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Harari: Sapiens. Does it really tell the history of mankind?


A short history of humanity. It's a best seller. Translated in 32 countries. What does Harari write about prehistoric times in 'Sapiens'?

Yaval Noah Harari teaches history in Jerusalem. He wrote 'Sapiens', which attempts to portray the broad outlines of human development. Well, from Sapiens then; the ancestors such as Rudolfensis and Erectus are barely mentioned. Also the Neanderthal is hardly mentioned. Fortunately, Harari does not fail to emphasize that until recently, humanity consisted of several species. Species that receive little attention. Still, I was fascinated by some interesting facts about the earliest history of mankind. This is definitely one of the better and most accessible books on prehistory.

The cognitive revolution

For example, I never realized that the first time - about 100,000 years ago - Sapiens failed to drive the Neanderthals out of the Middle East and Europe. Apparently he was no match for this much sturdier species. Later on he was. This required not only numerous inventions, but above all the ability to operate in large groups. Those poor Neanderthals who lived in small groups, Harari said, had no chance once Sapiens learned to work together on a large scale. That was because of the cognitive revolution. In particular, being able to think in abstractions was decisive for this. Without it no religion, state, monetary system or human rights. I had never thought about that. Fortunately, Harari explains it in great detail.


I find Harari's argument at least as fascinating in which he calls the agrarian revolution the greatest swindle in history. Agriculture allowed an insignificant species, which lived in tufts scattered around the world from hunting and gathering, could grow in numbers unbridled. And in its wake, for example, chickens, grain and maize. But: The primeval man – once quietly hunting and gathering, possessing seas of time, enjoying a healthy and varied diet – became entangled by agriculture in a system of hard work, exploitation, bondage and one-sided nutrition.

The book is beautifully written and a pleasant read. The overwhelming inclusiveness of the subject never hinders readability. In fact, it contains fascinating insights and accessible considerations. That makes 'Sapiens' an impressive book.

After the Stone Age

Nevertheless, I was a bit disappointed, because most of the book concerns the period after the Stone Age. The advent of world religions, money, capitalism, consumerism and factory farming are extensively described. When I close the book after reading it, it comes to me that Harari is paying most attention to the shortest span of time in Sapiens' history. Actually, the book does not describe the history of mankind. Rather, it is a description of the origin of the current dominance of our own species and the Western-oriented society. Even Harari has failed to let go of the perspective of his time and place. And actually I started in the book because I expected that he could.

I also wonder if everything Harari writes is correct. He moves through the enormously long history so quickly that I wonder if he is sufficiently knowledgeable in all areas. For example, there are indications that Sapiens has little or nothing to do with the extinction of the Neanderthal. Such information is at odds with Harari's descriptions.

On the other hand, at the end of his book he asks the most essential of all questions: Are people happier now than in the Stone Age? And will further development sapiens bring more happiness to himself and other beings of the earth? His reflections on this are extremely captivating.

Sapiens, a graphic history. The birth of humankind.

The nice thing is that there is also a comic adaptation of the book. It is actually intended for children, but as a cartoon lover I couldn't pass it up. Fortunately, because actually I like the comic even better than the original book. I have three reasons for that:

  1. The comic is more to the point. Scriptwriter David Vandermeulen threw a lot of ballast overboard and limited himself to the story surrounding the rise of Sapiens. There is no room for Romans, explorers or industrialists. That gives the book more structure and a stronger story.
  2. The comic has more humor. Such a big subject as the origin of the human species succumbs quite easily under its own weight. This is not the case in this book full of caricatures and metaphors. A good example of this is the lawsuit concerning the extinction of the megafauna: Is sapiens guilty or innocent of the disappearance of marsupial lions and mammoths? Lawyer and prosecutor take their stand and plead their case.
  3. The drawings give an atmospheric context to the story, so that, for example, the contrast between sapiens in prehistoric times and sapiens in modern times is better highlighted. Some pictures tell more than 1000 words.

So if you haven't read either book yet, I would definitely recommend taking up the cartoon first.

Data from Harari 'Sapiens'

SapiensYuval Noah Harari: Sapiens. Een kleine geschiedenis van de mensheid.

Uitgeverij Thomas Rap, 2014. 461 pagina’s. ISBN 978-94-004-0058-0.

Data from 'Sapiens, a graphic history. The birth of humankind.'

Sapiens Harari

Yuval Noah Harari, David Vandermeulen, Daniel Casanave

Uitgeverij Thomas Rap, 2020. 248 pagina’s. ISBN 978-94-004-0639-1.