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Sapiens – A Brief History of Humankind: Yuval Noah Harari

There is only one word to describe this book, it is mind-blowing. This is like a mini-capsule to cover 100,000 years of history. Now I can see why everyone from Bill Gates to Brack Obama is raving about it. If you are interested in history or to know how the human has evolved from the being a cave foragers to a civilized 21st-century human then you should definitely pick up this book.

The narrative of the book is quite interesting. Don’t be scared by hearing the term history and don’t imagine it like your boring school textbooks. It is quite engaging and I felt like I am almost reading the narrative of a well-made documentary. I find myself amused sometimes, chuckling at the facts, sometimes disturbed and angry, this book got into me a range of emotions. It has also opened my mind to so many things and changed the way I look around things. I am really intrigued to pick up the next 2 books by Yuval Noah Harari too. Let me know in the comments what do you think about the book if you have read it.

Book Summary

Please note my book summary is informal and contains snippets from book.

Part 1: The Cognitive Revolution

  • Homo sapiens means the wise one is the species of the same genus Hemus which means human
  • Homo Sapiens existed around 150,000 years ago along with other species. Around 70,000 years ago they moved to other parts of the world
  • Why others species are extinct. 2 theories: interbreeding or replacement
  • Why human species are special:
    • Ability to walk on 2 feet.
    • Large brain
  • Domestication of fire changed the way of living
  • The last other species was known 16,000 years ago
  • Cognitive Revolution: 70,000 years to 30,000 years ago. After that evolution is not based on genetics but on social behavior
  • How were Sapiens able to settle so rapidly?
    • Evolution of language: It helped them in planning and carrying out complex actions
    • Ability to tell fiction: Believing in common myth helped in binding large social groups, building trust for trade
  • Ever since the Cognitive Revolution, there hasn’t been a single way of living for Sapiens. There are only cultural choices, from among a bewildering palette of possibilities
  • Many scholars believe that animistic beliefs were common among ancient foragers
  • There is not enough evidence to know the exact beliefs, sociopolitical structure, religious practice among ancient foragers. There are mostly various theories based on whatever data scholars have excavated
  • Sapiens colonized Australia 45,000 years ago and America 16000 years ago which lead to the extinction of megafauna of these territories

Part 2: Agricultural Revolution

  • The transition happened around 9500-8500 BC
  • Major changes
    • Domestication of crops and animals. Cattles are the worst victims
    • Made farmer’s life more difficult and less satisfying than foragers. Considered as History’s biggest fraud
    • More food per unit of territory and thus lead to growth in population. Around 10,000 BC earth had 5-8 million nomadic forager. By the 1st century AD, the world has 250 million farmers
  • Reasons. 2 plausible explanations
    • Gradual changes. Started small and then people get used to this way of living. Some argue that even if it was hard they have already forgotten foragers way of living
    • It is built around some cultural foundation
  • Foundation of the large-scale political and social system. Rise of rulers and elites living off peasants surplus food
  • People invented stories of gods, motherland, and stock companies. Myths are stronger than anyone could have imagined
  • Strong dynasties and empires were formed
  • how people believed in an imagined order such as Christianity, democracy, or capitalism
    • the imagined order is embedded in the material world
    • It shapes our desire. Backed by the ideas of romanticism and consumerism
    • It is inter-subjective. To change the order, one must convince millions of people in an alternative imagined order
  • The rise of sociopolitical order required a framework to store data
    • Between 3500-3000 BC, Sumerians invented the system of writing. It’s a Partial script written on clay to mark only transactions
    • Around 3000 BC Egyptian developed another full script hieroglyphics
    • Other full scripts developed in China 1200 BC and in Central America 1000-500 BC
  • China and Inca Empire developed systems for archiving and cataloging
  • The modern script of numbers 0-9 developed by Hindus but propagated by Arabs through the Middle East and then Europe
  • People created order in society by classifying population into imagined categories: superior, commoner and slaves, whites and blacks, Brahmins and Shudras, patricians and plebeians, or rich and poor
  • Mostly due to a vicious circle
  • Reason for a patriarchal society. Many theories but none are proper
    • Men are stronger. But women are excluded from jobs that require little physical effort
    • Men are more aggressive and hence fitted for armies and war but why not female general
    • Patriarchal genes


