From sharing the earth with many other human species merely as hunter gatherers trying to brave the elements, to building rockets, creating the internet, and now with our eyes set on Mars, the history of humanity is one that’s filled with determination, cooperation, and ingenuity. We have done much more for ourselves than our ancestors could have ever imagined. Today, humans dominate contemporary life on Earth, but we haven’t always been this powerful.
So how did we get here? What is our story? This is the entire history of humanity in 10 minutes. Our story begins around 200,000 years ago with the emergence of our species, Homo Sapiens. At the time, we shared our world with several other human species or hominins. The most well-known are Homo Erectus, the ‘upright man’, and Homo Neanderthalensis, commonly referred to as Neanderthals.
The scientific consensus is that we all came from a common ancestor, the first species of the homo genus that evolved approximately 2.5 million years ago. The genes of these hominins suggest that they crossed paths and even occasionally interbred. Sadly, for the last 15,000 years, we’ve been the only human species to walk this Earth, which raises the question: what happened to the rest of us? The scientific debate concerning the cause of extinction of all other hominin species is far from over.
Some theories attribute their demise to rapid changes in local climate while others lean towards a more aggressive explanation with mass graves and cracked skulls found at archaeological sites as back-up evidence. Another possibility is that they didn’t go extinct at all, but that rather we all merged into one species through interbreeding. Whatever the real cause is, there is only one species of humans left today- Homo Sapiens.
For many millennia, humans were just another link in the food chain, another stop in the circle of life, bipedal primates that were no more significant than other species participating in the ecosystem. So what changed? What allowed us to become the only known species to successfully migrate and adapt to a wide variety of ecosystems across our planet, fundamentally change global climate, and even venture into space?
This development didn’t happen overnight. It took tens of thousands of years, and what exactly transpired is something that we’ll never know for sure. But historians have generally agreed on a few major landmarks in our prehistory that stand out above all others. Striding bipedal locomotion was novel for primates roaming the prehistoric African savannah. But though it did free up early hominins’ arms for other tasks, it didn't give them a significant edge over other species in their ecosystem for millions of years to come.
What did forever change our place in the food chain, though, was the use of fire. This is why many people consider man-made fire to be man’s greatest invention, or was it a discovery? The first evidence for hominin interactions with one of the most destructive forces of nature dates back around 1.5 million years ago. We started out by adding fuel to naturally occurring fires to keep them burning.
It would take around another million years for us to start starting fires on our own, which enabled its habitual use. And once we figured it out, everything changed. The mastery of fire by hominin species was extremely useful for many different reasons. We used it to provide warmth when the weather went cold, light when the sky turned dark, protection against predators and insects, and best of all, we used it to cook our meals.
By cooking food, anthropologist Richard Wrangham posits in his ‘Cooking Hypothesis’ that our bodies required less energy for digestion, which allowed for more energy to be allocated to different functions of the brain. This Wrangham believes is what eventually led to the development of complex language. According to Israeli scientist Noah Harari, though, it wasn't only our fiery ways that set Homo Sapiens apart from all other species. He believes there was something else, the Cognitive Revolution.
Around 70,000 years ago we developed the capacity for large scale collaboration through the ability to communicate complex information. The cause is uncertain, most likely a chance gene mutation, but the effect was unparalleled. Many species communicate to each other about an imminent threat or the desire to mate. But during the cognitive revolution, Harari argues that Homo Sapiens started talking to each other about other members of the tribe and collective fictions like animist deities and spirits, which allowed even complete strangers to cooperate effectively.
Who knew that gossiping would turn out to be one of our biggest strengths? Even today, the functioning of our societies completely depends on our belief in collective fictions like human rights, the value of money and the law. Such belief systems bind millions of people to each other and back then, made it possible for homo sapiens to conquer the world. This development of complex language enabled Homo Sapiens to move out of Africa into Europe and Asia, and eventually into Australia and America.
The reason for this venture far away from home is unclear, but it were most likely environmental pressures like severe droughts and lack of food that pushed them out. Their migration was far from peaceful, though. Due to hunting and competition for resources, it led to the extinction of a lot of endemic megafauna. Then around 12,000 something incredible happened. Theorized to have occurred in multiple different locations around the world simultaneously, humans decided to start cultivating plants and breeding animals for food, essentially changing us from nomads to settlers, from hunter gatherers to farmers.
As a result, food supply stabilized and acquiring nourishment wasn’t a full time occupation for every member of the tribe anymore. This allowed some members of the tribe enough time to specialize in other kinds of labor. We could now have artisans, warriors, and childcare givers. With time, these settlements grew into cities and cities into empires, often united under collective religious fictions. This ensued the development of culture, customs, traditions, and, perhaps most importantly, written text.
