Category Archives: Sociology

The “Exhausted Majority”, Hidden Tribes of America – More In Common.

Turning the tide of tribalism is possible, but it won’t be easy. A majority of Americans are fed up with America’s polarization, we have more in common than that which divides us.

Progressive Activists seek to correct the historic marginalization of groups based on their race. gender, sexuality, wealth and other forms of privilege.

Devoted Conservatives believe that individuals need to be raised to be obedient, well behaved and hard working. They take pride in the Judeo Christian faith and American culture.

Despite these stark differences this study also finds reasons for hope. America’s political landscape is much more complicated than the binary split between liberals and conservatives often depicted in the national conversation.

America has never felt so divided. Bitter debates that were once confined to Congressional hearings and cable TV have now found their way into every part of our lives, from our Facebook feeds to the family dinner table. But most Americans are tired of this “us-versus-them” mindset and are eager to find common ground. This is the message we’ve heard from more than 8,000 Americans in one of our country’s largest ever studies of polarization: We hold dissimilar views on many issues. However, more than three in four Americans also believe that our differences aren’t so great that we can’t work together.
Americans have real differences and real disagreements with each other. We must be able to listen to each other to understand those differences and find common ground. That’s the focus of the Hidden Tribes project: to understand better what is pulling us apart, and find what can bring us back together.

Progressive Activists are deeply concerned with issues concerning equity, fairness, and America’s direction today. They tend to be more secular, cosmopolitan, and highly engaged with social media.

Traditional Liberals tend to be cautious, rational, and idealistic. They value tolerance and compromise. They place great faith in institutions.

Passive Liberals tend to feel isolated from their communities. They are insecure in their beliefs and try to avoid political conversations. They have a fatalistic view of politics and feel that the circumstances of their lives are beyond their control.

The Politically Disengaged are untrusting, suspicious about external threats, conspiratorially minded, and pessimistic about progress. They tend to be patriotic yet detached from politics.

Moderates are engaged in their communities, well informed, and civic-minded. Their faith is often an important part of their lives. They shy away from extremism of any sort.

Traditional Conservatives tend to be religious, patriotic, and highly moralistic. They believe deeply in personal responsibility and self-reliance.

Devoted Conservatives are deeply engaged with politics and hold strident, uncompromising views. They feel that America is embattled, and they perceive themselves as the last defenders of traditional values that are under threat.

Hidden Tribes


The report was conducted by More in Common, a new international initiative to build societies and communities that are stronger, more united, and more resilient to the increasing threats of polarization and social division. We work in partnership with a wide range of civil society groups, as well as philanthropy, business, faith, education, media and government to connect people across the lines of division.

Principal Authors

Stephen Hawkins, Director of Research – Daniel Yudkin, Ph. D., Associate Director of Research – Miriam Juan-Torres, Senior Researcher – Tim Dixon, Co-Founder

More In Common

This report is about polarization in America today: what is driving us apart, and what can bring us back together.

Political polls and years of knife-edge elections have convinced many that our country has become a 50:50 society. divided into two opposing political tribes and trapped in a spiral of conflict and division.

Our research uncovered a different story, one that probes underneath the issues that polarize Americans, and finds seven groups that are defined by their core beliefs, rather than by their political opinions, race, class or gender.

In talking to everyday Americans, we have found a large segment of the population whose voices are rarely heard above the shouts of the partisan tribes. These are people who believe that Americans have more in common than that which divides them. While they differ on important issues, they feel exhausted by the division in the United States. They believe that compromise is necessary in politics, as in other parts of life, and want to see the country come together and solve its problems.

In the era of social media and partisan news outlets, America’s differences have become dangerously tribal, fueled by a culture of outrage and taking offense. For the combatants, the other side can no longer be tolerated, and no price is too high to defeat them.

These tensions are poisoning personal relationships, consuming our politics and putting our democracy in peril.

Once a country has become tribalized, debates about contested issues from immigration and trade to economic management, climate change and national security, become shaped by larger tribal identities. Policy debate gives way to tribal conflicts.

Polarization and tribalism are self-reinforcing and will likely continue to accelerate. The work of rebuilding our fragmented society needs to start now. It extends from re-connecting people across the lines of division in local communities all the way to building a renewed sense of national identity: a bigger story of us.

Our polarization is not simple, but not is it insoluble. We need to understand it, so we can fix it. More in Common hopes that this report can help inform and inspire this urgent work.

Executive Summary

This report lays out the findings of a large-scale national survey of Americans about the current state of civic life in the United States. It provides substantial evidence of deep polarization and growing tribalism. It shows that this polarization is rooted in something deeper than political opinions and disagreements over policy. But it also provides some evidence for optimism, showing that 77 percent of Americans believe our differences are not so great that we cannot come together.

At the root of America’s polarization are divergent sets of values and worldviews. or “core beliefs.” These core beliefs shape the ways that individuals Interpret the world around them at the most fundamental level. Our study shows how political opinions stem from these deeply held core beliefs.

This study examines five dimensions of individuals’ core beliefs:

– Tribaiism and group identification

– Fear and perception of threat

– Parenting style and authoritarian disposition

– Moral foundations

– Personal agency and responsibility

The study finds that this hidden architecture of beliefs, worldview and group attachments can predict an individual‘s views on social and political issues with greater accuracy than demographic factors like race, gender, or income.

The research undertaken for this report identifies seven segments of Americans (or “tribes”) who are distinguished by differences in their underlying beliefs and attitudes. Membership in these tnbes was determined by each individual‘s answers to a subset of 58 core belief and behavioral questions that were asked together with the rest of the survey. None of the questions used to create the segmentation related to current political issues or demographic indicators such as race, gender, age or income, yet the responses that each segment gives to questions on current political issues are remarkably predictable and show a very clear pattern.

The segments have distinctive sets of characteristics; here listed in order from left to right on the ideological spectrum:

Progressive Activists: younger, highly engaged, secular, cosmopolitan, angry.

Traditional Liberals: older, retired, open to compromise, rational, cautious.

Passive Liberals: unhappy, insecure, distrustful, disillusioned.

Politically Disengaged: young, low income, distrustful, detached, patriotic, conspiratorial.

Moderates: engaged, civic-minded, middle-of-the-road, pessimistic, Protestant. Traditional Conservatives: religious, middle class, patriotic, moralistic.

Devoted Conservatives: white, retired, highly engaged. uncompromising, patriotic.

The relevance of the segmentation is evident on a wide array of subjects, from issues of race and prejudice to gender and sexuality. Progressive Activists, the most liberal group, and Devoted Conservatives, the most conservative. show strong degrees of consistency within their ranks, while being almost perfectly at odds with each other. Middle tribes, by contrast, orient themselves incrementally on the ideological spectrum.

Further evidence of the relevance of core beliefs and their associated tribal identities is that tribal membership predicts differences in Americans’ views on various political issues better than demographic, ideological, and partisan groupings. This can be seen on subjects such as approval of President Trump, Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals (DACA), and approval of the modern feminist agenda. On these questions and many others, the differences between the most ideological segments are greater than the differences between, for instance. self-described “strong Republicans” and “strong Democrats.”

The most dramatic difference between the tribes is that which arises between the Progressive Activists and the Devoted Conservatives.

Devoted Conservatives believe that individuals need to be raised to be obedient, well behaved and hard working. They take pride in the Judeo Christian faith and American culture. They believe that their traditional values can transform flawed individuals into people of self discipline. character and responsibility.

Progressive Activists, who are at the opposite end of the spectrum. are skeptical of traditional authority and norms. They see those values as being established by socially dominant groups such as straight white men, for their own benefit. Progressive Activists seek to correct the historic marginalization of groups based on their race. gender, sexuality, wealth and other forms of privilege.

But despite these stark differences. this study also finds reasons for hope. America’s political landscape is much more complicated than the binary split between liberals and conservatives often depicted in the national conversation. In particular, we find among the seven tribes, an “Exhausted Majority,” whose members do not conform to either partisan ideology.

The Exhausted Majority contains distinct groups of people with varying degrees of political understanding and activism. But they share a sense of fatigue with our polarized national conversation, a willingness to be flexible in their political viewpoints, and a lack of voice in the national conversation.

Members of the Exhausted Majority are considerably more ideologically flexible than members of other groups. While members of the “wing” groups (on both the left and the right) tend to hold strong and consistent views across a range of political issues, those in the Exhausted Majority tend to deviate significantly in their views from issue to issue.

Furthermore, the wing groups, which often dominate the national conversation, are in fact in considerable isolation in their views on certain topics. For instance, 82 percent of Americans agree that hate speech is a problem in America today, but 80 percent also view political correctness as an issue. By contrast. only 30 percent of Progressive Activists believe political correctness is a problem.

Similarly, most Americans hold complex views on refugees. Sixty-three percent of Americans are concerned that the refugee screening process “is not tough enough to keep out possible terrorists”, but 64 percent simultaneously believe that “people should be able to take refuge in other countries, including America, to escape from war or persecution”. Just 27 percent of Devoted Conservatives agree in this principle of the US accepting refugees. This suggests that the Exhausted Majority is more practical and less ideological than its more extreme counterparts.

Yet it would be a mistake to think of the Exhausted Majority merely as a group of political centrists, at least in the way that term is traditionally understood. They do not simply represent a midpoint between the warring tribes of the left and right. They are frustrated with the status quo and the conduct of American politics and public debate. They overwhelmingly believe that the American government is rigged to serve the rich and influential, and they want things to change.

With that said. there is nevertheless one segment within the Exhausted Majority that matches the traditional understanding of centrism: the Moderates. who comprise 15 percent of the population and whose views are consistently very close to the center of public opinion.

The Exhausted Majority may be the key to countering polarization.

Traditional Liberals and Moderates instinctively support compromise. Their voices would be strengthened if the Passive Liberals develop greater confidence in the value of their participation. On the other hand. the Politically Disengaged are at risk of being drawn into polarizing us versus them narratives, especially given their comparatively high levels of distrust and suspicion.

Differences in people’s underlying beliefs have always existed in healthy societies. Today, however. these differences are becoming more difficult to mediate. Liberals and conservatives are moving farther apart, and tribal tensions are boiling over more regularly in politics and media as well as in daily life.

The forces driving polarization have a variety of sources including economic insecurity, growing inequality, cultural and demographic change, and the weakening of local communities.

Many people are feeling a loss of identity and belonging. Populists and extremists are exploiting these vulnerabilities by advancing us-versus them narratives, often focusing on immigrants and refugees. Social media is heightening conflict in public debate and bringing extreme narratives into the mainstream?

If we can better comprehend what lies behind our differences, we may prevent this polarization from spiraling out of control. Many Americans today suffer from deep injustices related to their race, sex, religion, sexuality and other facets of their identities. But productive national dialogue about these and other critical issues has reached an impasse, in large part due to the widening gap between the major ideological and partisan perspectives.

The goal of this report is to improve our understanding of this polarization and its underlying causes. It highlights the need to unite Americans of conflicting beliefs and values. These connections create empathy and put people’s opinions and beliefs into a more human context. This report tries to capture that human context by allowing Americans from every position on the political spectrum to speak for themselves.

Download this report Hidden Tribes

Island of Stone Money. Yap of the Carolines – William Henry Furness, 1910.

We at least can discern the little point of light from which our Martian visitors might come, and can appreciate the size and distance of another world, but to the man of Yap, whose whole world in length and breadth is but a day’s walk, our little steamboat emerges from an invisible spot, out of the very ocean.

Were the gates, reefs wider open and less dangerously ajar, “trade’s unfeeling train” would have long ago wholly overrun these imprisoned little lands and dispossessed the aboriginal “swain.”

The effect was magical! The audience forgot to breathe in awed silence! Their eyes dilated! Their jaws fell! And they began repeating after the instrument the words of their very own language, in the boy’s very own voice, now issuing from the bottom of the horn! Was the boy himself imprisoned there? For five or six seconds after the voice ceased, they remained silent, looking from one to another, and then they burst into peals and peals of screaming laughter, clamourously and vehemently imploring me to repeat it.”


ALTHOUGH old-time Pacific whalers and missionaries, both of them, let us hope, from kindly motives of rendering the islanders happy, introduced two unfortunate attendants of western civilization, alcohol and diversity of faiths, nevertheless the natives of The Caroline Islands have retained the greater part of their original primitive beliefs, and recently, under admirable German rule, have perforce abandoned alcohol. Wherefore they are become an exceedingly pleasant and gentle folk to visit; this is especialIy true of the natives of the island of Uap or Yap, the most westerly of the group. Like all other primitive people (it hurts one’s feelings to call them savages or even uncivilized, one is too broad and the other too narrow, they are shy at first, either through mistrust or awe, but, let acquaintance and confidence be once established, and they are good company and benignantly ready to tolerate, even to foster condescendingly, the incomprehensible peculiarities and demented foibles of the white-faced visitor.

The Island of Yap


When I visited The Caroline Islands in 1903, there was but one small steamer, of a German trading company, which, about five times a year, links these little worlds with our great one, and the people which it brings from the uttermost horizon must seem to the natives quite as wonderful as beings from Mars might seem to us; we at least can discern the little point of light from which our Martian visitors might come, and can appreciate the size and distance of another world, but to the man of Yap, whose whole world in length and breadth is but a day’s walk, the little steamboat emerges from an invisible spot, out of the very ocean.

After a whole month of tossing and rolling and endless pitching on the tiny, 500-ton steamer, Oceana, plying between Sydney and The Marshall and Caroline Islands and Hong-Kong, we were within one night’s sail of the little island of Yap, a mere dot on our school maps. Here I intended to remain for nearly two months and await the return trip of the steamer.

The five short stops which the steamer had made at other enchanting, alluring islands had been veritable hors-d’oeuvres to whet the appetite, and while drinking in the beauty of my last sunset from the deck of the copra-laden little steamer, with the sea the colour of liquid rose leaves and the sky shaded off in all tints of yellow, orange, green, blue, mauve, and rose-color, I was thrilled by the thought that I was soon to enjoy again the earthy perfume of damp groves of palm, the pungent odor of rancid coconut oil, and the scent of fires of sappy wood, whereof all combined compose the peculiar atmosphere of the palm-thatched houses of Pacific Islanders.

I expected to be awakened on the following morning by the sudden change from tossing on the open sea to the smooth gliding of the vessel through the waters of the calm lagoon, and with that delicious smell of land and of lush vegetation. Instead of this, however, in the gray of dawn, I was instantly aroused by the clang of the captain’s signal to the engine room, ringing first “stop” and then “full speed astern.” I jumped from my berth to the deck and looked into a thick, impenetrable fog that utterly hemmed us in. From every side an ominous roar of breakers rose above the thump of the engines. The fog lifted; there were the reefs and breakers distant not a hundred and fifty feet dead ahead of us; then down came the fog and off we backed, only to find that the reefs encircled us completely.

Even before the glow on the light and fleecy clouds which formed the ineffable beauty of the sunset had faded, heavy clouds had arisen; by midnight the sky was inky black with no star to guide our course. The captain thus fell a victim to the strong, variable currents, characteristic of these waters, which are indeed but one of the many varieties of thorns which hedge these Sleeping Beauties of the ocean; these had been responsible for our being hurried on much faster than the log could show, and here we were almost on top of the reef, two hours ahead of time, with the land hidden behind an impenetrable veil.

Our situation was like a fever-dream, wherein vague but fatal dangers threaten, and, strain as we may, we are unable to open our eyes. The fog had been like a great eyelid, raised and lowered just long enough to give us one fleeting glimpse, and no more, of fatal peril, while the thunder and hissing swish of the breakers were like the deadly warnings of a rattlesnake before it strikes. Then, of a sudden, again the dense fog lifted completely, and the land seemed verily to rise out of the sea, and we found ourselves directly in front of the very entrance to the harbour with the channel of deepblue water almost running out to meet us. Five minutes more of fog and we should have been pounding helplessly on the reefs with the garden gates impenetrably closed.

I mention this only to give the hint that were the gates wider open and less dangerously ajar, “trade’s unfeeling train” would have long ago wholly overrun these imprisoned little lands and dispossessed the aboriginal “swain.”

Yap, or rather Uéap, with a prolonged broad a, the pronunciation invariably used by the natives, means, in their old language, I was told, “the Land,” which, I suppose, exactly meant to the aborigines the whole world. Uap is, as I have said before, the westernmost of The Caroline group, and lies about nine degrees north of the equator. It is not an atoll, but the result of volcanic upheaval; it is encircled, nevertheless, by coral reefs from three to five miles wide, and has, at about the middle of the southwestern coast, a good harbour in Tomil Bay.

To recall very briefly the general history of this group of islands: They have been known to the civilized world since 1527, when they were discovered by the Portuguese; a hundred and fifty years later they were annexed by Spain and named in honour of Carolus II. At the close of the Spanish-American war the whole group was purchased from Spain by Germany for the sum of $3,300,000, and since then under judicious and enlightened government has steadily improved in productiveness.

