Books on early humans
August 23, 2021 7:38 AM   Subscribe

I'm reading Sapiens, and I'd like to take a deeper dive into some aspects of early human life. Looking for nonfiction books aimed at adults (so not Clan of the Cave Bear). Snowflakes within.

I'm especially interested in thoughts about how humans started doing things like using tools, cooking food, planting things, making clothing and dishes, living with animals, etc. I realize that this isn't going to be something we can know definitively, but surely very smart people study this and speculate about it. It just knocks me out that people figured out things like cooking grains and making clothes, and I'd love to read some ideas on just how that happened. Most of what I'm finding seems to be aimed at young people. (The Early Human World seemed like it might be in the right ballpark, but then it starts with "The car makers have built us a very special ATV. It's not only an all-terrain vehicle; it's an all-time vehicle," and I just want to throw it across the room.)
Basically, I'm looking for something like Sapiens (written for a smart but non-specialist adult audience), but with the section on what everyday domestic life was like for early humans and speculation about how it developed greatly expanded. Books more aimed at specialists might work, so if you know a good one, feel free to suggest it.
(Please no Googled lists of books - I've already done that.)
posted by FencingGal to Society & Culture (17 answers total) 29 users marked this as a favorite
This is maybe a little earlier than you're looking for (less focused on Homo, more on hominins), and I'll admit I haven't read it yet, but I'm very excited about First Steps: How Upright Walking Made Us Human, by Jeremy DeSilva. My impression from a first quick glance is that it does cover "everyday life" kind of stuff, but obviously specifically from the perspective of, "Bipedalism made this possible/easier."
posted by mskyle at 8:03 AM on August 23, 2021 [1 favorite]

Mother Nature: natural selection and the female of the species. Sarah Blaffer Hrdy [1999]
author interviewed
The Tangled Wing: biological constraints on the human spirit. Mel Konner [1982]
Both these books are from the 20thC and informed by primatology [Hrdy's Langurs] or anthropology [Konner's Kalahari !ung] rather than fossils but I'm still giving them shelf room.
Bon v'yage on your quest.
posted by BobTheScientist at 8:11 AM on August 23, 2021

Before Adam by Jack London (1906). It's available at Project Gutenberg, where they even have a couple dozen different MP3s of somebody reading it aloud.
posted by Rash at 8:13 AM on August 23, 2021

Two books on weaving: Women's Work, The Golden Thread

Also the most recent season of the Tides of History podcast was focused on prehistory, and it was really good. If you're set on books and not podcasts, I would browse through the episodes and guests and see what they've written.
posted by ropeladder at 9:24 AM on August 23, 2021 [2 favorites]

Came here to recommend first steps as well. I just started it, not very far in yet, but so far it has discussed some of the things you’re interested in!
posted by sillysally at 9:25 AM on August 23, 2021

Kindred: Neanderthal Life, Love, Death, and Art, by Rebecca Wragg Sykes goes into this and is excellent. I loved it.
posted by john_snow at 9:41 AM on August 23, 2021 [4 favorites]

I was going to recommend Kindered as well.

For a skeptical take on the agricultural revolution, James Scott's Against the Grain goes in the greater depth on those topics from the early chapters of Sapiens. It's written for a general but scientifically informed reader, as it presents a grand argument the crosses a lot of domains of Anthropology, History, Economics and Archeology.

The latest season of the Tides of History podcast and Patrick Wyman's accompanying Substack newletter covers a lot of this ground and is a good source for further reading.
posted by bendybendy at 9:53 AM on August 23, 2021 [1 favorite]

This only touches briefly on the life of early man, but I wonder if you wouldn't enjoy Daniel Boorstin's The Discoverers. It's the second book in a trilogy that's basically about The History Of Man Figuring Shit Out - the first, The Creators, is a deep dive into the history of The Arts, and the third, The Seekers, is more of a history of Thinkers and Ideas.