The emergence of written text distinguishes prehistory, defined by scholars as the period before written records, from history, defined as the period after. While prehistory is primarily based on interpretations of archaeological findings, our understanding of history is mostly dictated by written records. The oldest written records we’ve found to date were discovered in Egypt, and are estimated to be 5,000 years old. The ancient Egyptian and Mesopotamium civilizations are said to be the cradles of society as we know it.
Sadly, the human story would not be complete without some of the biggest atrocities the earth has ever seen. While large scale collaboration of humans under common belief systems led to some of our greatest achievements, it also had terrible consequences such as wars, genocide, and enslavement. Why does this unrivaled capacity for teamwork carry with it such a devastating power? The flipside of our collective fictions’ potential to unite, is its power to separate, or rather: unite against.
Competition for resources is a natural phenomenon, but it had never before been as organized and ruthless as under human civilization. The belief in, for instance, a deity, the divinity of a ruler, or national superiority, became a strong enough motivator to wish death upon groups of people with opposing beliefs or different identities. English Philosopher Thomas Hobbes argues that humans are inherently self-interested and competitive and that we can control our brutish nature by subjecting ourselves to rigid authoritative bodies who maintain peace.
Genevan philosopher Rousseau counters this by saying that we’re not biologically wired to coexist in such numerous groups, and large scale civilizations inevitably breed extreme inequality and social division, and eventually collapse. He believes our good nature is corrupted by political and social institutions, which reward selfish desires that would’ve been kept in check by smaller-sized prehistoric communities of hunters and gatherers.
Either way, the intricate web of human interactions that constitutes contemporary society is unrecognizable and undeniably more complex, compared to the way our genetically indistinguishable prehistoric ancestors organized themselves. And this has led to issues beyond our control. We could fill dozens of videos with human accomplishments from the past few thousand years, from the construction of the pyramids to the invention of mathematics, from Greek politics to the morals of Confucianism, from Buddhist wisdom to Roman infrastructure.
But looking at modern history, one development in particular stands out- the scientific revolution. This method of systematic experimentation originated in Europe and radically changed our understanding of the universe, our planet, and ourselves. Empirical observations replaced superstitions as the framework we used to interpret the world around us. During the 18th century, also referred to as the Age of Enlightenment, religious doctrines were replaced by a thirst for reason in order to improve the human condition.
Together with the flood of groundbreaking discoveries and innovations that resulted from this age, came a reinterpretation of our relationship with nature. This is exemplified by French philosopher, scientist and mathematician, Renée Descartes, who a few centuries earlier proclaimed our progression in different scientific fields could and should make us ‘masters and possessors of nature’.
This paradigm shift, in combination with previously unimaginable technological advancement, gave rise to what is referred to as the industrial revolution, and ushered into an era of not only unprecedented productivity and discovery but also unprecedented exploitation of the natural world and human labor. According to economic anthropologist, Jason Hickel, the most important driver of this mass exploitation was an economic system that demands perpetual expansion. He argues that the rise of capitalism required the destruction of self-sufficient subsistence economies and the creation of artificial scarcity and cheap labor.
An example of this were the Enclosure Acts, a series of acts proposed by the British parliament between 1604 and 1914 in which the state essentially enclosed previously common land and converted it into private property. As a result, a lot of local people lost access to land that had been available to them for generations and were left with no other choice than to offer their labor to a landowner or move to the city. This desire for economic expansion wasn’t limited to appropriation of the commons within national borders, but is expected to have driven European colonization of most of the world.
Oxford economist, Kate Raworth, argues that an economic system that depends on infinite growth is completely unsustainable considering a planetary system with finite resources. If the global economy grows at 3% per year, which is relatively low, economic activity would double every 24 years. Since GDP growth is coupled to material and energy use, it significantly contributes to the climatic disruption and immense pressure on planetary boundaries that the productivity of the Industrial Revolution has brought with it.
And while we have proceeded further than ever in fields like health care, food production, or even astronomy, under this growth paradigm, Raworth suggests it is not essential to improving human welfare and scientific discovery. In her book, Doughnut Economics, she puts forth that expanding the commons, or public services, essentially reversing the privatization of the last few centuries, and a reinterpretation of the natural ecosystem and our place within it, provide a stronger foundation for human life and nature to flourish.
Humanity’s past is one that’s filled with a lot of incredible achievements. Thousands of years have now passed since we first walked the earth, and our world will be completely unimaginable to our prehistoric ancestors. But we must keep in mind that in our conquest for growth, we do not destroy the very thing that gave us life and an opportunity to thrive.
We must take care of nature, just as it took care of us in the past. Here’s to humanity’s future. Let’s hope that it’s one the ancient hominids would have been proud of.