The Smartest People Ever?

I read a fascinating book called Sapiens that was written by Yuval Harari an historian from Israel. It was one of those books where I learned something new on every page. Harari doesn’t just think outside the box he doesn’t recognized boxes. He is an original thinker like few others.

Harari pointed out that usually in most habitats Sapiens did not feed themselves by hunting. Usually they gathered.  They were hunter-gatherers. Harari described it this way:

“In most habitats, Sapien bands fed themselves in an elastic and opportunistic fashion. They scrounged for termites, picked berries, dug for roots, stalked rabbits and hunted bison and mammoth. Notwithstanding the popular image of ‘man the hunter,’ gathering was Sapiens main activity, and it provided most of their calories, as well as raw materials such as flint, wood, and bamboo.”

This not the romantic or idealized picture I had of our ancestors.  I thought they were tough courageous hunters. They were that. But more than that, they were scroungers.    But sometimes the idealized version of events we hold dear has to give ground to other truths. And sometimes we learn our ancestors were amazing. They were just as amazing, but  in ways we have never thought of before. Harari added to his description of them this way:

“Sapiens did not forage only for food and materials. They foraged for knowledge as well. To survive they needed a detailed mental map of their territory. To maximize the efficiency of their daily search for food, they required information about he growth patterns of each plant and the habits of each animal. They needed to know to know which foods were nourishing, which made you sick, and how to use others as cures. They needed to know the progress of the seasons and what warning signs preceded thunderstorms or a dry spell. They studied every stream, every walnut tree, every bear cave, and every flint-stone deposit in their vicinity. Each individual had to understand how to make a stone knife, now to mend a torn cloak, how to lay a rabbit trap, and now to face avalanches, snakebites or hungry lions. Masters of these many skills required years of apprenticeship and practice. The average ancient forager could turn a flint stone into a spear point within minutes. When we try to imitate this feat, we usually fail miserably. Most of us lack expert knowledge of the flaking properties of flint and basalt and the fine motor skills needed to work them precisely.

In other words, the average forager had wider deeper, deeper and more varied knowledge of her immediate surroundings than most of her modern descendants. Today, most people in industrial societies don’t need to know much about the natural world in order to survive. What do you really need to know in order to get by as a computer engineer, an insurance agent, a history teacher or a factory worker? You need to know a lot about your tiny field of expertise, but for the vast majority of life’s necessities you rely blindly on the help of other experts, whose own knowledge is also limited  to a tiny field of expertise. The human collective knows far more today than did the ancient bands. But at the individual level, ancient foragers were the most knowledgeable and skillful people in history.”

To support this startling conclusion Harari said, “There is some evidence that the size of the average Sapiens brain actually decreasedsince the age of foraging.”

I admit I never thought of our  ancestors quite that way. I think the use of the feminine “she” in this quote is not just a nod to avoiding masculine pronouns . This process of foraging, or gathering, was led by women.  Women  were vital in this process. Most of those important jobs were performed by women, while the men went hunting. It reminded me of what I learned in Africa.  The women did the hard work of fetching water I (among many other tasks). The men sat under trees discussing important matters! Women were incredibly smart in hunter-gatherer societies.

In other words ancient Sapiens were smart. Perhaps the smartest in human history as Harari suggests. They had to be in order to survive in a very dangerous world in which they were far from the largest, fastest, or keenest observers. They had to be smart—very smart. And this is what indigenous people were like when Europeans first contacted them! Makes you wonder why anyone would presume they were smarter. Only a deeply entrenched bias could do that.


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