The natives of Yap, in number from five to six thousand, are of that perplexing type known generally as Micronesian, which covers a multitude of conjectures. The natives of each island have certain characteristics of form and features which make relationship to natives of other islands or groups of islands a possibility; but, on the other hand, there are such differences in language, in customs, in manner of living, that it is well-nigh impossible to state, with any degree of certainty, what or whence is the parent stock or predominant race. By way of generalization merely, and not as deciding the question, let me say that the people of Yap are of the Malayan type, a light coffee coloured skin; hair black and inclined to wave or curl, not crinkly, like the Melanesian and African; eyes very dark brown, almost black; cheek bones rather high and noses inclined to be hooked, but not prominent. In this last feature they resemble other Polynesians and the Melanesians of New Guinea and The Solomon Islands. They are not as tall nor, on an average, as strongly built as the natives of Samoa, Fiji, or Tahiti. Since the sale of intoxicants and gunpowder has been prohibited, except to the trustworthy chiefs, they are gentle, docile, and lazy; formerly, under the very lax rule of Spain they were exceedingly troublesome and frequently made raids upon the Spanish and German traders, and were continuously at internecine war.

Personal details are generally uninteresting; it therefore suffices to say that I was received most kindly by the little colony of white people who live upon the island, consisting of the resident doctor, then acting as Governor; the postmaster; the manager an American of The Jaluit Trading Company; and four Spanish and German copra traders.

I was most hospitably entertained by Herr Friedlander, one of these copra traders, and, in point of residence, the oldest white trader on the island. With a courteous friendliness for which I shall be always grateful, he invited me to lodge with him at his little copra station in Dulukan, where I could be all the time in close touch with the natives; not only was he always ready to act as my interpreter, but was also at every turn unwearied in his kindness and devotion. I had expected and hoped to share the home life in the houses of the natives, as I had done in Borneo, but the village life and the home life of the people of Yap differ so widely from those of the Borneans that I found it would be better by far to stay in Herr Friedlander’s comfortable little pile-built house and visit the natives, or get them to visit me.

As soon as the Oceana had discharged her cargo and departed on her way to Hong-Kong, we set our sail of matting in Friedlander’s native-built copra barge, which was fairly loaded to the gunwales with my luggage and photographic outfit, and glided through green aisles of mangrove and over the glassy blue and green water of the lagoon to the southern end of the island where lies the delightful, scattered little village of Dulukan.


THE island is divided into districts, more or less defined, which are the remnants of former days when these districts marked the division into hostile tribes; but now, under one government, these separate districts are but little regarded as tribal divisions, and within them the houses are scattered indiscriminately in small groups. Such a thing as a village street or even a road between rows of dwellings nowhere exists; there is, therefore, nothing of what we would call village life, when “all the village train, from labour free, Led up their sports beneath the spreading tree.”

The large “bachelor houses,” to be sure, are adequate meeting places for the men, but the poor neglected women have no common ground where the heart-easing and nutritious gossip of the day may be exchanged. In the coconut groves, which form a broad band along the coast all round the island, each house is surrounded by a neatly-swept clearing, and this little lawn, if that can be called a lawn which is devoid of grass, is brightened here and there by variegated crotons, suggestive of the neatness of the Yap housewife, and affording an attractive playground of chequered shade under the lofty palms.

The houses are always built upon a platform, about two and a half to three feet high, of masses of coralline rock, which look like huge pieces of pumice stone; when first taken from the water this soft lime-like rock lends itself admirably to being smoothed and fashioned with the primitive implements of the natives. The platform is made level on top by filling in with rubble and earth or with a covering of large flat stones. This loosely built foundation is, I suppose, to serve the same purpose as the high piles whereon tropical houses are usually built, namely, to keep the floor, which is also the domestic bed, as high and dry as possible above the level of the ground, which at times is deluged with rain in the usual tropical abundance. Well constructed houses have a broad and long foundation platform, whereon is built a second stage just large enough to be covered by the house; the lower and larger then serves as a broad uncovered veranda round at least three sides of the building. The cornerposts for the framework are embedded in the upper dais of stone so that the occasional typhoons which sweep the island and level even the coconut palms may not carry away the whole structure. Every beam and 1 stanchion is mortised to its fellow and bound with innumerable lashings of twine made from the fibre of coconut husks; not a nail is used and scarcely a peg.



In the little yards or clearings about the houses and on the larger broad platform of stones whereon the houses are built, all that there is of village life goes on; here guests are received and entertained, councils of the wise held, and news passed round. It is decidedly bad manners for any visitor to enter a house, except by special invitation, no matter how intimate a friend he may be. Very often, to add to comfort, upright stones are imbedded in the lower platform to serve as back rests when sessions of the councils happen to be prolonged or the orator prosy. A matting of bamboo grass, or else panels of interwoven fronds of the coconut palm form the side walls of the house; security and secrecy, it must be remembered, are hardly necessary in such small communities, where all are acquaintances, and every article of household use or of luxury is almost as well known to everybody as to the actual owner; stolen goods are not marketable and thefts are quite rare, except, of course, of coconuts that happen to fall unexpectedly and temptingly from a neighbour’s tree.

The interior of the house is neither bright nor cheerful; it is not strange, therefore, that there is but little indoor life. The eaves of the paIm-thatched roof overhang so far that they almost touch the level of the floor and all the light and air come through the doorway, or through one or two panels in the wall which arc occasionally raised like shutters and held by a wooden hook suspended from the rafters.

How any dust at all can collect on a small island in mid-Pacific is a mystery; nevertheless, every article in a Yap house is coated deep with cobwebs and fine dust. This is also the case, however, in the houses of all Pacific Islanders that I have ever visited, and is possibly due to absence of chimneys and abundance of smoke.

There is always in private houses in Yap an inner room or corner, screened off from the common room, where the owners of the house sleep at night. This little sleeping-room is totally dark except for what little light may filter through the walls or under the eaves. There is, of course, no second story to the houses, except a general storage place under the rafters, on top of the cross beams, where any article, not in daily use, such as a leaky canoe, a ragged fish net, a broken spear, etc., is tucked away.



I have groped my way through many a Yap house, of course with the full permission of the owner, rummaging in every dark corner in search of articles of ethnological interest, but only once or twice was my search rewarded. The owners did not seem to object in the slightest degree to my curiosity, and after giving me liberty to poke and pry to my heart’s content, they stood by smiling and good-naturedly answering my questions as to the names and uses of everything. They knew well enough that I should not find what they considered their really valuable possessions, which were probably hidden away in the darkness of the inner chamber, and were sure moreover that whatever I found that I wanted would be paid for by many a stick of “trade” tobacco.



It was near a scattered collection of houses such as these that, on a cloudless afternoon in February, I landed at Friedlander’s charming little copra station. He is married to a native of Guam, a convert to the Roman Catholic faith, but not to the western method of living and style of house; so Friedlander has built for her a home to her liking, bare of all furniture, except mats on the floor, and with an open hearth for cooking and for the comforting circulation of smoke throughout the house, or rather room; here she lives “shut up in measureless content” with her select circle of native friends, together with a sprinkling of elderly relatives, which seems to be an inevitable household element in the Orient.

My host and I, however, put up at his own little house built within the same compound, on piles six feet high and furnished with two comfortable cot-beds, tables, and chairs. The whole house is about twenty feet long by ten wide and constructed as openly as possible, with roof and walls of palm-leaf thatch, for coolness’ sake. This is also his office where he transacts business, such as the purchase of coconuts or the payment for the manufacturing of copra. Copra, by the way, is made by cutting out the meat of ripe coconuts and placing it on screens to dry in the sun. When thus dried, it is exported to Europe, where the oil is expressed and used in the manufacture of fine soaps.

After my luggage had been carried up from the little jetty of rough, spongy, coral blocks to the house, about twenty feet away, and while Friedlander was busy with his group of natives, settling accounts for coconuts delivered during his absence, and with unpacking his boxes of new articles of trade, I strolled forth to take a preliminary survey of my field, provided with a notebook wherein were certain useful phrases in the Yap tongue which I was anxious to put to the test.

The compound about Friedlander’s several houses was quite deserted; everybody had gathered about the master to watch the unpacking and drink in with open ears and gaping mouths every syllable that fell from his lips; and, of course, to ask innumerable irrelevant questions. The declining sun cast long bands of orange light between the gray and mossy-green trunks of the palms, and the sandy earth of the well-swept little compound was rippling with the flickering shadows of the over-arching coconut fronds. There was no song nor twitter of birds; the only sound was the murmur of voices from the crowd within the house, and from a little inlet beside the deserted husking sheds came a rhythmical swish of innumerable coconut husks floating there in an almost solid mass. I turned out of the bamboo wicket gate eager for exploration, and, feeling very much “Like some lone watcher of the skies, When a new planet swims into his ken. ”

I became suddenly aware, however, of the drollest, coffee-coloured, curly-headed, little seven-year-old girl gazing at me with solemn black eyes, awestruck and spellbound. The expression of those wide open eyes, framed all round in long black lashes, was awe, fear, and curiosity mingled; her hands, prettily and delicately shaped, not overly clean, were pressed one upon the other on her little bare chest as if to quell the thumpings of fright, and, whether from astonishment or by nature, her glossy black curls stood up in short spirals all over her head. She was such a typical, little, wild gingerbread baby, that I could not avoid stopping at once to scrutinize her as earnestly as she scrutinized me.

Although she was the only one of her kind in sight, she stood her ground bravely and betrayed nervousness only in the slight digging of her little stubby brown toes in the sand as if she were preparing a good foothold for a precipitate dash. As I looked down upon her, the bunchy little skirt of dried brown grasses and strips of pandanus leaves, her sole garment, gave her the appearance of a little brown imp just rising out of the ground. I thought I detected a slight turning movement in those nervous little feet, so for fear of frightening her into the headlong dash, I looked as benignant, unconcerned, and unsurprised as I could, and turned down the path outside the fence toward the first house in sight.

With no particular objective point I followed one of the wide, native-built paths constructed of sand, finely-broken shells, and decomposed coral, and, inasmuch as they dry off almost instantly after a heavy shower, they are excellently devised for rainy seasons. These footpaths (there is not a cart in the community) extend from one end of the island to the other and branch off toward all the principal settlements; many of the smaller branches are, however, constructed with no great care and consist merely of a narrow paving of rough coral and stone, well adapted for tough bare feet, but not for stiff, slippery, leather soles.



The road past Friedlander’s Station at Dulukan is one of the main thoroughfares and well kept up; down this I turned, with the long vista before me of gray, sunflecked road, overarched by the cloistered fronds and bordered by the slanting stems of coconut palms, with here and there spots of bright color from variegated crotons and dracsenas. I was lost in admiration of the beauty of it all and was still thinking of my first encounter with an island-born elf, when I heard the patter of tiny feet behind me, and turning, saw again the little jungle baby trotting close after me. Curiosity had spurred on her valour to conquer discretion, and now she stood close beside me, and, with a sidelong glance, smiled coyly and inquiringly, showing a row of white baby teeth set rather far apart.

I too smiled in return at the droll little figure, and, not having my Yap Ollendorf at my tongue’s end, I said in English “Come along, little elf, and take a walk.” The spell was broken; I became to her a human being with articulate speech, and not a green-eyed demon. At once there issued forth in a childish little treble a stream of higgledypiggledy words, and then she wistfully waited for a reply. The Yap vernacular failed me, so I simply shook my head despairingly. Then I heard her say distinctly one of my note-book phrases, Mini fit’hing am igur? “What’s your name?” This I could answer and she tried hard to repeat the name I gave; after several ineffectual struggles, she looked up consolingly, and patting her chest with her outspread hand, and nodding her head each time to emphasize it, she reiterated “Pooguroo, Pooguroo, Pooguroo,” clearly intimating that this was her own name.

Here then was all the formal introduction necessary, so we two sauntered down the path together, she keeping up a constant chatter and patter, while pointing toward houses here and there in the open grove of palms. I think she was telling me the name of every house owner in the neighbourhood and the whole of his family history and also his wife’s, but I was restricted to “Oh’s” and “Ah’s” and grunting assents; but all distinction of race or age vanished and here I gained my first little friend, staunch and true, among the people of Yap. I never found out who she was, further than that she was Pooguroo; she was always on hand when anything was astir, and always proved a fearless little friend among the children; but who her parents were, or where her home, I never knew.

Adoption, or rather exchange of children at an early age, is so common that it is a wise father that knows his own child. To the mind of the Yap parents children are not like toothbrushes whereof every one prefers his own; they are more or less public property as soon as they are able to run about from house to house. They cannot without extraordinary exertion fall off the island, and, like little guinea-pigs, they can find food anywhere; their clothing grows by every roadside, and any shelter, or no shelter, is good enough for the night. They cannot starve, there are no wild beasts or snakes to harm them, and should they tear their clothes, nature mends them, leaving only a scar to show the patch; what matters it if they sleep under the high, star-powdered ceiling of their foster mother’s nursery, or curled up on mats beneath their father’s thatch?

There is no implication here that parents are not fond of their children; on the contrary, they love them so much that they see their own children in all children. It is the ease of life and its surroundings which have atrophied the emotion of parental love. Has not “too light winning made the prize light?” When a father has merely to say to his wife and children “Go out and shake your breakfast off the trees” or, “Go to the thicket and gather your clothes,” to him the struggle for existence is meaningless, and, without a struggle, the prizes of life, which include a wife and family, are held in light esteem. Parental love, by being extended to all children, becomes diluted and shallow.

Is it not here then, in an untutored tropic island, that the realization is to be found of the Spartan ideal? Somebody’s children are always about the houses and to the fore in all excitements, and never did I see them roughly handled or harshly treated. As soon as they are old enough they must win their own way, and, if boys, at a very early age, they make the pabai or faiIu, the man’s house, their home by night and day, sharing the cooked food of their elders, or living on raw coconuts, and chewing betel incessantly.


ONE of the most noteworthy features of Yap life are the large houses known as failu, when situated on the coast, and pabai, when built inland beyond the belt of coconut groves. These houses are found in all Yap villages, and pertain exclusively to the men, be they married or single; herein councils are held, and the affairs of the community are discussed, free from all intervention of women; and here, too, men and boys entertain themselves with song and dance, in which, under the plea that it would not be decorous for women to join, a desire may be detected to escape feminine criticism. A failu or pabai is frequently years in building; the men do not wait, however for its final completion and ceremonial opening before occupying it, but often make it their home even should no more than the framework and roof be finished.



Every post, every beam is selected with extremest care, so that all its natural curves and angles may be used without further shaping. No nails, and, indeed, very few pegs are used to hold the beams together; each beam is attached to another by mortising, and then literally thousands of yards of cord, made from the fibre of coconut husks, are used to bind the joints. The lashings of this brown kaya cord furnish excellent opportunities for ornamentation; wherefore, with tropical lavishness and Oriental contempt for the expenditure of time, the main posts, for four or five feet below the cross beams, are often bound with cords interlaced into beautiful basket patterns and complicated knots; where the slanting supports of the thatched roof meet the side walls there is a continuous, graceful band of interwoven cords, where each knot has its own peculiar designation and invariable position.



When, after years of fitful labor, one of these clubhouses is finally complete, a feast is spread and dances are performed in front of the structure, to which all, including even the women, for the once, are invited; the house is then and there given a name, and new fire is started in the fireplace by means of the fire drill, the most primitive method of obtaining fire known in Yap.

Thereafter this failu or pabai belongs exclusively to the men, and no women, with but one exception, dare set foot within its precincts.

During the fishing season every fisherman, while plying his craft, lies under a most strict taboo. Wherefore, one very important use of the failu, or “house on the shore,” possibly its primitive cause, is to provide a place of seclusion for the tabooed fishermen during their intervals of rest. After three or four days and nights of hard work in boats on the open sea outside the lagoon, the fishermen return to the failu to distribute their haul of fish and to repair damages to their boats and nets. Whether the sea has been calm or stormy, they are always an exhausted crew; their meat and drink have consisted almost exclusively of coconuts, and their quarters have been extremely cramped in the long, narrow, outrigger canoes. Not for these poor wretches, however, are the refreshing comforts of home when, weary and worn, they return to recuperate; an inexorable, rigorous taboo enshrouds them until the last hour of the six or eight weeks of the fishing season. During their brief seasons of needful rest, not a fishermen dare leave the failu or, under any pretext whatsoever, visit his own house; he must not so much as look on the face of woman (with one exception) be she his own, or another’s, mother, wife or daughter.

If the heedless fisherman steal but a glance, flying fish will infallibly bore out his eyes at night. They may not even join in song or dance with the other men of the failu in the evening, but must keep strictly and silently apart; nor may their stay-at-home companions mingle with them; and, worst of all, until the fishing season is over and past, they can have none of a fisherman’s prerogative of endlessly expatiating on the unprecedented size and weight of the fish that they have missed, tantum religio potuit suadere malorum.

It is truly impressive to see large fishing canoes come in after a cruise; they carry twenty or more men, and have often experienced extremely rough weather for craft which, according to our ideas, are so unwieldy, and unstable. In their management they can be paralleled only by the vessel provided by the “Bellman” in the “Hunting of the Snark,” where at times it was not at all out of the ordinary for the bow to get mixed up with the rudder. Inasmuch as the whole balance of the boat depends upon the outrigger, it would never do, of course, to have the large, heavy sail, bearing the weight of the wind, on the opposite side of the boat; consequently, when sailing up in the wind, where tacking is necessary, instead of putting about or jibing, the crew assemble and, lifting the mast with all the rigging, carry it bodily from the bow to the stern, where it is stepped anew; the stern then becomes the bow, and the man at the helm has to scramble quickly to the other end of the boat to find out which way he is going. Of course, such a liberty never can be taken with the mast and rigging under any other than a very mild breeze; consequently, in rough weather there is nothing for it but to keep on one course until the wind abates, or else take in all sail and drift.