Part 3: The Unification of Mankind

  • Every culture has its typical belief, norms, and values, but these are in constant flux
  • Over millennia, simple small cultures gradually coalesce into a bigger and more complex civilization so that the world contains fewer and fewer mega cultures. History is moving relentlessly towards unity
    • Around 10000 BC thousands of world existed
    • By 2000 BC, numbers dwindled to the hundreds
    • By AD 1450, 90% of humans lived in a single mega world: Afro-Asia.
    • Over the next 300 years, the Afro-Asian giant swallowed the world
  • The single global culture is not homogeneous
  • The first universal order was economic: the monetary order. The second was political: the imperial order. The third was religious
  • The monetary order:
    • Started with the barter economy. Failed as one need to know 100 different commodities being exchanged and 4950 exchange rates
    • Some societies tried to establish a central barter system. Failed as everyone gets lazy
    • In 3000 BC, silver shekels was used which is 8.33 gram of silver.
    • By 640 BC in Lydia first coin was issued which was standardized with value and issuing authority
    • People believed in gold, silver as currency for trade and trust because if some other country believed in it, it will start minting in your country with lower value and hence increasing value here. Eventually, both country will reach a similar value
    • money is based on 2 universal principles
      • Universal trust
      • Universal convertibility
  • The imperial order:
    • An empire is a political order with 2 characteristics
      • You have to rule over a significant number of distinct people possessing different cultural and territory
      • Flexible borders and a potential unlimited appetite
    • History
      • First empire: the Akkadian Empire of Sargon the Great 2250 BC who claimed to rule the world
      • Next 1700 years, Assyrian, Babylonian, and Hittite adopted Sargon as a role model
      • By 550 BC, Cyrus the Great claimed to rule the world for the sake of all people. It started the vision of unifying people for benefit of mankind. The same vision followed by Persians to Alexander the Great, to Hellenistic kings, Roman emperors, Muslim Caliphs, Indian dynasts, and eventually to Soviets and American president
    • The imperial order lead to unification and assimilation of culture and eventually, the empire’s founders lose their dominance
  • The religious order
    • Religion has 2 distinct criteria:
      • It holds that there is a superhuman order
      • Based on this order, it establishes norms and values that it considers binding
    • Started with animism which believes that there is a soul in every human, animal, rock, tree, or lake
    • The agricultural revolution made people desire mastery over animals or crops. When they failed they believed in local spirits with whom they bargained
    • The rise of trade and empires lead to rising of polytheism. It believed that there are multiple gods each serving a different purpose like fertility God, war God, sky God
    • Each polytheism belief is backed by an omnipotent God which is unbiased and hence don’t serve on mundane wishes and hence polytheistic religion is more tolerant
    • Monotheism leads to the belief in a single God and hence denied all other gods and continues to fight over the slightest of variations in different sects of the same religion.
    • Few other religion developed which is not backed by Gods but by the law of nature like Buddhism and Jainism
    • Today no religion is pure monotheistic and has contradictory beliefs. This is called syncretism
    • Later various ideologies are formed which also does not serve any God but some ideas like Humanism, communism

Part 4: The Scientific Revolution

  • Observed in last 500 years
  • Differs from previous traditions of knowledge in 3 ways:
    • The willingness to admit ignorance
    • Centralizing it on observation and mathematics
    • Use it to acquire new powers
  • People now don’t find meaning in death, but they are on a project to defeat death
  • Scientific research can flourish only in reliance on some religion or ideology. The ideology justifies the cost of the research, influences the scientific agenda, and determines what to do with this research.
  • Europe became the hub of the scientific revolution and the global center of power shifted to Europe between 1750BC and 1850 BC
  • Why Europe? Modern science and Capitalism. Europeans were used to thinking and behaving in a scientific and capitalist way even before they had such technological advances
  • Another factor that fueled it is the acceptance of ignorance and the zeal to find out what else is there. It has driven them to find the unknown corners of the world and forms the colonies there
  • The economic history of the world can be summed as:
  • A crucial part of the modern economy is that profit ought to be reinvested in production which brings more profit
  • The credit system is based on the idea of the future and that’s what backed all the future expeditions.
  • Trading institutes are taken over by nations and turned into colonies
  • Coined the idea of the free market, where politics was kept out of the economy, taxation and government regulations reduced to a minimum, and market forces had free rein to take their course. But greedy capitalist start taking advantage of this and it turns out to a Hell for poor and less privileged
  • People learned to convert one energy form into another and this found the root of the industrial revolution
  • A new ethic was developed and adopted: consumerism. It convinced people that self-indulgence is good for them while frugality is self-oppression
  • The invention of the clocks lead to the concept of timetables
  • Strong family connections are broken and more focused on individualism, leading to a strong state and market
  • The modern era change at a rapid pace, but the most predominant feature is the peace in our time
    • The price of war has gone up and the profit declined
    • With nuclear weapons, war is a collective suicide and hence it is impossible to seek global dominion through war

After all these years of growth and evolution, the author poses the ultimate question in the end. Are we really happy than we were at beginning of these revolutions? Where are we going? And what are we going to do with all these power? These are some important questions for which we don’t have any answer yet.

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One Comment

  1. […] reading this book, I was able to reference so many ideas from the book Sapiens – A Brief History of Humankind. And why not the book is about evolution, about how the concept of nation, democracy, and class […]

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