldest Profession

Sapiens by Yuval Harari is a “long view” history of humanity. Harari’s view is that history only starts about 70,000 years ago with the “cognitive revolution” which helped to separate “Homo Sapiens” from all the other members of the genus “Homo”. About 100,000 years ago there were Neanderthals, Denisovans, the Flores dwarf Homo species and several other human species spread across the Earth. Then we happened to them, as we also did to other large animals in any new habitat we reached – eg Australia, the Americas, the New Zealand Moa and the Mauritian Dodo.

In Harari’s view the cognitive revolution enabled Homo Sapiens to tell stories to one another, to trade with other bands of Sapiens and to plan ahead. The capacity for longer distance trade was a distinct advantage Homo Sap had over the Neanderthals and other hominids.

The cognitive revolution led to the development of more complex societies built on the fictions of religion, monarchy, the state and money. As Harari points out tellingly, no chimpanzee would willingly hand over a banana now on the somewhat vague promise of six bananas in the afterlife. Humans have the ability to conceptualise the ideas of trade, co-operation, religion and the hierarchies of power such that the bargain at least seems plausible or politic.

There is plenty of long view history to enjoy in this book and the illustrations are well chosen too.

“Between 3,500 and 3,000 BC some unknown Sumerian geniuses invented a system for storing and processing information outside their brains …. writing.

The earliest messages left by our ancestors read, for example ‘29,086 measures barley 37 months Kushim’. The most probable reading of this sentence is ‘A total of 29,086 measures of barley were received over the course of 37 months. Signed Kushim’

‘Kushim’ may be the generic title of an office holder, or the name of a particular individual. If Kushim was indeed a person, he may be the first individual in history whose name is known to us! …It is telling that the first recorded name in history belongs to an accountant, rather than a prophet, a poet or a great conqueror.”


About Greg

Middle aged male, resident at the finest of all latitudes, 37. Reputedly an indoor cricketer.
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