Herein lies one of the causes which accounts, I think, for the mixture of inhabitants throughout Polynesia and Micronesia; canoes full of helpless fishermen have been known to drift from The Gilbert and Marshall Islands a thousand miles or more; from the very centre of The Carolines down to the northern coast of New Guinea and The Solomons. Is it any wonder then that the return of a canoe full of friends, fathers, and husbands, who, for the common good, have ventured forth on the vasty deep, far beyond the sight of their little world, should be hailed, as it always is by the simple islanders, with emotions almost akin to awe? Even to us it seems little short of a miracle, when we reflect that this return is effected without compass or sextant. It is not strange, therefore, that the lives of these venturers should be hedged about with peculiar laws and mysterious restrictions, as if they were beings apart from the common herd, and superior.

A canoe is usually sighted long before it turns into the entrance to the lagoon, and then the members of the failu stand or squat on the stone platform at the seaward end of the house and quietly watch the slow approach of their daring comrades. When they are within a half a mile or so of the shore where the water is shoal and thickly sown with many protruding treacherous boulders, the remains of ancient fish-weirs, the mast with its sail of matting is unstepped and stowed; the canoe is then guided on its tortuous way with poles and paddles. The approach is slow and silent; there is no shouting, no outward excitement; it has all the solemnity of a religious ceremony; the waiting crowd on the shore is hushed or converses in subdued whispers; the great, unwieldy canoe moves slowly onward with all the dignity of a majestic ocean liner coming into port. As soon as the bow touches the shore, the fishermen at once disembark and silently march up into the failu, leaving two members of the crew to protect with matting the painted figureheads of conventionalized frigate birds, at the bow and stem; and, after unloading the fish, to take the canoe to its mooring nearby.



I once went into a failu immediately after the fishermen had returned; the whole interior aspect of the house was changed; more than two-thirds of the floor was partitioned off into little stalls or pens made of matting of green coconut fronds with the leaves interwoven. The sides of the little pens were just high enough to permit the occupants when sitting down to look over and see what was going on; if they wished to be unseen, they had only to lie down. Possibly, these partitions are not so much for seclusion as to prevent any one from stepping over the legs of the sleeping fishermen, a terribly ill-omened accident, and sure to bring misfortune on the sleeper.

The other members of the failu were gathered together at the inland end of the house, and were either at their usual trifling occupations, or mending fine cast-nets, or fashioning from a section of bamboo a box for powdered lime, that indispensable adjunct to betel chewing; some young dandies, or oofoof , as they are termed, were grouped about a little heap of glowing embers, which they had raked together for cheerfulness’ sake, and, also, to save the expense of innumerable matches for their cigarettes; they were humming in unison one of their unintelligible and unmusical songs. It was probably either etiquette or taboo, but no one seemed to be paying any attention to the fishermen, who seemed to be, in fact, absolutely ignored ever since their arrival. These poor, tired men were each installed, and the whole floor looked like a gigantic wasp’s nest, with every cell-cap off, and demure grubs just sticking their heads out. After all their hard, self-sacrificing work at sea to provide food for the community, they are literally imprisoned till the time arrives for them to sail again; they are not allowed to go further inland than the inland side of the house, and if their mothers, wives, or daughters bring any gift, or wish to talk to them, the women must stand down near the shore, with their backs turned toward the house; then the men may go out and speak to them, or, with their backs turned to them, receive what has been brought, and return at once to their prison.

The fish are displayed on the stone platform in front of the house, or on stands of bamboo or palm, and are then apportioned to the families of the fishermen, or to purchasers from the district. Payment is made in shell money or in the stone money-wheels peculiar to Yap. A feature of this barter, which speaks much for the ingrained honesty of these people, is that the money is deposited on the ground near the failu, possibly several days before the fishermen return; no one ever attempts to steal it, or lay false claim to it; there it remains, untouched and safe, until the owner receives the fish. The strings of pearl-shell money and the stone wheels received in payment for the fish, become the property of the failu, and are expended for such purposes only as will benefit the whole house, namely, the purchase of new canoes, rigging, nets, etc., or else reserved to pay the heavy indemnity which must invariably be paid for the theft of a new mistress, or mispil.

The custom of having one mistress common to all the members of the failu, is merely a form of polyandry, which reveals in a striking degree a noteworthy characteristic of the men of Yap, namely, a complete freedom from the emotion of jealousy. In every failu and pabai there lives a young woman, or sometimes two young women, who are the companions without preference to all the men of the house; I was assured repeatedly, moreover, that this possession of a wife in common never awakens any jealous animosity among themselves in the breasts of the numerous husbands. A mispil must always be stolen by force or cunning, from a district at some distance from that wherein her captors reside. After she has been fairly, or unfairly, captured and installed in her new home, she loses no shade of respect among her own people; on the contrary, have not her beauty and her worth received the highest proof of her exalted perfection, in the devotion, not of one, but of a whole community of lovers ? Unlike a prophet, it is in her own country and among her own kith and kin that she is held in honour. But in the community where she is an alien, her social rank is gone. None of the matrons in the district of her failu, who live at home with their husbands and children, will have any social intercourse with her. By the men, whether in her failu or out of it, the mispil is invariably treated with every consideration and respect; no unseemly actions may take place in her presence, and all coarse language is scrupulously avoided when she is within hearing; nevertheless, owing to her station, she is permitted to hear and see the songs and dances, from which other women are barred.

If, by chance, a preference of one lover over another become observable, no blame whatever is attached to her, but the favourite is quietly told that, in the opinion of the whole house, he must retire, or possibly leave the failu for a while and live with friends in another district.

The mispil’s food, and her luxuries, such, as tobacco and betel nut, are supplied by the men, and she is never required to work in the taro fields, as are the wives and daughters of the district. At quite a distance, in the bush behind the failu, a little house is built for her sole use when she wishes to be secluded; here she occupies her time in making new skirts for herself of leaves, and during her sojourn in her little home, known as tapal, the men sedulously place her food near by, but dare not so much as take one step within the enclosure around her house.

The men of the failu treat their mispils with far more respect and devotion than is generally shown by the men outside to the wives of their own household. The mispils are absolutely faithful to the men of their failu or pabai, regarding themselves as unquestionable property, having been sought and captured at the risk of men’s lives, and paid for withal in costly pieces of stone money.

They are by no means kept as prisoners; as soon as the excitement over their capture has abated in their own village, they are at full liberty to return home and visit their family and friends, and they always return willingly and voluntarily to the failu.

In ancient times, which were probably no further removed than the last generation, history in these islands does not usually date much further back than the memory of the oldest inhabitant, when there were many districts at constant war with each other and the high-born nobles were divided into two tribes, the ulunpagel and the bultreh-e-pilun, the capture of a mispil was always accompanied by bloodshed and enduring feuds; but, nowadays, since abstinence from alcohol has cooled their brains, and they all regard themselves as really one people (with the exception of the tribe of slaves known as Pimlingal), the seizure of a young girl to fill the office of mispil is reduced to little more than a commonplace burglary; nay, it is almost always furtively prearranged with the chief of the district, inasmuch as it is to him that the parents appeal for redress. If certain captors, or shall we say burglars, have already made choice of a victim from his district as their future mispil, it might be difficult, if not impossible, for him to prevent them from carrying out their design, but, inasmuch as he is fully assured that they are prepared to pay a good round sum in shell money and stone money by way of indemnity, he contrives, nowadays, by means of this bribe to salve the wounds of a disrupted family and dispel all thoughts of a bloody retaliation. Nevertheless, the whole proceeding is still carried out with the greatest possible secrecy and stealth.

With Friedlander’s help, as interpreter, I elicited from an intelligent young fellow named Gamiau, the following account of the capture of Lemet, the mispil of Dulukan. Gamiau, the leader of the party, was a quiet, serious, young fellow, about eighteen or twenty years old; foremost in dance and song, and, consequently, admired by his companions for the fertility of his poetic and acrobatic resources. He was not tall, but well built, with a skin as smooth as velvet, which seemed to stretch tightly over the muscles underneath like a brown kid glove. He was sitting cross-legged on the floor of our little house one evening when no one else was present, and, taking intermittent puffs at his cigarette of “Nigger-head” tobacco rolled in a fragment of palm-leaf, gave us this somewhat disjointed account of the theft of a mispil.

“Lemet, our mispil, is a daughter of Pagel of Libenau, who is a brother of the chief of Bugol in the Rul district. We had not decided upon her or any other girl before we started out, but we had heard that the girls of Bugol were all pretty.”



“About twenty of us from the failu of Dulukan stocked a canoe with all sorts of trade and set out for Bugol; we knew that the chief there would help us if we took plenty of presents to him, so we put in a good stock of reng [a species of turmeric used as an ornamental dye], several strings of flat pearl shells, and one large and very high priced fei [stone money]. When we reached Bugol, we separated, so that no one should suspect that we were after a girl, and, having given our presents to the chief, we waited there two months and a half enjoying ourselves, but all the time on a furtive look out for a mispil for our failu, but we could not make a choice.

Then word came to us that we had better go to Rul, a short distance away, so that no one would suspect our plans; in this place we waited eighteen days until word came again to us from the chief of Bugol that he had selected a girl for us, and we were to move across the bay to Tomil, and build a house in the mangroves by the shore and wait till his messengers came. So we went, and, after a night and a day, two Bugol men came. Early, early in the morning, before daylight, six of us and the two Bugol men paddled very noiselessly over to Libenau. We left the canoe and four of our men in it near the shore, and I, Gramiau, and Fatufal and the Bugol men went ashore. Without speaking a word, the Bugols led us through the underbrush and finally pointed out the house, and whispered that we would find the girl asleep all by herself in a little hut at the end of her father’s house. We crept up very, very softly, peeped in, and there we saw her, sound asleep, stretched out on her mat with nothing over her. Then we jumped in suddenly and one of us held her arms, and the other kept his hand tight over her mouth so that she could not cry out, and, just as she was, we carried her back to the canoe and paddled quickly down to Aff where the other men were waiting. When we got there, one of us stole a skirt from a house nearby, for she had no clothes. On the way home we stopped at Rul and gave two beautiful shells to the Chief, because Rul is really the head of the whole district. The girl cried a little, and seemed very sad while she was in the canoe, but now, after two months, she is as happy as can be and has never once attempted to leave us.”

Haec fabula docet that the example set by young Lochinvar has still its genial modifications in Yap, and that, although the Bugol bride may not be so compliant as the Netherby, yet the stealing of a mispil is not now an exploit wholly devoid of romance, nor of a spice of danger. A haunting suspicion will obtrude, however, that the girl had been privately “coached” by the chief, and that her family had been paid her equivalent in several good shells and were discreet enough to keep out of the way, and make the course of love run as smooth as possible. Be it added that the members of the failu who venture on these expeditions are always thereafter admired as heroes.

In dress the mispil is in no wise distinguished from other women, except by tattoo marks on her hands and legs. In this tattooing there seems to be, however, no set pattern, and the designs are not so elaborate as lasting, and, since it is not the custom for any other women to be thus ornamented, I found it occasionally possible to decipher on hands and legs of highly respectable, albeit wrinkled and shrivelled, old grandmothers, a former chapter in their history when to them all the world was young and they were the cynosure of every eye in a failu. This is explained by the fact that should a mispil prove enceinte, the duty devolves on one of the men of the failu to take her as his wife, build a house for her, and bring up his own separate family. Here again, the remarkable scheme of social relations and of morality, by which these people live, renders such a compulsory marriage perfectly adjustable and by no means a disgrace. The wife of my excellent friend, Lian, the Chief of Dulukan, showed the ineffaceable and unmistakable telltale tattoo on her hands and legs, and both he and she held their social heads very high in the community.

Verily, it does seem that even in austere eyes this feature of the failu loses half its immorality in losing all its grossness.


THERE is apparently no formal initiation into a failu; when very young the boys wander in and out of it continually; and, if they please, may even sleep there; thus they gradually glide into an accepted fellowship, and, when about ten or eleven years old, may join the men as associates in the adult dances. At about this same age the young boys are known as petir, and may wear but one loin-cloth (or none at all). The next promotion is two loin-cloths, the second longer than the first little scrap, and more elaborately interlaced; they are now known as pagul. The adult man is called pumawn, and wears, first, a loin-cloth; then over this a long rope of thin strips of pandanus leaves and grasses known as kavurr; next, to add a touch of color, a bunch of the same material, stained red, is tucked in at the side and so looped that it hangs down in front over the loin-cloth.



The badge of a freeman, distinguishing him at once from a slave, is an ornamental comb in the knot of hair on the top of his head. One of the Ulun-pagel, the aristocratic tribe, assured me in the most emphatic terms that he would instantly attempt to kill a Pimlingai or “slave” should he meet one wearing such a comb. This comb, albeit of no great intrinsic value, is, therefore, the essential feature of male attire. It is made merely of fifteen or twenty narrow strips of bamboo, about eight inches long, sharpened at one end, with shorter, slightly wedge-shaped pieces inserted between each strip four or five inches from the sharpened ends, whereby the teeth of the comb are kept apart; the upper ends are now bound together with ornamental lashings of coconut fibre. A simple form, but nevertheless deemed foppishly elegant, is that wherein the strips of bamboo are fastened together with a peg run through at about the middle; the strips are then slid past each other like the ribs of a fan; these broad, unpointed, upper ends lend themselves admirably to such decoration as the insertion of bright leaves of croton, tufts of cotton, strips of pandanus, etc.

In one of my first attempts at photographing with a cinematograph camera, many yards of the narrow film, which, when undeveloped looks like stiff yellow ribbon, were spoiled; with exasperation, and, I fear, imprecations, I cut this worthless film ruthlessly from the little sprocket wheels which carry it through the camera, and tossed it away. No princely gift could i have devised which would have been received with more exuberant delight than these worthless strips of film; to Yap eyes they happened to be just of the most fascinating shade of yellow, and to the Yap nostril they possessed a peculiar and ravishing perfume; and as a supreme grace they vibrated like serpents when inserted in combs and caught by the breeze; in a trice every head was wreathed with coils like Medusa’s and every face was radiant with smiles.

Other male ornaments consist of earrings, necklaces, bracelets, and armlets. Mutilations of nose or of lips are not in fashion; earlobes, however, being appendages not ornamental and by no means useful, are always, the world over, responsive to improvement at the behest of beauty. They are not neglected in Yap. Both boys and girls have the earlobes pierced and stretched at an early age, at about the tenth or twelfth year, but this mutilation is never stretched to the extent that it is in the island of But (in the central Carolines), nor as it is in Borneo, where the lobe is so elongated that it becomes a mere loop of skin drooping below the shoulders.

The Yap men and women are satisfied with a simple hole through the lobe, about three-fourths of an inch in diameter, just about large enough for the insertion of bright leaves or flowers or a tuft of cotton. After an incision is made with a piece of sharpened coconut shell, a roll of leaves of a plant, which they call maluek, is at once inserted. This leaf, and this leaf only, must be used; to it is ascribed peculiar properties both of stretching and healing; it must be first warmed over the fire, then soaked and softened in coconut oil, rolled up tightly and pushed through the wound. As soon as this plug becomes loose, it is renewed, and an additional leaf added until the hole is of sufficient size and is healed. The boys grin and bear the suffering without any protection for their poor swollen and inflamed ears, which, after the fourth or fifth day, certainly look exceedingly painful; but the girls are allowed to wear protectors made of the halves of a coconut shell, held in place by strings attached to the upper edges, passing over the head, and strings from the lower edges, tied under the chin. These shells are stained a bright yellow with a turmeric, already mentioned, known as reng.

Another and a smaller hole, just about large enough for the stem of a flower is often made in the rim of the ear a little above the larger hole in the lobe; this is designed for no particular ornament, but merely supplements the larger one when the latter is completely filled with earrings and bouquets; a white and yellow flower of Frangipanni, or the spray of a delicate little orchid, growing on coconut trees, greatly enhances the charm when waving above red and green crotons and a pendant of pink shell. Women do not in general affect manufactured earrings; they cling more to natural effects of leaves and flowers. The men’s ear ornaments consist of short loops of small glass beads, whereto is attached a piece of pink or white shell usually cut in a triangular shape, with each edge about an inch in length; this is pendant from the loop of beads about three inches below the ear. The triangular shape is, in general, obligatory, inasmuch as the shell from which it is out has this one sole patch of rosy pink near the umbo. This shell is exceedingly rare on the shores of Hap; consequently, these pink pendants are highly valued and owned only by the wealthy families who part with them reluctantly, and only at an exorbitant price.

Other pendants of less value are made from any fine white shell, or of tortoise-shell; any man may wear these who has patience enough to scrape the shells to the proper shape. Still another variety of ear ornament is a piece of thin tortoise-shell, about a third of an inch wide, bent into the shape of a U; this is hooked in the lobe of the ear, and from the outer open ends are suspended little strings of beads. In default of other ornament the men will insert anything with gay colors; my cinematograph film, whenever I happened to discard it, was sure to be seen for the next two or three days either fluttering from combs or passed through loops and coiled about the ears.

