From Animal into Gods (Part I)
Written by Alfonso Elizondo
Created on Monday, September 12, 2016, 9:38
Thanks to the recommendation of a good friend of mine, I read one of the most wonderful books in my long life. It is written by a young Israeli genius named Yuval Noah Harari who has a PhD from the University of Oxford and teaches History at the Hebrew University of Jerusalem. Harari is just 42 and wrote four books on various important periods in human history before he wrote From Animal into Gods, which he subtitled A Brief History of Humankind.
Although this book is well documented with abundant scientific research by Harari himself and other anthropologists, geneticists and contemporary archaeologists who are visiting the main sites in the Middle East, Europe, Africa and Asia where humans transitioned from the Palaeolithic to the Neolithic Age, it nevertheless expresses doubt about many of its theories.
The first part analyzes two very important events in the history of humankind that are often unknown or misinterpreted by traditional history: first it explains why Homo sapiens prevailed over other hominid species that existed at the time of the appearance of Homo erectus on the planet, and secondly it gives an extraordinary explanation of the process of human settlement in the Levant, where Mesopotamia later emerged after the creation of the first agricultural fields to produce wheat.
Using everyday language and with an extraordinary sense of humor, Harari outlines the reasons why Homo sapiens were the only nomadic tribes of hunter-gatherers who managed to adapt to climate change, population growth, periods of food shortages and to the myriad diseases that diminished both their small tribal groups that never exceeded 150 people and their ability to associate with people from other tribal groups with different languages and customs.
Although Neanderthals had a larger brain mass and their physical bodies were far superior to the sapiens body, they were the ones that adapted best to changes in nature and who developed the ability to communicate and associate with other tribal groups with whom they achieved higher levels of hunting and gathering, but finally sapiens were the only ones who survived the attempts to create ties and produce offspring in eventual unions with members of other tribes, so much so that just 2.5% of Neanderthal DNA remained in humans who populated the world towards the beginning of the Neolithic period in the year 30,000 BC, and it disappeared completely from the human race towards 12,500 BC when agriculture emerged with the Natufians in the Levant.
Harari explains very clearly how and why agriculture appeared in the Levant region, to which a group of tribes of hunter-gatherers had migrated because of issues of climate change that had destroyed the plants and the offspring of the main wild animals that fed them. They discovered by chance the nutritional properties of wheat seeds and thinking that by having a safe staple food source they could tame most of the animals that were part of their diet, (mainly cows, pigs, sheep and chickens), they created history’s first human settlement around the year 9,500 BC in what is now Jericho in Israel.
For most historians, this first settlement meant the first instance of private property in history and they think that it is the origin of the current problem of a small elite seeing themselves as owners of the economic and political power of the tribe and this has been through the years the type of control exercised by a small group of powerful people over the rest of the social group, with no concern for the fact that the majority social group is getting increasingly poorer. They feel that their position is a kind of divine power that can only be passed on to their heirs.
Harari thinks that the agricultural process that led to the first sedentary human societies was not just accidental, but that as there was no way of knowing what was happening in the last generation or two, towns grew up based on the facts of the present, on natural population growth and without the knowledge that in the past their progress in the area of food had caused more problems than when they were nomadic tribes, as they had to build warehouses to store their provisions for periods of shortages, and had to spend much of their time and the moments of happiness they once enjoyed on these structures that did not prevent robbery attempts by thieves from other tribes and the creation of violence.
Harari arrives at two very important conclusions in this first part of his book: the eventual dominion that Homo sapiens exercised over other species of hominids and over the world in general was due to his ability to create more complete stories than the other nomadic tribes at the time about what he was able to see in his frequent forays in search of food produced by nature and when hunting animals to eat their flesh and fat. That special way of talking about the world in which they lived opened up their space with a more complex society and a larger number of people who together could achieve better results than small groups. But the most important thing about these stories is that unreal beings or ghosts participated in them that turned into gods and myths that ultimately determined their immediate future; something very similar to what continues to occur worldwide.
The second conclusion is that although hundreds of thousands of years have passed, the actions of human beings to improve their domestic life have not only been futile, but have made them more unhappy and they don’t know where they are going.