The Discoverers is focused more on the natural world - or, rather, on the development of man's relation to the natural world. It's presented in four main sections - "time", "the earth and the seas", "nature" and "society" - and each section covers mankind's growing awareness of, and relation to, that given topic, from origins to the present. Like, the "Time" section starts with ancient Sumerians starting to notice that "hey, there seems to be some kind of a pattern or rhythm to how often the Tiger River floods, maybe we should come up with some kind of system for keeping track of that...." and it ends several dozen pages later with the development of the atomic clock. And in between he covers a lot of the weird little blind alleys that come up as society itself grows and changes. (I will be forever enchanted by his story of a clock someone once came up with that used taste as an indicator - each of the numbers in the clock face had a little compartment underneath each, into which you put a different spice; the idea was that you could wake up in the middle of the night, wonder what time it was, and even if it was pitch black you could feel along to where the clock hands were, dip your finger in and taste, and go "Oh, cinnamon, that means it's just about 2 am.")

I actually read The Discoverers independent of the others, and then tried tracking them down - but the didn't hold my interest like this did.
posted by EmpressCallipygos at 10:07 AM on August 23, 2021 [1 favorite]

I think you might like Steven Mithen's books - perhaps After the Ice: A Global Human History, 20,000 - 5000 BC. Maybe also Julia Blackburn's Searching for Doggerland, though I agree with the review that the poems are a mistake. Oh, and two of Francis Pryor's books - Home: A Time Traveller's Tales from Britain's Prehistory and Scenes from Prehistoric Life: From the Ice Age to the Coming of the Romans. Pryor is very readable.
posted by paduasoy at 10:15 AM on August 23, 2021 [1 favorite]

Professor Alice Roberts is a scientist and broadcaster who fronted a great little series on the evolution of humans, including some great recreations based on the fossil record. We have the book of the series and while it's a sort of coffee-table size, it's packed with facts and isn't ever so basic. I mention this as an example of her style - she has written another book I haven't read, called Tamed, which sounds like it might be the sort of thing you are looking for?
posted by Martha My Dear Prudence at 10:26 AM on August 23, 2021 [1 favorite]

After I read Sapiens, I too wanted to do a deep dive into early history. My solution was to work through the catalog at The Great Courses. You can purchase them directly from the company itself, or you can buy them through Audible. (The downside, obviously, is that these are audio/video courses, not printed books.)

In particular, I think you would be interested in this course from Robert Garland: The Other Side of History: Daily Life in the Ancient World. I love the course and find it fascinating.
posted by jdroth at 10:37 AM on August 23, 2021 [2 favorites]

I was just now looking up Dr Roberts now to find out if anything like you described is in her publications list. She's a great communicator and scientist who now creates and presents science programmes for the BBC. I was reading this sample of her The Incredible Human Journey on Amazon when I paused to check Martha My Dear Prudence's new comment. Perhaps it may be the kind of thing you're looking for? Although I don't know if it's the same book Martha mentioned.
posted by glasseyes at 10:42 AM on August 23, 2021

Here is her wikipedia page and here is her talking on the topic Why hasn't evolution made the perfect body?, if that's of any interest.
posted by glasseyes at 10:50 AM on August 23, 2021

Perhaps you checked it already, but If not, on his website Harari offers additional reading for each chapter of Sapiens.
posted by 15L06 at 12:19 PM on August 23, 2021 [1 favorite]

Seconding Women’s Work (textiles). For earlier ages, see if any of William Calvin’s books appeal; he connects neuroscience with evolution and has put much of his stuff online.
posted by clew at 3:31 PM on August 23, 2021

I'll definitely recommend The Secret of Our Success by Joseph Henrich. It's focus is on the concept of Cultural Evolution, with lots of examples of how humans probably learned to gradually create and use different types of technology like cooking. I found it really interesting because it sits somewhere between a purely biological evolution study and a traditional history.
posted by JZig at 3:58 PM on August 23, 2021

See Stefan Milo for some casual videos about human prehistory.
posted by LoveHam at 4:44 AM on August 24, 2021 [1 favorite]

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