Ordinary necklaces, worn by all the common folk, are made of thin discs of coconut shell or tortoise-shell, about a quarter of an inch in diameter, and strung closely and tightly together, interspersed at intervals with similar discs of white shell, so that they make a flexible cord which coils like a collar rather tightly about the neck.



One of the most highly prized possessions of the men is, however, a necklace of beads made of the same rose-coloured shell whereof they make their ear pendants. In each shell of superior quality there is of the pink or red portion only enough to make one good bead about an inch and a half long by half an inch wide and an eighth of an inch thick; such a bead is usually strung in the middle of the necklace among others graded off from it in size, on both sides, merging into oblong pieces about half an inch long, of the same breadth and thickness as the bead in the centre; then, finally, follow discs about one sixteenth of an inch thick.

One day, a chief, named Inifel, with a suite of followers from his district of Magachpa, at the northern end of the island, paid us a visit; for an old man, his features bore as treacherous and malevolent a stamp as ever I saw; he scowled at everything and everybody from under his shaggy grizzled eyebrows, with a piercing gleam at once suspicious and sinister; he was magnificent in adornment, however, with a thauei, a red-shell necklace, of surpassing splendour, composed throughout of exquisite red shell beads of the very largest size, except where, at intervals of every seven or eight red beads, there followed one of pure white. So satanic were his looks that I did not dare even to hint at the purchase of so gorgeous a prize, lest he should propose my soul, or my shadow, by some devilish contract, as the price. These strings of shell beads are usually about three feet long, and hang far down on the chest. Beyond question they are exceedingly beautiful, especially when set off by the dark, burnished livery of a tawny skin.



A report of these red shell ornaments had reached me by rumour before I came to Yap, and I had been assured that it was utterly impossible to buy one; hence it was, naturally of course, the one thing I set my heart on possessing; wherefore I caused it to be widely known that I was prepared to pay a good round price for a red necklace, and I begged old Ronoboi, one of my first acquaintances among the nobility, not only a Chief, but also a powerful soothsayer, or mach-mach, to strain every nerve to procure one for me. He shook his grave head dubiously, saying he would try, but had no hope whatever of success. Later, I saw some thaueis that were truly excellent, but the owners would not listen to a syllable of sale, and seemed even to doubt that a white man existed with wealth enough to purchase a perfect one.

After several rebuffs in my attempts to buy these enviable “jewels” from wearers who looked otherwise impecunious enough, I found out that these necklaces were actually loaned, at interest, and were not the disposable property of the wearer, who, for work or services performed, was privileged to strut about, thus adorned, for a certain number of days, with that delicious glow around the heart, whether civilised or savage, which the consciousness of being well-dressed invariably bestows. In fact, the thauei, in Yap, is a medium of exchange, and is not often parted with outright, but loaned out; the interest on the loan is to be paid for in labour. After three weeks of eager and zealous endeavour, I succeeded at last in obtaining a very inferior string of merely round discs, but I had to pay for it the staggering sum of thirty marks ($7.50); when the owner delivered it to me, he exclaimed, “There now, you have the price of a murder; offer that to a man and tell him whom you want killed, and it’s done!” Not until the very day I left the island did I get a really fine thauei; after almost tearful pleadings on my part, old Ronoboi, possibly by a good deal of hook and probably by a good deal more crook, persuaded one of his subjects and eke believers in the awful mysteries of mack-mack, to part with a prized heirloom, which the dear old chief and wizard solemnly and secretly brought to me. I gave him a double handful of silver mark pieces; this seemed to hush effectually the “still, small voice;” furthermore, can a king do wrong? and the necklace is mine!

The only other ornaments that the men wear are armlets and bracelets of shell or of tortoise-shell. These are made simply by cutting a narrow section from the base of one of the large conical seashells and breaking out all the inner whorls; the ring thus formed is then slipped over the arm and worn above the elbow or wrist. I noticed none that was carved or decorated; they were merely smoothed and polished. The tortoise-shell bracelets are plain, broad bands which, after softening in hot water, are bent around the wrists, where they fit tightly, leaving the ends about three fourths of an inch apart, so that they may be sprung off the arm, and need not be slipped over the hand. These tortoiseshell ornaments are usually engraved with a few parallel lines running round them.

One peculiar shell bracelet, much affected by old men, is made of a large, white conical sea-shell, whereof the base and all the interior spirals have been cut away; this is worn like a cuff on the wrist with the big end upward. It seems incredible that they can get their hands through so small an opening, but in some way they do squeeze them through. One of my particular friends, Fatumak by name, of whom I shall speak later, told me that, once upon a time, a man from Goror, at the southernmost point of the island, tried to go up to the land of departed spirits, Falraman, but he never reached his destination, although he saw many marvelous things, and brought back to the Chiefs extraordinary novelties; among them, these shell cuffs, and chickens.


THAT I might obtain permanent records of their songs and incantations, I carried with me a large-sized phonograph, with all needful appliances. With much relish I anticipated the consternation of the natives when they saw and heard a box whence issued a living human voice and music played by all sorts of instruments.

In order to introduce them to it with due paralysing effect, I made a selection of band music and several songs in English; with these I intended to charm them before requesting them to speak or sing into that embarrassing, expressionless metal horn. Experience had taught me, however, the impossibility of foretelling the fashion in which untutored minds will accept such miracles, and I was not altogether unprepared to have their bewilderment find expression in a shower of well-directed coconuts at the first bars of “Lead kindly light” or other soothing, peaceful hymns. But what was my unexpected amazement and infinite chagrin, when the audience I had gathered displayed not the faintest interest in the performance beyond the sight of the revolution of the little wax cylinder. A living, human voice, singing a sweet English love-song, and issuing from a brass horn attached to a machine, was, to them, not half as awesome as the whirling wheels and the buzz of clock-work; some of the audience actually turned away in indifference, if not in disgust, and went off to resume their work of husking coconuts.

Completely crestfallen, I ventured to ask one man when the tune was finished what he thought of it; “An all right sort of tom-tom” was his careless and patronizing reply. (Tom-tom is an adopted word which they apply to cheap musical boxes, in fact to any variety of musical instrument, introduced many years ago by whalers and copra traders.) Friedlander himself was astounded at their mortifying indifference, and suggested very justly that it was probably because the words meant nothing to them, and that the phonograph was to them only another form of hurdy-gurdy. A human voice uttering incomprehensible sounds had to them no more meaning than the beating of a tin pan.

Cast down, but not utterly discouraged, I tried a second song by a melodious female voice, but this fell just as absolutely flat as the former. As a final and desperate resource, I put on a blank roll and the recording needle, and then induced one of the youths to speak a few native words into the horn, and’ immediately ground off a reproduction of his very words.

The effect was magical! The audience forgot to breathe in awed silence! Their eyes dilated! Their jaws fell! And they began repeating after the instrument the words of their very own language, in the boy’s very own voice, now issuing from the bottom of the horn! Was the boy himself imprisoned there? For five or six seconds after the voice ceased, they remained silent, looking from one to another, and then they burst into peals and peals of screaming laughter, clamourously and vehemently imploring me to repeat it.

Of course I complied. The coconut huskers dropped their work and hurried back helter-skelter, to hear a little machine that after only a minute’s acquaintance could talk as well as they could themselves! The conquest was complete! Thereafter I had no difficulty whatsoever in finding volunteers to sing or repeat set speeches. The miracle of a “tom-tom that talked and sung” was assured, and its success unbounded!


At my first and second exhibition men alone happened to be present. A request then came to me from the women, through Friedlander’s wife, that I should give them an exhibition, to which, as they were shy, no men should be admitted. Accordingly, kindhearted Friedlander had one of his copra storehouses cleared, it was a little house on low piles, with walls and floor of bamboo slats, about twenty feet long and ten feet wide. At one end I set up my phonograph, and the audience duly gathered in bunches and bundles, I use the words advisedly, so enormous and expansive are the skirts of dried grasses and leaves. The hall was filled to overflowing. But in a house of bamboo the walls and floor have many a chink, and I think I may truly say there was no single crevice without its outside ear.

I tried the same experiment with the women as with the men, and first of all I gave them an English song; and precisely the same result followed; the performance emphatically bored them, and they conversed with each, other and pointed to the different parts of the machine as if the entertainment was yet to begin. But the native song, that I gave them next, awed them into silence in a trice; with dilated eyes they scrutinised me wonderingly, before, behind and on every side, to see that there was no living man concealed who was the real singer. The silence, however, lasted but a minute, and was then broken by shouts of delighted laughter, and thereupon followed such a commotion and eager shifting of places to get a nearer view of the mystery, that I really expected every minute that the whole audience, myself included, would crash through the frail floor to the ground below.

The rows of jet black teeth on a broad grin from ear to ear, seemed to darken the room. During the intermission, while I was putting on another record, cigarettes burned hard and fast to brace up the nerves for another thrill. After two or three men’s songs, I asked for a song from the women; they were reluctant and very shy, but finally they induced two young girls to sing a duet, which they said is wont to be sung at funerals, setting forth the good qualities of the deceased and the intense grief of the survivors. It must have been the identical tune that the original “old cow died on,” so monotonous, so lugubrious, so discordant was it. Evidently the debutantes had not assisted at many funerals; they frequently made awkward pauses and looked around despairingly until kind friends prompted them loudly. It did not turn out to be a good record, but it served to interest the women intensely, and render them anxious to hear their own voices as others hear them.


Thereafter the fame of the tom-tom-Ni-non, the “talking tom-tom,” spread all over the island. I think that eventually I must have been visited by every human being in Yap, from babies in arms to hoary age, everything that could creep, walk, or hobble. From far and near there came crowds so insistent that almost every day I had to give a session in the morning for the men, and a select session for the women in the afternoon, but I no longer crowded them into the little copra house; open air exhibitions were perfectly satisfactory.

It was intensely interesting to watch their expression as they recognised the words of a familiar song, or speech, and knew the speaker’s voice. There was one particular chant, sung for me by three men from the adjacent failu, which Lian, the chief, cautioned me not to play for the women; it was quite as well they should not hear it. Pleased with this unexpected display of refinement, I assured him at once that I would do my best to comply with his request. At that early stage of my knowledge of their song-language the songs were all so much alike, and the tunes so completely indistinguishable one from another, that one afternoon, in my innocency, before I was aware, the forbidden song was droning away on the phonograph, and l was awakened to my oversight by the “nods and becks and wreathed smiles” of the women before me; but I had gone too far to retreat. I glanced up and saw Lian at a little distance off, standing in the doorway of our house. He was both smiling and scowling, but from his position at one side he was watching keenly the women’s faces while they were listening to that mysterious song. There were also a few other men standing further off behind the rows of women who were sitting cross-legged on the ground.

The women’s eyes danced with merriment and, as soon as the song was recognized, a suppressed giggle went round the audience and they turned to one another with up-lifted brows and wide open eyes, with a sort of “did-you-ever?, no-I-never” expression; it evidently diverted them, so I submitted to fate. Lian still stood watching, and I saw his lips repeating each, word; then came several bars of the song which gave forth nothing but a low humming, with plaintive cadences. The women all cast their eyes on the ground, laughing, but ashamed to laugh, Lian gave a foolish, sickly smile and, shaking his head weakly, retreated into the obscurity of the house; the men in the background could not suppress two or three loud guffaws, and then, stooping down to hide their embarrassment, busied themselves at once with splitting the husks of some coconuts.



I had, indeed, quite innocently proved a marplot, and suffered the women to hear one of the secret songs of the failu. The combined questioning of Friedlander and myself failed to elicit its meaning, or why the men should have been so particularly anxious to keep it from the women’s ears. We never could get any further explanation than that it was “merely one of the songs sung only in the failu.”

An odd feature of all their songs and incantations is that they are not in the modern Yap language at all, nor in a language used by the people in any other island. They say it is the primitive language of Palalagab, the ancient name of Yap, and they use these words when they compose a new song. It is, however, impossible to extract any meaning, or, rather, any literal meaning out of these mere strings of words; they translated them for us into modern Yap, but this yielded merely a collection of what seemed to be absolutely disconnected and irrelevant statements. They usually began with an appeal for attention, such as “Hear what we have been doing;” “Listen to what we are saying,” or “Open your ears to hear;” then follow immediately one after another, such sentences as “Brave men, all the same as devils, make a mach-mach for good weather at sea”, ”When we go in a canoe and see a bird, we say we are near to land, when we see a fish, we say we are near to land”, ”Listen to what we young boys dreamt about”, ”We all got in a canoe;” etc.

These are the sentences of a song which Tomak, a high-class man, sang into the phonograph and then told us proudly that he himself composed it, but he could give us no more than the above sentences translated into modern Yap, and he was unable to say what meaning he intended to convey. This same incomprehensible language is, of course, a heaven-sent boon to the mach-mach men; luckily nobody, not even themselves, can tell what they are talking about.

Powerful spells may be purchased and learned from the mach-mach men for large sums; at times they are heirlooms and pass on from father to son or younger brother. Since they must all be transmitted by word of mouth, is it surprising that they should become at last mere nondescript jargon? It is not, however, beyond possibility that the wizards understand these random sentiments and disjointed sentences; they are experts at reading between lines, and what to us is the merest platitude, becomes in their ears a lyric overflowing with sentiment. Nay, is it not even so with the Japanese whom we have lately learned to admire in the arts of peace as well as of war, and especially in Painting, Poetry’s twin sister? There flits across my memory the following Japanese “Poem” consisting of these three lines and no more :

“At the time of being far away! If the moon were a looking-glass! Delightful!”

To a Japanese this is all sufficient to conjure up a picture of two lovers sundered by cruel fate, each happy in the thought that both are gazing at the same moon and longing for the moon’s mirror to reflect an image of the beloved face, while the “Delightful” at the close has all the convincing emphasis of the “Assuredly” in the Koran.



Island of Stone Money. Yap of the Carolines

by William Henry Furness, 1910

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‘Wise Man’, Sapiens, A Brief History of Humankind – Dr Yuval Noah Harari.

Just 6 million years ago, a single female ape had two daughters. One became the ancestor of all chimpanzees, the other is our own grandmother.

From about 2 million years ago until around 10,000 years ago, the world was home, at one and the same time, to several human species. And why not? Today there are many species of foxes, bears and pigs. The earth of a hundred millennia ago was walked by at least six different species of man. It’s our current exclusivity, not that multi-species past, that is peculiar and perhaps incriminating.

It is unsettling and perhaps thrilling to think that we Sapiens could at one time have sex with an animal from a different species, and produce children together. Tolerance is not a Sapiens trademark. As we will see, we Sapiens have good reasons to repress the memory of our siblings.

Sapiens can cooperate in extremely flexible ways with countless numbers of strangers. That’s why Sapiens rule the world, whereas ants eat our leftovers and chimps are locked up in zoos and research laboratories.

100,000 years ago, at least six human species inhabited the earth. Today there is just one.

Us, Homo sapiens.

How did our species succeed in the battle for dominance? Why did our foraging ancestors come together to create cities and kingdoms? How did we come to believe in gods, nations and human rights; to trust money, books and laws; and to be enslaved by bureaucracy, consumerism and the pursuit of happiness? And what will our world be like in the millennia to come?

Bold, wide-ranging and provocative, Sapiens challenges everything we thought we knew about being human: our beliefs, our actions, our power and our future.

About the Author

“I encourage all of us, whatever our beliefs, to question the basic narratives of our world, to connect past developments with present concerns, and not to be afraid of controversial issues.”

Dr Yuval Noah Harari has a PhD in History from the University of Oxford and now lectures at the Hebrew University of Jerusalem, specialising in World History. His research focuses on broad questions, such as:

What is the relation between history and biology? Is there justice in history? Did people become happier as history unfolded?

65,000 people have signed up to Harari’s online course, A Brief History of Humankind. Sapiens is an international bestseller and is published in more than 20 languages worldwide. In 2012 Harari was awarded the annual Polonsky Prize for Creativity and Originality in the Humanistic Disciplines.


The Cognitive Revolution

1. An Animal of No Significance

ABOUT 13.5 BILLION YEARS ago, matter, energy, time and space came into being in what is known as the Big Bang. The story of these fundamental features of our universe is called physics.

About 300,000 years after their appearance, matter and energy started to coalesce into complex structures, called atoms, which then combined into molecules. The story of atoms, molecules and their interactions is called chemistry.

About 3.8 billion years ago, on a planet called Earth, certain molecules combined to form particularly large and intricate structures called organisms. The story of organisms is called biology.

About 70,000 years ago, organisms belonging to the species Homo sapiens started to form even more elaborate structures called cultures. The subsequent development of these human cultures is called history.

Three important revolutions shaped the course of history: the Cognitive Revolution kick-started history about 70,000 years ago. The Agricultural Revolution sped it up about 12,000 years ago. The Scientific Revolution, which got under way only 500 years ago, may well end history and start something completely different.

This book tells the story of how these three revolutions have affected humans and their fellow organisms.

There were humans long before there was history. Animals much like modern humans first appeared about 2.5 million years ago. But for countless generations they did not stand out from the myriad other organisms with which they shared their habitats.

On a hike in East Africa 2 million years ago, you might well have encountered a familiar cast of human characters: anxious mothers cuddling their babies and clutches of carefree children playing in the mud; temperamental youths chafing against the dictates of society and weary elders who just wanted to be left in peace; chest-thumping machos trying to impress the local beauty and wise old matriarchs who had already seen it all. These archaic humans loved, played, formed close friendships and competed for status and power but so did chimpanzees, baboons and elephants. There was nothing special about humans. Nobody, least of all humans themselves, had any inkling that their descendants would one day walk on the moon, split the atom, fathom the genetic code and write history books. The most important thing to know about prehistoric humans is that they were insignificant animals with no more impact on their environment than gorillas, fireflies or jellyfish.

Biologists classify organisms into species. Animals are said to belong to the same species if they tend to mate with each other, giving birth to fertile offspring. Horses and donkeys have a recent common ancestor and share many physical traits. But they show little sexual interest in one another. They will mate if induced to do so but their offspring, called mules, are sterile. Mutations in donkey DNA can therefore never cross over to horses, or vice versa. The two types of animals are consequently considered two distinct species, moving along separate evolutionary paths. By contrast, a bulldog and a spaniel may look very different, but they are members of the same species, sharing the same DNA pool. They will happily mate and their puppies will grow up to pair off with other dogs and produce more puppies.

Species that evolved from a common ancestor are bunched together under the heading ‘genus’ (plural genera). Lions, tigers, leopards and jaguars are different species within the genus Panthera. Biologists label organisms with a two-part Latin name, genus followed by species. Lions, for example, are called Panthera Leo, the species leo of the genus Panthera. Presumably, everyone reading this book is a Homo sapiens the species sapiens (wise) of the genus Homo (man).

Genera in their turn are grouped into families, such as the cats (lions, Cheetahs, house cats), the dogs (wolves, foxes, jackals) and the elephants (elephants, mammoths, mastodons). All members of a family trace their lineage back to a founding matriarch or patriarch. All cats, for example, from the smallest house kitten to the most ferocious lion, share a common feline ancestor who lived about 25 million years ago.

Homo sapiens, too, belongs to a family. This banal fact used to be one of history’s most closely guarded secrets. Homo sapiens long preferred to view itself as set apart from animals, an orphan bereft of family, lacking siblings or cousins, and, most importantly, without parents. But that’s just not the case. Like it or not, we are members of a large and particularly noisy family called the great apes. Our closest living relatives include chimpanzees, gorillas and orangutans. The chimpanzees are the closest. Just 6 million years ago, a single female ape had two daughters. One became the ancestor of all chimpanzees, the other is our own grandmother.

Skeletons in the Closet

Homo sapiens has kept hidden an even more disturbing secret. Not only do we possess an abundance of uncivilised cousins, once upon a time we had quite a few brothers and sisters as well. We are used to thinking about ourselves as the only humans, because for the last 10,000 years, our species has indeed been the only human species around. Yet the real meaning of the word human is ‘an animal belonging to the genus Homo’, and there used to be many other species of this genus besides Homo sapiens. Moreover, as we shall see in the last chapter of the book, in the not-so-distant future we might again have to contend with non-sapiens humans. To clarify this point, I will often use the term ‘Sapiens’ to denote members of the species Homo sapiens, while reserving the term ‘human’ to refer to all extant members of the genus Homo.

Humans first evolved in East Africa about 2.5 million years ago from an earlier genus of apes called Australopithecus, which means ‘Southern Ape’. About 2 million years ago, some of these archaic men and women left their homeland to journey through and settle vast areas of North Africa, Europe and Asia. Since survival in the snowy forests of northern Europe required different traits than those needed to stay alive in Indonesia’s steaming jungles, human populations evolved in different directions. The result was several distinct species, to each of which scientists have assigned a pompous Latin name.

Humans in Europe and western Asia evolved into Homo neanderthalensis (‘Man from the Neander Valley’), popularly referred to simply as ‘Neanderthals’. Neanderthals, bulkier and more muscular than us Sapiens, were well adapted to the cold climate of Ice Age western Eurasia. The more eastern regions of Asia were populated by Homo erectus, ‘Upright Man’, who survived there for close to 2 million years, making it the most durable human species ever. This record is unlikely to be broken even by our own species. It is doubtful whether Homo sapiens will still be around a thousand years from now, so 2 million years is really out of our league.

On the island of Java, in Indonesia, lived Homo soloensis, ‘Man from the Solo Valley’, who was suited to life in the tropics. On another Indonesian island the small island of Flores archaic humans underwent a process of dwarfing. Humans first reached Flores when the sea level was exceptionally low, and the island was easily accessible from the mainland. When the seas rose again, some people were trapped on the island, which was poor in resources. Big people, who need a lot of food, died first. Smaller fellows survived much better. Over the generations, the people of Flores became dwarves. This unique species, known by scientists as Homo floresiensis, reached a maximum height of only one metre and weighed no more than twenty-five kilograms. They were nevertheless able to produce stone tools, and even managed occasionally to hunt down some of the island’s elephants though, to be fair, the elephants were a dwarf species as well.

In 2010 another lost sibling was rescued from oblivion, when scientists excavating the Denisova Cave in Siberia discovered a fossilised finger bone. Genetic analysis proved that the finger belonged to a previously unknown human species, which was named Homo denisova. Who knows how many lost relatives of ours are waiting to be discovered in other caves, on other islands, and in other climes?

While these humans were evolving in Europe and Asia, evolution in East Africa did not stop. The cradle of humanity continued to nurture numerous new Species, such as Homo rudolfensis, ‘Man from Lake Rudolf’, Homo ergaster, ‘Working Man’, and eventually our own species, which we’ve immodestly named Homo sapiens, ‘Wise Man’.

The members of some of these species were massive and others were dwarves. Some were fearsome hunters and others meek plant-gatherers. Some lived only on a single island, while many roamed over continents. But all of them belonged to the genus Homo. They were all human beings.

It’s a common fallacy to envision these species as arranged in a straight line of descent, with Ergaster begetting Erectus, Erectus begetting the Neanderthals, and the Neanderthals evolving into us. This linear model gives the mistaken impression that at any particular moment only one type of human inhabited the earth, and that all earlier species were merely older models of ourselves.

The truth is that from about 2 million years ago until around 10,000 years ago, the world was home, at one and the same time, to several human species. And why not? Today there are many species of foxes, bears and pigs. The earth of a hundred millennia ago was walked by at least six different species of man. It’s our current exclusivity, not that multi-species past, that is peculiar and perhaps incriminating. As we will shortly see, we Sapiens have good reasons to repress the memory of our siblings.

The Cost of Thinking

Despite their many differences, all human species share several defining characteristics. Most notably, humans have extraordinarily large brains compared to other animals. Mammals weighing sixty kilograms have an average brain size of 200 cubic centimetres. The earliest men and women, 2.5 million years ago, had brains of about 600 cubic centimetres. Modern Sapiens sport a brain averaging 1,200-1,400 cubic centimetres. Neanderthal brains were even bigger.

That evolution should select for larger brains may seem to us like, well, a no-brainer. We are so enamoured of our high intelligence that we assume that when it comes to cerebral power, more must be better. But if that were the case, the feline family would also have produced cats who could do calculus, and frogs would by now have launched their own space programme. Why are giant brains so rare in the animal kingdom?

The fact is that a jumbo brain is a jumbo drain on the body. It’s not easy to carry around, especially when encased inside a massive skull. It’s even harder to fuel. In Homo sapiens, the brain accounts for about 2-3 per cent of total body weight, but it consumes 25 per cent of the body’s energy when the body is at rest. By comparison, the brains of other apes require only 8 per cent of rest-time energy.

Archaic humans paid for their large brains in two ways. Firstly, they spent more time in search of food. Secondly, their muscles atrophied. Like a government diverting money from defence to education, humans diverted energy from biceps to neurons. It’s hardly a foregone conclusion that this is a good strategy for survival on the savannah. A chimpanzee can’t win an argument with a Homo sapiens, but the ape can rip the man apart like a rag doll.

Today our big brains pay off nicely, because we can produce cars and guns that enable us to move much faster than chimps, and shoot them from a safe distance instead of wrestling. But cars and guns are a recent phenomenon. For more than 2 million years, human neural networks kept growing and growing, but apart from some flint knives and pointed sticks, humans had precious little to show for it.

What then drove forward the evolution of the massive human brain during those 2 million years? Frankly, we don’t know.

Another singular human trait is that we walk upright on two legs. Standing up, it’s easier to scan the savannah for game or enemies, and arms that are unnecessary for locomotion are freed for other purposes, like throwing stones or signalling. The more things these hands could do, the more successful their owners were, so evolutionary pressure brought about an increasing concentration of nerves and finely tuned muscles in the palms and fingers. As a result, humans can perform very intricate tasks with their hands. In particular, they can produce and use sophisticated tools. The first evidence for tool production dates from about 2.5 million years ago, and the manufacture and use of tools are the criteria by which archaeologists recognise ancient humans.

Yet walking upright has its downside. The skeleton of our primate ancestors developed for millions of years to support a creature that walked on all fours and had a relatively small head. Adjusting to an upright position was quite a challenge, especially when the scaffolding had to support an extra-large cranium. Humankind paid for its lofty vision and industrious hands with backaches and stiff necks.

Women paid extra. An upright gait required narrower hips, constricting the birth canal and this just when babies’ heads were getting bigger and bigger. Death in childbirth became a major hazard for human females. Women who gave birth earlier, when the infant’s brain and head were still relatively small and supple, fared better and lived to have more children. Natural selection consequently favoured earlier births. And, indeed, compared to other animals, humans are born prematurely, when many of their vital systems are still underdeveloped. A colt can trot shortly after birth; a kitten leaves its mother to forage on its own when it is just a few weeks old. Human babies are helpless, dependent for many years on their elders for sustenance, protection and education.

This fact has contributed greatly both to humankind’s extraordinary social abilities and to its unique social problems. Lone mothers could hardly forage enough food for their offspring and themselves with needy children in tow. Raising children required constant help from other family members and neighbours.

It takes a tribe to raise a human. Evolution thus favoured those capable of forming strong social ties.

In addition, since humans are born underdeveloped, they can be educated and socialised to a far greater extent than any other animal. Most mammals emerge from the womb like glazed earthenware emerging from a kiln, any attempt at remoulding will only scratch or break them. Humans emerge from the womb like molten glass from a furnace. They can be spun, stretched and shaped with a surprising degree of freedom. This is why today we can educate our children to become Christian or Buddhist, capitalist or socialist, warlike or peace-loving.

We assume that a large brain, the use of tools, superior learning abilities and complex social structures are huge advantages. It seems selfevident that these have made humankind the most powerful animal on earth. But humans enjoyed all of these advantages for a full 2 million years during which they remained weak and marginal creatures. Thus humans who lived a million years ago, despite their big brains and sharp stone tools, dwelt in constant fear of predators, rarely hunted large game, and subsisted mainly by gathering plants, scooping up insects, stalking small animals, and eating the carrion left behind by other more powerful carnivores.

One of the most common uses of early stone tools was to crack open bones in order to get to the marrow. Some researchers believe this was our original niche. Just as woodpeckers specialise in extracting insects from the trunks of trees, the first humans specialised in extracting marrow from bones. Why marrow? Well, suppose you observe a pride of lions take down and devour a giraffe. You wait patiently until they’re done. But it’s still not your turn because first the hyenas and jackals and you don’t dare interfere with them scavenge the leftovers. Only then would you and your band dare approach the carcass, look cautiously left and right and dig into the edible tissue that remained.

This is a key to understanding our history and psychology. Genus Homo’s position in the food chain was, until quite recently, solidly in the middle. For millions of years, humans hunted smaller creatures and gathered what they could, all the while being hunted by larger predators. It was only 400,000 years ago that several species of man began to hunt large game on a regular basis, and only in the last 100,000 years with the rise of Homo sapiens that man jumped to the top of the food chain.

That spectacular leap from the middle to the top had enormous consequences. Other animals at the top of the pyramid, such as lions and sharks, evolved into that position very gradually, over millions of years. This enabled the ecosystem to develop checks and balances that prevent lions and sharks from wreaking too much havoc. As lions became deadlier, so gazelles evolved to run faster, hyenas to cooperate better, and rhinoceroses to be more badtempered. In contrast, humankind ascended to the top so quickly that the ecosystem was not given time to adjust. Moreover, humans themselves failed to adjust. Most top predators of the planet are majestic creatures. Millions of years of dominion have filled them with self-confidence. Sapiens by contrast is more like a banana-republic dictator. Having so recently been one of the underdogs of the savannah, we are full of fears and anxieties over our position, which makes us doubly cruel and dangerous. Many historical calamities, from deadly wars to ecological catastrophes, have resulted from this over-hasty jump.

A Race of Cooks

A significant step on the way to the top was the domestication of fire. Some human species may have made occasional use of fire as early as 800,000 years ago. By about 300,000 years ago, Homo erectus, Neanderthals and the forefathers of Homo sapiens were using fire on a daily basis. Humans now had a dependable source of light and warmth, and a deadly weapon against prowling lions. Not long aftenwards, humans may even have started deliberately to torch their neighbourhoods. A carefully managed fire could turn impassable barren thickets into prime grasslands teeming with game. In addition, once the fire died down, Stone Age entrepreneurs could walk through the smoking remains and harvest charcoaled animals, nuts and tubers.

But the best thing fire did was cook. Foods that humans cannot digest in their natural forms such as wheat, rice and potatoes became staples of our diet thanks to cooking. Fire not only changed food’s chemistry, it changed its biology as well. Cooking killed germs and parasites that infested food. Humans also had a far easier time chewing and digesting old favourites such as fruits, nuts, insects and carrion if they were cooked. Whereas chimpanzees spend five hours a day chewing raw food, a single hour suffices for people eating cooked food.

The advent of cooking enabled humans to eat more kinds of food, to devote less time to eating, and to make do with smaller teeth and shorter intestines. Some scholars believe there is a direct link between the advent of cooking, the shortening of the human intestinal tract, and the growth of the human brain. Since long intestines and large brains are both massive energy consumers, it’s hard to have both. By shortening the intestines and decreasing their energy consumption, cooking inadvertently opened the way to the jumbo brains of Neanderthals and Sapiens.

Fire also opened the first significant gulf between man and the other animals. The power of almost all animals depends on their bodies: the strength of their muscles, the size of their teeth, the breadth of their wings. Though they may harness winds and currents, they are unable to control these natural forces, and are always constrained by their physical design. Eagles, for example, identify thermal columns rising from the ground, spread their giant wings and allow the hot air to lift them upwards. Yet eagles cannot control the location of the columns, and their maximum carrying capacity is strictly proportional to their wingspan.

When humans domesticated fire, they gained control of an obedient and potentially limitless force. Unlike eagles, humans could choose when and where to ignite a flame, and they were able to exploit fire for any number of tasks. Most importantly, the power of fire was not limited by the form, structure or strength of the human body. A single woman with a flint or fire stick could burn down an entire forest in a matter of hours. The domestication of fire was a sign of things to come.

Our Brothers’ Keepers

Despite the benefits of fire, 150,000 years ago humans were still marginal creatures. They could now scare away lions, warm themselves during cold nights, and burn down the occasional forest. Yet counting all species together, there were still no more than perhaps a million humans living between the Indonesian archipelago and the Iberian peninsula, a mere blip on the ecological radar.

Our own species, Homo sapiens, was already present on the world stage, but so far it was just minding its own business in a corner of Africa. We don’t know exactly where and when animals that can be classified as Homo sapiens first evolved from some earlier type of humans, but most scientists agree that by 150,000 years ago, East Africa was populated by Sapiens that looked just like us. If one of them turned up in a modern morgue, the local pathologist would notice nothing peculiar. Thanks to the blessings of fire, they had smaller teeth and jaws than their ancestors, whereas they had massive brains, equal in size to ours.

Scientists also agree that about 70,000 years ago, Sapiens from East Africa spread into the Arabian peninsula, and from there they quickly overran the entire Eurasian landmass.

When Homo sapiens landed in Arabia, most of Eurasia was already settled by other humans. What happened to them? There are two conflicting theories. The ‘Interbreeding Theory’ tells a story of attraction, sex and mingling. As the African immigrants spread around the world, they bred with other human populations, and people today are the outcome of this interbreeding.

For example, when Sapiens reached the Middle East and Europe, they encountered the Neanderthals. These humans were more muscular than Sapiens, had larger brains, and were better adapted to cold climes. They used tools and fire, were good hunters, and apparently took care of their sick and infirm. (Archaeologists have discovered the bones of Neanderthals who lived for many years with severe physical handicaps, evidence that they were cared for by their relatives.) Neanderthals are often depicted in caricatures as the archetypical brutish and stupid ‘cave people’, but recent evidence has changed their image.

According to the Interbreeding Theory, when Sapiens spread into Neanderthal lands, Sapiens bred with Neanderthals until the two populations merged. If this is the case, then today’s Eurasians are not pure Sapiens. They are a mixture of Sapiens and Neanderthals. Similarly, when Sapiens reached East Asia, they interbred with the local Erectus, so the Chinese and Koreans are a mixture of Sapiens and Erectus.

The opposing view, called the ‘Replacement Theory’ tells a very different story, one of incompatibility, revulsion, and perhaps even genocide. According to this theory, Sapiens and other humans had different anatomies, and most likely different mating habits and even body odours. They would have had little sexual interest in one another. And even if a Neanderthal Romeo and a Sapiens Juliet fell in love, they could not produce fertile children, because the genetic gulf separating the two populations was already unbridgeable. The two populations remained completely distinct, and when the Neanderthals died out, or were killed off, their genes died with them. According to this view, Sapiens replaced all the previous human populations without merging with them. If that is the case, the lineages of all contemporary humans can be traced back, exclusively, to East Africa, 70,000 years ago. We are all ‘pure Sapiens’.

A lot hinges on this debate. From an evolutionary perspective, 70,000 years is a relatively short interval. If the Replacement Theory is correct, all living humans have roughly the same genetic baggage, and racial distinctions among them are negligible. But if the Interbreeding Theory is right, there might well be genetic differences between Africans, Europeans and Asians that go back hundreds of thousands of years. This is political dynamite, which could provide material for explosive racial theories.

In recent decades the Replacement Theory has been the common wisdom in the field. It had firmer archaeological backing, and was more politically correct (scientists had no desire to open up the Pandora’s box of racism by claiming significant genetic diversity among modern human populations). But that ended in 2010, when the results of a four-year effort to map the Neanderthal genome were published. Geneticists were able to collect enough intact Neanderthal DNA from fossils to make a broad comparison between it and the DNA of contemporary humans. The results stunned the scientific community.

It turned out that 1-4 per cent of the unique human DNA of modern populations in the Middle East and Europe is Neanderthal DNA. That’s not a huge amount, but it’s significant. A second shock came several months later, when DNA extracted from the fossilised finger from Denisova was mapped. The results proved that up to 6 per cent of the unique human DNA of modern Melanesians and Aboriginal Australians is Denisovan DNA.

If these results are valid, and it’s important to keep in mind that further research is under way and may either reinforce or modify these conclusions, the Interbreeders got at least some things right. But that doesn’t mean that the Replacement Theory is completely wrong. Since Neanderthals and Denisovans contributed only a small amount of DNA to our present-day genome, it is impossible to speak of a ‘merger’ between Sapiens and other human species. Although differences between them were not large enough to completely prevent fertile intercourse, they were sufficient to make such contacts very rare.

How then should we understand the biological relatedness of Sapiens, Neanderthals and Denisovans? Clearly, they were not completely different species like horses and donkeys. On the other hand, they were not just different populations of the same species, like bulldogs and spaniels. Biological reality is not black and white. There are also important grey areas. Every two species that evolved from a common ancestor, such as horses and donkeys, were at one time just two populations of the same species, like bulldogs and spaniels. There must have been a point when the two populations were already quite different from one another, but still capable on rare occasions of having sex and producing fertile offspring. Then another mutation severed this last connecting thread, and they went their separate evolutionary ways.

It seems that about 50,000 years ago, Sapiens, Neanderthals and Denisovans were at that borderline point. They were almost, but not quite, entirely separate species. As we shall see in the next chapter, Sapiens were already very different from Neanderthals and Denisovans, not only in their genetic code and physical traits, but also in their cognitive and social abilities, yet it appears it was still just possible, on rare occasions, for a Sapiens and a Neanderthal to produce a fertile offspring. So the populations did not merge, but a few lucky Neanderthal genes did hitch a ride on the Sapiens Express.

It is unsettling and perhaps thrilling to think that we Sapiens could at one time have sex with an animal from a different species, and produce children together.

But if the Neanderthals, Denisovans and other human species didn’t merge with Sapiens, why did they vanish? One possibility is that Homo sapiens drove them to extinction. Imagine a Sapiens band reaching a Balkan valley where Neanderthals had lived for hundreds of thousands of years. The newcomers began to hunt the deer and gather the nuts and berries that were the Neanderthals’ traditional staples. Sapiens were more proficient hunters and gatherers thanks to better technology and superior social skills so they multiplied and spread. The less resourceful Neanderthals found it increasingly difficult to feed themselves. Their population dwindled and they slowly died out, except perhaps for one or two members who joined their Sapiens neighbours.

Another possibility is that competition for resources flared up into violence and genocide.

Tolerance is not a Sapiens trademark. In modern times, a small difference in skin colour, dialect or religion has been enough to prompt one group of Sapiens to set about exterminating another group. Would ancient Sapiens have been more tolerant towards an entirely different human species? It may well be that when Sapiens encountered Neanderthals, the result was the first and most significant ethnic-cleansing campaign in history.

Whichever way it happened, the Neanderthals, and the other human species, pose one of history’s great what ifs. Imagine how things might have turned out had the Neanderthals or Denisovans survived alongside Homo sapiens. What kind of cultures, societies and political structures would have emerged in a world where several different human species coexisted? How, for example, would religious faiths have unfolded? Would the book of Genesis have declared that Neanderthals descend from Adam and Eve, would Jesus have died for the sins of the Denisovans, and would the Qur’an have reserved seats in heaven for all righteous humans, whatever their species? Would Neanderthals have been able to serve in the Roman legions, or in the sprawling bureaucracy of imperial China? Would the American Declaration of Independence hold as a self-evident truth that all members of the genus Homo are created equal? Would Karl Marx have urged workers of all species to unite?

Over the past 10,000 years, Homo sapiens has grown so accustomed to being the only human species that it’s hard for us to conceive of any other possibility. Our lack of brothers and sisters makes it easier to imagine that we are the epitome of creation, and that a chasm separates us from the rest of the animal kingdom.

When Charles Darwin indicated that Homo sapiens was just another kind of animal, people were outraged. Even today many refuse to believe it. Had the Neanderthals survived, would we still imagine ourselves to be a creature apart? Perhaps this is exactly why our ancestors wiped out the Neanderthals. They were too familiar to ignore, but too different to tolerate.

Whether Sapiens are to blame or not, no sooner had they arrived at a new location than the native population became extinct. The last remains of Homo soloensis are dated to about 50,000 years ago. Homo denisova disappeared shortly thereafter. Neanderthals made their exit roughly 30,000 years ago. The last dwarf-like humans vanished from Flores Island about 12,000 years ago. They left behind some bones, stone tools, a few genes in our DNA and a lot of unanswered questions. They also left behind us, Homo sapiens, the last human specks.

What was the Sapiens’ secret of success? How did we manage to settle so rapidly in so many distant and ecologically different habitats? How did we push all other human species into oblivion? Why couldn’t even the strong, brainy, cold-proof Neanderthals survive our onslaught? The debate continues to rage. The most likely answer is the very thing that makes the debate possible: Homo sapiens conquered the world thanks above all to its unique language.

2. The Tree of Knowledge

IN THE PREVIOUS chapter we saw that although Sapiens had already populated East Africa 150,000 years ago, they began to overrun the rest of planet Earth and drive the other human species to extinction only about 70,000 years ago. In the intervening millennia, even though these archaic Sapiens looked just like us and their brains were as big as ours, they did not enjoy any marked advantage over other human species, did not produce particularly sophisticated tools, and did not accomplish any other special feats.

In fact, in the first recorded encounter between Sapiens and Neanderthals, the Neanderthals won. About 100,000 years ago, some Sapiens groups migrated north to the Levant, which was Neanderthal territory, but failed to secure a firm footing. It might have been due to nasty natives, an inclement climate, or unfamiliar local parasites. Whatever the reason, the Sapiens eventually retreated, leaving the Neanderthals as masters of the Middle East.

This poor record of achievement has led scholars to speculate that the internal structure of the brains of these Sapiens was probably different from ours. They looked like us, but their cognitive abilities, learning, remembering, communicating were far more limited. Teaching such an ancient Sapiens English, persuading him of the truth of Christian dogma, or getting him to understand the theory of evolution would probably have been hopeless undertakings. Conversely, we would have had a very hard time learning his language and understanding his way of thinking.

But then, beginning about 70,000 years ago, Homo sapiens started doing very special things. Around that date Sapiens bands left Africa for a second time. This time they drove the Neanderthals and all other human species not only from the Middle East, but from the face of the earth. Within a remarkably short period, Sapiens reached Europe and East Asia. About 45,000 years ago, they somehow crossed the open sea and landed in Australia a continent hitherto untouched by humans. The period from about 70,000 years ago to about 30,000 years ago witnessed the invention of boats, oil lamps, bows and arrows and needles (essential for sewing warm clothing). The first objects that can reliably be called art date from this era (see the Stadel lion-man hem), as does the first clear evidence for religion, commerce and social stratification.

Most researchers believe that these unprecedented accomplishments were the product of a revolution in Sapiens’ cognitive abilities. They maintain that the people who drove the Neanderthals to extinction, settled Australia, and carved the Stadel lion-man were as intelligent, creative and sensitive as we are. If we were to come across the artists of the Stadel Cave, we could learn their language and they ours. We’d be able to explain to them everything we know from the adventures of Alice in Wonderland to the paradoxes of quantum physics and they could teach us how their people view the world.

The Cognitive Revolution

The appearance of new ways of thinking and communicating, between 70,000 and 30,000 years ago, constitutes the Cognitive Revolution. What caused it? We’re not sure. The most commonly believed theory argues that accidental genetic mutations changed the inner wiring of the brains of Sapiens, enabling them to think in unprecedented ways and to communicate using an altogether new type of language. We might call it the Tree of Knowledge mutation.

Why did it occur in Sapiens DNA rather than in that of Neanderthals? It was a matter of pure chance, as far as we can tell. But it’s more important to understand the consequences of the Tree of Knowledge mutation than its causes. What was so special about the new Sapiens language that it enabled us to conquer the world?

It was not the first language. Every animal has some kind of language. Even insects, such as bees and ants, know how to communicate in sophisticated ways, informing one another of the whereabouts of food. Neither was it the first vocal language. Many animals, including all ape and monkey species, have vocal languages. For example, green monkeys use calls of various kinds to communicate. Zoologists have identified one call that means ‘Careful! An eagle!’ A slightly different call warns ‘Careful! A lion!’ When researchers played a recording of the first call to a group of monkeys, the monkeys stopped what they were doing and looked upwards in fear. When the same group heard a recording of the second call, the lion warning, they quickly scrambled up a tree.

Sapiens can produce many more distinct sounds than green monkeys, but whales and elephants have equally impressive abilities. A parrot can say anything Albert Einstein could say, as well as mimicking the sounds of phones ringing, doors slamming and sirens wailing. Whatever advantage Einstein had over a parrot, it wasn’t vocal. What, then, is so special about our language?

The most common answer is that our language is amazingly supple. We can connect a limited number of sounds and signs to produce an infinite number of sentences, each with a distinct meaning. We can thereby ingest, store and communicate a prodigious amount of information about the surrounding world. A green monkey can yell to its comrades, ‘Careful! A lion!’ But a modern human can tell her friends that this morning, near the bend in the river, she saw a lion tracking a herd of bison. She can then describe the exact location, including the different paths leading to the area. With this information, the members of her band can put their heads together and discuss whether they should approach the river, chase away the lion, and hunt the bison.

A second theory agrees that our unique language evolved as a means of sharing information about the world. But the most important information that needed to be conveyed was about humans, not about lions and bison. Our language evolved as a way of gossiping.

According to this theory Homo sapiens is primarily a social animal. Social cooperation is our key for survival and reproduction. It is not enough for individual men and women to know the whereabouts of lions and bison. It’s much more important for them to know who in their band hates whom, who is sleeping with whom, who is honest, and who is a cheat.

The amount of information that one must obtain and store in order to track the ever-changing relationships of even a few dozen individuals is staggering. (In a band of fifty individuals, there are 1,225 one-on-one relationships, and countless more complex social combinations.) All apes show a keen interest in such social information, but they have trouble gossiping effectively.

Neanderthals and archaic Homo sapiens probably also had a hard time talking behind each other’s backs, a much maligned ability which is in fact essential for cooperation in large numbers. The new linguistic skills that modern Sapiens acquired about seventy millennia ago enabled them to gossip for hours on end. Reliable information about who could be trusted meant that small bands could expand into larger bands, and Sapiens could develop tighter and more sophisticated types of cooperation.

The gossip theory might sound like a joke, but numerous studies support it. Even today the vast majority of human communication whether in the form of emails, phone calls or newspaper columns is gossip. It comes so naturally to us that it seems as if our language evolved for this very purpose. Do you think that history professors chat about the reasons for the First World War when they meet for lunch, or that nuclear physicists spend their coffee breaks at scientific conferences talking about quarks? Sometimes. But more often, they gossip about the professor who caught her husband cheating, or the quarrel between the head of the department and the dean, or the rumours that a colleague used his research funds to buy a Lexus. Gossip usually focuses on wrongdoings. Rumour-mongers are the original fourth estate, journalists who inform society about and thus protect it from cheats and freeloaders.

Most likely, both the gossip theory and the there-is-a-lion-near-the-river theory are valid. Yet the truly unique feature of our language is not its ability to transmit information about men and lions. Rather, it’s the ability to transmit information about things that do not exist at all.

As far as we know, only Sapiens can talk about entire kinds of entities that they have never seen, touched or smelled.

Legends, myths, gods and religions appeared for the first time with the Cognitive Revolution. Many animals and human species could previously say, ‘Careful! A lion!’ Thanks to the Cognitive Revolution, Homo sapiens acquired the ability to say, ‘The lion is the guardian spirit of our tribe.’ This ability to speak about fictions is the most unique feature of Sapiens language.

It’s relatively easy to agree that only Homo sapiens can speak about things that don’t really exist, and believe six impossible things before breakfast. You could never convince a monkey to give you a banana by promising him limitless bananas after death in monkey heaven. But why is it important? After all, fiction can be dangerously misleading or distracting.

People who go to the forest looking for fairies and unicorns would seem to have less chance of survival than people who go looking for mushrooms and deer. And if you spend hours praying to non-existing guardian spirits, aren’t you wasting precious time, time better spent foraging, fighting and fornicating?

But fiction has enabled us not merely to imagine things, but to do so collectively. We can weave common myths such as the biblical creation story, the Dreamtime myths of Aboriginal Australians, and the nationalist myths of modern states. Such myths give Sapiens the unprecedented ability to cooperate flexibly in large numbers. Ants and bees can also work together in huge numbers, but they do so in a very rigid manner and only with close relatives. Wolves and chimpanzees cooperate far more flexibly than ants, but they can do so only with small numbers of other individuals that they know intimately.

Sapiens can cooperate in extremely flexible ways with countless numbers of strangers. That’s why Sapiens rule the world, whereas ants eat our leftovers and chimps are locked up in zoos and research laboratories.

The Legend of Peugeot

Our chimpanzee cousins usually live in small troops of several dozen individuals. They form close friendships, hunt together and fight shoulder to shoulder against baboons, Cheetahs and enemy chimpanzees. Their social structure tends to be hierarchical. The dominant member, who is almost always a male, is termed the ‘alpha male’. Other males and females exhibit their submission to the alpha male by bowing before him while making grunting sounds, not unlike human subjects kowtowing before a king. The alpha male strives to maintain social harmony within his troop. When two individuals fight, he will intervene and stop the violence. Less benevolently, he might monopolise particularly coveted foods and prevent lower-ranking males from mating with the females.

When two males are contesting the alpha position, they usually do so by forming extensive coalitions of supporters, both male and female, from within the group. Ties between coalition members are based on intimate daily contact hugging, touching, kissing, grooming and mutual favours. Just as human politicians on election campaigns go around shaking hands and kissing babies, so aspirants to the top position in a chimpanzee group spend much time hugging, back-slapping and kissing baby chimps. The alpha male usually wins his position not because he is physically stronger, but because he leads a large and stable coalition. These coalitions play a central part not only during overt struggles for the alpha position, but in almost all day-to-day activities. Members of a coalition spend more time together, share food, and help one another in times of trouble.

There are clear limits to the size of groups that can be formed and maintained in such a way. In order to function, all members of a group must know each other intimately. Two chimpanzees who have never met, never fought, and never engaged in mutual grooming will not know whether they can trust one another, whether it would be worthwhile to help one another, and which of them ranks higher. Under natural conditions, a typical chimpanzee troop consists of about twenty to fifty individuals. As the number of chimpanzees in a troop increases, the social order destabilises, eventually leading to a rupture and the formation of a new troop by some of the animals. Only in a handful of cases have zoologists observed groups larger than a hundred. Separate groups seldom cooperate, and tend to compete for territory and food. Researchers have documented prolonged warfare between groups, and even one case of ‘genocidal’ activity in which one troop systematically slaughtered most members of a neighbouring band.

Similar patterns probably dominated the social lives of early humans, including archaic Homo sapiens. Humans, like chimps, have social instincts that enabled our ancestors to form friendships and hierarchies, and to hunt or fight together. However, like the social instincts of chimps, those of humans were adapted only for small intimate groups. When the group grew too large, its social order destabilised and the band split. Even if a particularly fertile valley could feed 500 archaic Sapiens, there was no way that so many strangers could live together. How could they agree who should be leader, who should hunt where, or who should mate with whom?

In the wake of the Cognitive Revolution, gossip helped Homo sapiens to form larger and more stable bands. But even gossip has its limits. Sociological research has shown that the maximum ‘natural’ size of a group bonded by gossip is about 150 individuals. Most people can neither intimately know, nor gossip effectively about, more than 150 human beings.

Even today, a critical threshold in human organisations falls somewhere around this magic number. Below this threshold, communities, businesses, social networks and military units can maintain themselves based mainly on intimate acquaintance and rumour-mongering. There is no need for formal ranks, titles and law books to keep order. A platoon of thirty soldiers or even a company of a hundred soldiers can function well on the basis of intimate relations, with a minimum of formal discipline. A well-respected sergeant can become ‘king of the company’ and exercise authority even over commissioned officers. A small family business can survive and flourish without a board of directors, a CEO or an accounting department.

But once the threshold of 150 individuals is crossed, things can no longer work that way. You cannot run a division with thousands of soldiers the same way you run a platoon. Successful family businesses usually face a crisis when they grow larger and hire more personnel. If they cannot reinvent themselves, they go bust.

How did Homo sapiens manage to cross this critical threshold, eventually founding cities comprising tens of thousands of inhabitants and empires ruling hundreds of millions? The secret was probably the appearance of fiction. Large numbers of strangers can cooperate successfully by believing in common myths.

Any large-scale human cooperation whether a modern state, a medieval church, an ancient city or an archaic tribe is rooted in common myths that exist only in people’s collective imagination. Churches are rooted in common religious myths. Two Catholics who have never met can nevertheless go together on crusade or pool funds to build a hospital because they both believe that God was incarnated in human flesh and allowed Himself to be crucified to redeem our sins. States are rooted in common national myths. Two Serbs who have never met might risk their lives to save one another because both believe in the existence of the Serbian nation, the Serbian homeland and the Serbian flag. Judicial systems are rooted in common legal myths. Two lawyers who have never met can nevertheless combine efforts to defend a complete stranger because they both believe in the existence of laws, justice, human rights and the money paid out in fees.

Yet none of these things exists outside the stories that people invent and tell one another. There are no gods in the universe, no nations, no money, no human rights, no laws and no justice outside the common imagination of human beings.

People easily understand that ‘primitives’ cement their social order by believing in ghosts and spirits, and gathering each full moon to dance together around the campfire. What we fail to appreciate is that our modern institutions function on exactly the same basis. Take for example the world of business corporations. Modern businesspeople and lawyers are, in fact, powerful sorcerers. The principal difference between them and tribal shamans is that modern lawyers tell far stranger tales. The legend of Peugeot affords us a good example.

An icon that somewhat resembles the Stadel lion-man appears today on cars, trucks and motorcycles from Paris to Sydney. It’s the hood ornament that adorns vehicles made by Peugeot, one of the oldest and largest of Europe’s carmakers. Peugeot began as a small family business in the village of Valentigney, just 300 kilometres from the Stadel Cave. Today the company employs about 200,000 people worldwide, most of whom are complete strangers to each other. These strangers cooperate so effectively that in 2008 Peugeot produced more than 1.5 million automobiles, earning revenues of about 55 billion euros.

In what sense can we say that Peugeot SA (the company’s official name) exists? There are many Peugeot vehicles, but these are obviously not the company. Even if every Peugeot in the world were simultaneously junked and sold for scrap metal, Peugeot SA would not disappear. It would continue to manufacture new cars and issue its annual report. The company owns factories, machinery and showrooms, and employs mechanics, accountants and secretaries, but all these together do not comprise Peugeot. A disaster might kill every single one of Peugeot’s employees, and go on to destroy all of its assembly lines and executive offices. Even then, the company could borrow money, hire new employees, build new factories and buy new machinery. Peugeot has managers and shareholders, but neither do they constitute the company. All the managers could be dismissed and all its shares sold, but the company itself would remain intact.

It doesn’t mean that Peugeot SA is invulnerable or immortal. If a judge were to mandate the dissolution of the company, its factories would remain standing and its workers, accountants, managers and shareholders would continue to live but Peugeot SA would immediately vanish. In short, Peugeot SA seems to have no essential connection to the physical world. Does it really exist?

Peugeot is a figment of our collective imagination. Lawyers call this a ‘legal fiction’. It can’t be pointed at; it is not a physical object. But it exists as a legal entity. Just like you or me, it is bound by the laws of the countries in which it operates. It can open a bank account and own property. It pays taxes, and it can be sued and even prosecuted separately from any of the people who own or work for it.

Peugeot belongs to a particular genre of legal fictions called ‘limited liability companies’. The idea behind such companies is among humanity’s most ingenious inventions. Homo sapiens lived for untold millennia without them. During most of recorded history property could be owned only by flesh-and-blood humans, the kind that stood on two legs and had big brains. If in thirteenth-century France Jean set up a wagon-manufacturing workshop, he himself was the business. If a wagon he’d made broke down a week after purchase, the disgruntled buyer would have sued Jean personally. If Jean had borrowed 1,000 gold coins to set up his workshop and the business failed, he would have had to repay the loan by selling his private property his house, his cow, his land. He might even have had to sell his children into servitude. If he couldn’t cover the debt, he could be thrown in prison by the state or enslaved by his creditors. He was fully liable, without limit, for all obligations incurred by his workshop.

If you had lived back then, you would probably have thought twice before you opened an enterprise of your own. And indeed this legal situation discouraged entrepreneurship. People were afraid to start new businesses and take economic risks. It hardly seemed worth taking the chance that their families could end up utterly destitute.

This is why people began collectively to imagine the existence of limited liability companies. Such companies were legally independent of the people who set them up, or invested money in them, or managed them. Over the last few centuries such companies have become the main players in the economic arena, and we have grown so used to them that we forget they exist only in our imagination. In the US, the technical term for a limited liability company is a ‘corporation’, which is ironic, because the term derives from ‘corpus’ (‘body’ in Latin) the one thing these corporations lack. Despite their having no real bodies, the American legal system treats corporations as legal persons, as if they were flesh-and-blood human beings.

And so did the French legal system back in 1896, when Armand Peugeot, who had inherited from his parents a metalworking shop that produced springs, saws and bicycles, decided to go into the automobile business. To that end, he set up a limited liability company. He named the company after himself, but it was independent of him. If one of the cars broke down, the buyer could sue Peugeot, but not Armand Peugeot. If the company borrowed millions of francs and then went bust, Armand Peugeot did not owe its creditors a single franc. The loan, after all, had been given to Peugeot, the company, not to Armand Peugeot, the Homo sapiens. Armand Peugeot died in 1915. Peugeot, the company, is still alive and well.

How exactly did Armand Peugeot, the man, create Peugeot, the company? In much the same way that priests and sorcerers have created gods and demons throughout history, and in which thousands of French curés were still creating Christ’s body every Sunday in the parish churches. It all revolved around telling stories, and convincing people to believe them. In the case of the French curés, the crucial story was that of Christ’s life and death as told by the Catholic Church. According to this story, if a Catholic priest dressed in his sacred garments solemnly, said the right words at the right moment, mundane bread and wine turned into God’s flesh and blood. The priest exclaimed, ‘Hoc est corpus meum!’ (Latin for ‘This is my body!’) and hocus pocus the bread turned into Christ’s flesh. Seeing that the priest had properly and assiduously observed all the procedures, millions of devout French Catholics behaved as if God really existed in the consecrated bread and wine.

In the case of Peugeot SA the crucial story was the French legal code, as written by the French parliament. According to the French legislators, if a certified lawyer followed all the proper liturgy and rituals, wrote all the required spells and oaths on a wonderfully decorated piece of paper, and affixed his ornate signature to the bottom of the document, then hocus pocus a new company was incorporated. When in 1896 Armand Peugeot wanted to create his company, he paid a lawyer to go through all these sacred procedures. Once the lawyer had performed all the right rituals and pronounced all the necessary spells and oaths, millions of upright French citizens behaved as if the Peugeot company really existed.

Telling effective stories is not easy. The difficulty lies not in telling the story, but in convincing everyone else to believe it. Much of history revolves around this question: how does one convince millions of people to believe particular stories about gods, or nations, or limited liability companies? Yet when it succeeds, it gives Sapiens immense power, because it enables millions of strangers to cooperate and work towards common goals. Just try to imagine how difficult it would have been to create states, or churches, or legal systems if we could speak only about things that really exist, such as rivers, trees and lions.

Over the years, people have woven an incredibly complex network of stories. Within this network, fictions such as Peugeot not only exist, but also accumulate immense power. The kinds of things that people create through this network of stories are known in academic circles as ‘fictions’, ‘social constructs’ or ‘imagined realities’. An imagined reality is not a lie. I lie when I say that there is a lion near the river when I know perfectly well that there is no lion there. There is nothing special about lies. Green monkeys and chimpanzees can lie. A green monkey, for example, has been observed calling ‘Careful! A lion!’ when there was no lion around. This alarm conveniently frightened away a fellow monkey who had just found a banana, leaving the liar all alone to steal the prize for itself.

Unlike lying, an imagined reality is something that everyone believes in, and as long as this communal belief persists, the imagined reality exerts force in the world. The sculptor from the Stadel Cave may sincerely have believed in the existence of the lion-man guardian spirit. Some sorcerers are Charlatans, but most sincerely believe in the existence of gods and demons. Most millionaires sincerely believe in the existence of money and limited liability companies. Most human-rights activists sincerely believe in the existence of human rights. No one was lying when, in 2011, the UN demanded that the Libyan government respect the human rights of its citizens, even though the UN, Libya and human rights are all figments of our fertile imaginations.

Ever since the Cognitive Revolution, Sapiens have thus been living in a dual reality. On the one hand, the objective reality of rivers, trees and lions; and on the other hand, the imagined reality of gods, nations and corporations. As time went by, the imagined reality became ever more powerful, so that today the very survival of rivers, trees and lions depends on the grace of imagined entities such as the United States and Google.

Bypassing the Genome

The ability to create an imagined reality out of words enabled large numbers of strangers to cooperate effectively. But it also did something more. Since large-scale human cooperation is based on myths, the way people cooperate can be altered by changing the myths, by telling different stories. Under the right circumstances myths can change rapidly. In 1789 the French population switched almost overnight from believing in the myth of the divine right of kings to believing in the myth of the sovereignty of the people.

Consequently, ever since the Cognitive Revolution Homo sapiens has been able to revise its behaviour rapidly in accordance with changing needs. This opened a fast lane of cultural evolution, bypassing the traffic jams of genetic evolution. Speeding down this fast lane, Homo sapiens soon far outstripped all other human and animal species in its ability to cooperate.

The behaviour of other social animals is determined to a large extent by their genes. DNA is not an autocrat. Animal behaviour is also influenced by environmental factors and individual quirks. Nevertheless, in a given environment, animals of the same species will tend to behave in a similar way. Significant changes in social behaviour cannot occur, in general, without genetic mutations. For example, common chimpanzees have a genetic tendency to live in hierarchical groups headed by an alpha male. Members of a closely related chimpanzee species, bonobos, usually live in more egalitarian groups dominated by female alliances. Female common chimpanzees cannot take lessons from their bonobo relatives and stage a feminist revolution. Male chimps cannot gather in a constitutional assembly to abolish the office of alpha male and declare that from here on out all chimps are to be treated as equals. Such dramatic changes in behaviour would occur only if something changed in the chimpanzees’ DNA.

For similar reasons, archaic humans did not initiate any revolutions. As far as we can tell, changes in social patterns, the invention of new technologies and the settlement of alien habitats resulted from genetic mutations and environmental pressures more than from cultural initiatives. This is why it took humans hundreds of thousands of years to make these steps. Two million years ago, genetic mutations resulted in the appearance of a new human species called Homo erectus. Its emergence was accompanied by the development of a new stone tool technology, now recognised as a defining feature of this species. As long as Homo erectus did not undergo further genetic alterations, its stone tools remained roughly the same for close to 2 million years!

In contrast, ever since the Cognitive Revolution, Sapiens have been able to change their behaviour quickly, transmitting new behaviours to future generations without any need of genetic or environmental change. As a prime example, consider the repeated appearance of childless elites, such as the Catholic priesthood, Buddhist monastic orders and Chinese eunuch bureaucracies. The existence of such elites goes against the most fundamental principles of natural selection, since these dominant members of society willingly give up procreation. Whereas chimpanzee alpha males use their power to have sex with as many females as possible and consequently sire a large proportion of their troop’s young the Catholic alpha male abstains completely from sexual intercourse and childcare. This abstinence does not result from unique environmental conditions such as a severe lack of food or want of potential mates. Nor is it the result of some quirky genetic mutation. The Catholic Church has survived for centuries, not by passing on a ‘celibacy gene’ from one pope to the next, but by passing on the stories of the New Testament and of Catholic canon law.

In other words, while the behaviour patterns of archaic humans remained fixed for tens of thousands of years, Sapiens could transform their social structures, the nature of their interpersonal relations, their economic activities and a host of other behaviours within a decade or two. Consider a resident of Berlin, born in 1900 and living to the ripe age of one hundred. She spent her childhood in the Hohenzollern Empire of Wilhelm ll; her adult years in the Weimar Republic, the Nazi Third Reich and Communist East Germany; and she died a citizen of a democratic and reunified Germany. She had managed to be a part of five very different sociopolitical systems, though her DNA remained exactly the same.

This was the key to Sapiens’ success. In a one-on-one brawl, a Neanderthal would probably have beaten a Sapiens. But in a conflict of hundreds, Neanderthals wouldn’t stand a chance. Neanderthals could share information about the whereabouts of lions, but they probably could not tell and revise stories about tribal spirits. Without an ability to compose fiction, Neanderthals were unable to cooperate effectively in large numbers, nor could they adapt their social behaviour to rapidly changing challenges.

While we can’t get inside a Neanderthal mind to understand how they thought, we have indirect evidence of the limits to their cognition compared with their Sapiens rivals. Archaeologists excavating 30,000 year old Sapiens sites in the European heartland occasionally find there seashells from the Mediterranean and Atlantic coasts. In all likelihood, these shells got to the continental interior through long distance trade between different Sapiens bands. Neanderthal sites lack any evidence of such trade. Each group manufactured its own tools from local materials.

Another example comes from the South Pacific. Sapiens bands that lived on the island of New Ireland, north of New Guinea, used a volcanic glass called obsidian to manufacture particularly strong and sharp tools. New Ireland, however, has no natural deposits of obsidian. Laboratory tests revealed that the obsidian they used was brought from deposits on New Britain, an island 400 kilometres away. Some of the inhabitants of these islands must have been skilled navigators who traded from island to island over long distances.

Trade may seem a very pragmatic activity, one that needs no fictive basis. Yet the fact is that no animal other than Sapiens engages in trade, and all the Sapiens trade networks about which we have detailed evidence were based on fictions. Trade cannot exist without trust, and it is very difficult to trust strangers. The global trade network of today is based on our trust in such fictional entities as the dollar, the Federal Reserve Bank, and the totemic trademarks of corporations. When two strangers in a tribal society want to trade, they will often establish trust by appealing to a common god, mythical ancestor or totem animal.

If archaic Sapiens believing in such fictions traded shells and obsidian, it stands to reason that they could also have traded information, thus creating a much denser and wider knowledge network than the one that served Neanderthals and other archaic humans.

Hunting techniques provide another illustration of these differences. Neanderthals usually hunted alone or in small groups. Sapiens, on the other hand, developed techniques that relied on cooperation between many dozens of individuals, and perhaps even between different bands. One particularly effective method was to surround an entire herd of animals, such as wild horses, then chase them into a narrow gorge, where it was easy to slaughter them en masse. If all went according to plan, the bands could harvest tons of meat, fat and animal skins in a single afternoon of collective effort, and either consume these riches in a giant potlatch, or dry, smoke or (in Arctic areas) freeze them for later usage. Archaeologists have discovered sites where entire herds were butchered annually in such ways. There are even sites where fences and obstacles were erected in order to create artificial traps and slaughtering grounds.

We may presume that Neanderthals were not pleased to see their traditional hunting grounds turned into Sapiens controlled slaughterhouses. However, if violence broke out between the two species, Neanderthals were not much better off than wild horses. Fifty Neanderthals cooperating in traditional and static patterns were no match for 500 versatile and innovative Sapiens. And even if the Sapiens lost the first round, they could quickly invent new stratagems that would enable them to win the next time.

What happened in the Cognitive Revolution?

The immense diversity of imagined realities that Sapiens invented, and the resulting diversity of behaviour patterns, are the main components of what we call ‘cultures’. Once cultures appeared, they never ceased to change and develop, and these unstoppable alterations are what we call ‘history’.

The Cognitive Revolution is accordingly the point when history declared its independence from biology. Until the Cognitive Revolution, the doings of all human species belonged to the realm of biology, or, if you so prefer, prehistory (I tend to avoid the term ‘prehistory’, because it wrongly implies that even before the Cognitive Revolution, humans were in a category of their own). From the Cognitive Revolution onwards, historical narratives replace biological theories as our primary means of explaining the development of Homo sapiens. To understand the rise of Christianity or the French Revolution, it is not enough to comprehend the interaction of genes, hormones and organisms. It is necessary to take into account the interaction of ideas, images and fantasies as well.

This does not mean that Homo sapiens and human culture became exempt from biological laws. We are still animals, and our physical, emotional and cognitive abilities are still shaped by our DNA. Our societies are built from the same building blocks as Neanderthal or chimpanzee societies, and the more we examine these building blocks, sensations, emotions, family ties, the less difference we find between us and other apes.

It is, however, a mistake to look for the differences at the level of the individual or the family. One on one, even ten on ten, we are embarrassingly similar to chimpanzees. Significant differences begin to appear only when we cross the threshold of 150 individuals, and when we reach 1,000-2,000 individuals, the differences are astounding. If you tried to bunch together thousands of chimpanzees into Tiananmen Square, Wall Street, the Vatican or the headquarters of the United Nations, the result would be pandemonium. By contrast, Sapiens regularly gather by the thousands in such places. Together, they create orderly patterns such as trade networks, mass celebrations and political institutions that they could never have created in isolation. The real difference between us and chimpanzees is the mythical glue that binds together large numbers of individuals, families and groups. This glue has made us the masters of creation.

Of course, we also needed other skills, such as the ability to make and use tools. Yet tool-making is of little consequence unless it is coupled with the ability to cooperate with many others. How is it that we now have intercontinental missiles with nuclear warheads, whereas 30,000 years ago we had only sticks with flint spearheads? Physiologically, there has been no significant improvement in our tool-making capacity over the last 30,000 years. Albert Einstein was far less dexterous with his hands than was an ancient hunter-gatherer. However, our capacity to cooperate with large numbers of strangers has improved dramatically. The ancient flint spearhead was manufactured in minutes by a single person, who relied on the advice and help of a few intimate friends. The production of a modern nuclear warhead requires the cooperation of millions of strangers all over the world from the workers who mine the uranium ore in the depths of the earth to theoretical physicists who write long mathematical formulae to describe the interactions of subatomic particles.

To summarise the relationship between biology and history after the Cognitive Revolution:

1. Biology sets the basic parameters for the behaviour and capacities of Homo sapiens. The whole of history takes place within the bounds of this biological arena.

2. However, this arena is extraordinarily large, allowing Sapiens to play an astounding variety of games. Thanks to their ability to invent fiction, Sapiens create more and more complex games, which each generation develops and elaborates even further.

3. Consequently, in order to understand how Sapiens behave, we must describe the historical evolution of their actions. Referring only to our biological constraints would be like a radio sportscaster who, attending the World Cup football championships, offers his listeners a detailed description of the playing field rather than an account of what the players are doing.

What games did our Stone Age ancestors play in the arena of history? As far as we know, the people who carved the Stadel lion-man some 30,000 years ago had the same physical, emotional and intellectual abilities we have. What did they do when they woke up in the morning? What did they eat for breakfast and lunch? What were their societies like? Did they have monogamous relationships and nuclear families? Did they have ceremonies, moral codes, sports contests and religious rituals? Did they fight wars? The next chapter takes a peek behind the curtain of the ages, examining what life was like in the millennia separating the Cognitive Revolution from the Agricultural Revolution.

3. A Day in the Life of Adam and Eve

TO UNDERSTAND OUR nature, history and psychology, we must get inside the heads of our hunter-gatherer ancestors. For nearly the entire history of our species, Sapiens lived as foragers. The past 200 years, during which ever increasing numbers of Sapiens have obtained their daily bread as urban labourers and office workers, and the preceding 10,000 years, during which most Sapiens lived as farmers and herders, are the blink of an eye compared to the tens of thousands of years during which our ancestors hunted and gathered.

The flourishing field of evolutionary psychology argues that many of our present-day social and psychological characteristics were shaped during this long preagricultural era. Even today, scholars in this field claim, our brains and minds are adapted to a life of hunting and gathering. Our eating habits, our conflicts and our sexuality are all the result of the way our hunter-gatherer minds interact with our current post-industrial environment, with its mega-cities, aeroplanes, telephones and computers. This environment gives us more material resources and longer lives than those enjoyed by any previous generation, but it often makes us feel alienated, depressed and pressured.



Sapiens, A Brief History of Humankind

by Yuval Noah Harari

get it at

The Golden Age of Macro Historical Sociology – Randall Collins * What is Historical Sociology? – Richard Lachmann.

“A new political science is needed for a totally new world.” Alexis de Tocqueville, 1835

“The most compelling reason for the existence of historical sociology is embarrassingly obvious, embarrassingly because so often ignored. This is the importance of studying social change.” Craig Calhoun

Randall Collins

History, Durkheim remarked, should be sociology’s microscope. Not that it should magnify the tiny, he meant, but that it should be the instrument by which structures are discovered invisible to the unaided eye. Durkheim’s program in the Année Sociologique did not go far with this research, sketching static structures more than the dynamics of structural change. The charge still remains.

Whatever is large and widely connected can be brought into focus within no perspective but one larger still. Political and economic patterns, especially as they encompass states and the strains of war, property systems and markets, can best be seen in the study of many interconnected histories over a long period of time. What Durkheim wanted for sociological theory was not a microscope, but might well be called a macroscope.

Two opposing views on history have dominated the twentieth century of the Christian calender still in use in the post-Christian West. On one hand, this has been the century of macro history par excellence, the first in which a comprehensive history of the world has become possible. Hegel, writing in the generation when professional historiography was being established, had known just enough about the cycle of Chinese dynasties to posit that only the West had a history. By the time of the First World War, Spengler, Weber, and a little later Toynbee were surveying the civilizations of China and India, Egypt and Mesopotamia, Persia and the Arab world, sometimes Mexico, Peru and Polynesia, along with the more familiar comparison of Greco-Roman antiquity with medieval and modern Europe.

The opposing view of 20th century intellectuals has been to recoil from these global vistas in favor of the argument that history shows us no more than ourselves hopelessly contextualized in patternlessness. In the epistemological version of a familiar phrase, all that we learn from history is that it is impossible to learn from history. Let us briefly explore the two sides of this century of historical consciousness.

Cumulating Strands of Analytical Macro-History

Early recognition of patterns crystalized in the ambiguous insight “history repeats itself”. Toynbee began his search for the pattern of all civilizations because the world wars of Britain and Germany reminded him of the death struggle of liberal Athens and authoritarian Sparta. Spengler collated evidence of repeated sequences of cultural efflorescence and decadence throughout the world, each distinguished by its unique mentality, like a melody played in different keys. Marx, whose knowledge of non European history was not so far beyond Hegel’s, depicted its static nature in materialist form as Oriental despotism, a model elaborated in the 1950s by Wittfogel. Bracketing the non-Western world, Marx started from the insight that the class conflict of the Roman world was repeated by analogous classes in medieval feudalism and in modern capitalism.

The Marxian school of historical scholarship is largely an intellectual movement of the 20th century; it presents a materialist parallel to Spengler, discerning abstract sequences repeated in distinctive modalities for each run-through. Instances of history repeating do not necessarily imply cycles like the turning of a wheel; later generations of scholars began to see that what repeats can be treated more analytically, and that multiple processes can combine to weave a series of historical tapestries each peculiar in its details.

Of all the macro-historians of the pioneering period, Weber has survived best. In part this has been because it has taken most of the twentieth century to appreciate the scope of his work. His Protestant Ethic argument was famous by the 1930s, while only in the 1950s and 60s was there much recognition of his comparisons among the world religions designed to show why Christianity, continuing certain patterns of ancient Judaism, gave rise to the dynamism of modern capitalism whereas the civilizations of Confucianism, Buddhism, Hinduism and Islam did not.

Weber’s method of showing how multiple dimensions of social causality intertwine has also grown gradually influential. It is now conceded by scholars almost everywhere that the three dimensions of politics, economics and culture must be taken into account in every analysis, although, as structuralist Marxists of the 1970s argued, one of them may be given primacy “in the last instance”.

There is a negative side as well to Weber’s preeminence. Peeling the layers of Weber’s concepts has provided a field rich in scholarly niches, and the opportunities for developing Weberian ideas in one direction after another have given him the great classic reputation of sociological macro-history. The very process of uncovering Weber as an multi-sided icon has made it difficult for many decades to see just what it takes to go beyond him. Only now as we are becoming able to see Weber’s full achievements are we able as well to see his limits in full daylight. These limits are not so much in his analytical apparatus as in his view of world history. For all his disagreement with Hegel and Marx, Weber shares with them a Eurocentric view: for all important purposes, the histories of what lies eastwards of Palestine and Greece are taken as analytically static repetitions, while the only dynamic historical transformations are those of the West. In some of the papers collected here, I will suggest how Weber’s analytical tools can be used to take us beyond Weber’s Eurocentrism.

The period of scholarship from the mid-1960s onward, continuing into the present, can appropriately be called the Golden Age of macrohistory. The crudities of the generation of pioneers has been passed; fruitful leads have been taken up, and a generation of scholars have done the work to build a set of new paradigms. Analytically, the principal style of this period is an interplay of Weberian and Marxian ideas. Although dogmatic loyalty to one or another of the classics exists in some scholarly camps, across the creative core of this Golden Age the attitude has been pragmatic. The Marx/Weber blend has earned its prominence because a series of key ideas from these traditions have proven fruitful in unanticipated directions.

The most striking accumulation of knowledge has taken place on Marx’s favorite topic, revolution. Beginning by broadening the focus on economic causality, the result has been a paradigm revolution in the theory of revolution. Barrington Moore and Arthur Stinchcombe, followed by Jeffrey Paige and Theda Skocpol, noted that the epoch of revolutions was not so much industrial capitalism but the preceeding period of agrarian capitalism. Agricultural production for the market has been the locus of class conflicts from the English revolution to the Vietnam revolution, and the varying work relations and property patterns of agricultural capitalism have set modern political transformations on paths to left, right or center.

Going further, Skocpol and Jack Goldstone have shown class conflict alone is insufficient for revolution, and must be accompanied by a fiscal crisis of the state and an accompanying split between state elite and property owners over the repair of state finances. Skocpol marks the paradigm shift to what might be called the state breakdown theory of revolution. Skocpol and Goldstone elaborate a common model of state breakdown into alternate chains of causes further back, focussing respective upon geopolitical strains and population-induced price changes.

Another direction of research has continued a purer Marxian line. Here the premise of economic primacy has been preserved by shifting the arena of application from the traditional focus upon a nation state to a capitalist world system. This resuscitation of Marxism has been helped by a diplomatic marriage with the Annales school. Braudel’s 1949 work, The Mediterranean and the Mediterranean World in the Age of Philip ll, built up a grand historical tapestry out of the patient accumulation of scholarship on the material conditions of everyday life and the flows of trade and finance. Braudel depicted the first of the European world-system hegemonies, the Spanish/Mediterreanean world of the 16th century. Wallerstein, in a multi-volume series beginning in 1974 and still in progress, theorized Braudel’s world in a Marxian direction. Wallerstein has spear-headed a world-system school describing successive expansions of the European world-system around the globe, through successive crises and transfers of hegemony.

World-system scholarship has served as a central clearing house for the scholarship of the world, giving a theoretical resonance to work by regional specialists ranging from the trade of the Malacca Straits to commodity chains in Latin America. Like the Annales School, the world-system camp is a strategic alliance of detailed and specialized histories; the Golden Age of grand historical vision has come about by putting together researches by a century of professional historians. The expanding mass population of universities and historians within them has been the base for the Marxian revival in mid-20th century scholarship; world-system Marxism has provided the vehicle by which otherwise obscure specialities could join in a grand march towards paradigm revolution.

All active intellectual movements have their inner conflicts and unexpected lines of innovation. The world-system camp has not remained conceptually static. The earliest period, epitomized by André Gunder Frank’s dependency theory, stressed that underdevelopment, the world-system equivalent of the immiseration of the proletariat, is created by and grows apace with the penetration of world capitalism. This assertion has been attacked on factual grounds, and dependency theory has retreated to the stance of dependent development, that development can occur under capitalist dependency although the relative gap between metropole and periphery continually widens.

Moreover, there are cases of upward mobility in the world-system, from periphery to semi-periphery into the core, sometimes (like the North American region which eventually became the United States) even into hegemony within the core. On a structuralist interpretation, a capitalist world-system is a set of positions that can be filled by different geograpical regions. There is room only for a small hegemonic zone surrounded by a limited core region where capital, entrepreneurial innovation and the most privileged workers are concentrated; there are always relative gaps in wealth between this region and the semiperiphery and periphery subservient to the capital flows and technical and labor relations shaped at the center. The structuralist version of world-system theory holds that social mobility may occur upwards and downwards within the svstem but the relative privilege or subordination of the several zones always remains.

As I write in the late 1990s, this remains a hypothesis without conclusive evidence one way or the other; on similar grounds are suggestive theorizing about the dynamics of expansive and contractive waves of the world economy, and the pattern of hegemonic wars and shifts in hegemony. (Sanderson 1995, Arrighi 1994 and Chase-Dunn 1989 provide useful overviews.) Even more speculative remains the old Marxian prediction recast in world-system guise, that the future holds a crisis of such proportions that the capitalist system itself will be transformed into world socialism.

For all these uncertainties, world-system research contributes energy and vividness to the activity of this Golden Age of macro-history; it broadens and integrates the many strands of specialized and regional histories, even if the conceptual model is not on as firm a grounds as the developments which have taken place within the narrower compass of the state-breakdown model of revolutions.

Another direction of creative development from the world-system model have come from questioning its Eurocentric starting point. Wallerstein, like Marx, conceptually distinguished large regional structures which are structurally static and incapable of selfdriven economic growth (referred to as worldempires) from capitalist world-systems, balance-of-power regions among contending states which allow a manuevering space in which capitalism becomes dominant. in practice, the latter category is European capitalism, while the structural stasis of worldempires brackets the ancient Mediterrean and the non-Western world.

Wallerstein‘s starting point for the capitalist world-system is the same as Weber’s, Europe in the 16th century. Other scholars have taken the model of a capitalist world-system and applied it backwards in time, or further afield to zones of trade independent at least initially of the European world system. Janet Abu-Lughod depicts a superordinate world system of the Middle Ages, linkages among a series of world system trading zones, strung together like sausages from China through Indonesia; thence to India; to the Arab world centered on Egypt; and finally connecting to the European zone at the tail end of the chain. AbuLughod reverses the analytical question, asking how we can explain not so much the rise of the West as v the fall of the East. Braudel, too, in his later work, describes a series of separate world systems in the period 1400-1800, including not only those in AbuLudghod’s medieval network but also Turkey and Russia. Braudel suggests there was a rough parallel in economic level among all of them before the industrialism revolution until they were upset by a late European intrusion.

Other scholars have applied the logic of world system models further back in time. Chase-Dunn and Hall (1991, 1997) argue that even in regions of state-less tribes, and the period of earliest states known through the archeological record, there was never a question of isolated units undergoing their own development through local circumstances, but regional world systems with cores and peripheral trading zones.

The analytical emphasis of world systems has shifted in these various efforts to extend the model backwards in time. For some, the specifically capitalist character of world systems becomes unessential; for others, trade relations become the crucial feature rather than property, labor relations, or modes roduction. What has become seen increasingly as central in the model has been its dynamic properties: the Kondratieff-like waves of expansion and contraction over periods of approximately one-to-two centuries, punctuated by hegemonic crises and shifts in core dominance. Gills and Frank (1991) have schematized such cycles from 3000 BC. to the present. Generalizing world system models to all times and places defocusses other questions, above all what causes changes in the character of economic and political systems as different as stateless kin-based tribal networks, agrarian production coerced by military elites, and the several kinds of capitalism. This recent phase of omni-world-system theorizing is bound to be supplemented by other models.

These controversies occupy the immediate foreground of attention. More significant for the trend of contemporary thought has been a permanent gestalt switch in the way we do macrohistory. The subject of analysis can no longer be taken as the isolated unit, whether it is the isolated tribe of structural-functionalist anthropology, the isolated civilizations of Spengler’s era, or the nationstates beloved of national historians. These units exist in a world of like and unlike units; their pattern of relations with each other makes each of them what they are. This is not to say that for analytical purposes we cannot focus upon a single tribe, or cultural region, or national state. But explanations of what happens inside these units, abstracted from their world-system context are not only incomplete; that might be of relatively small consequence, since explanations always abstract out of a mass of detail in order to focus on what is most important.

The world-system viewpoint makes a stronger theoretical claim: to abstract away from this external context is to miss the most important determinants of their political and economic structures. In crucial respects, all social units are constituted from the outside in.

This gestalt switch to an outside-in causality, pionneered by contemporary neo-Marxism, has been paralleled on the neo-Weberian side. This is my way of referring to the primacy which has been given, during the contemporary Golden Age of macrohistory, to explaining states by their interstate relations, which is to say, by geopolitics. Here too there is a pre-history. The concept of geopolitics began at the turn of the 20th century, in an atmosphere associated with nationalistic military policies. Mackinder in Britain, Mahan in the US, Ratzel and Haushofer in Germany argued over the importance of land or sea power, and about the location of strategic heartlands upon the globe whose possession gave dominance over other states. The topic of geopolitics acquired a bad odour with the Nazis, and still more in the period of postwar decolonization. But gradually the historical sociology of the state made it apparent that geopolitics cannot be analytically overlooked. The old confusion has dissolved between recognizing geopolitical processes and advocating military aggrandizement; contemporary analytical geopolitics is more like to emphasize the costs and liabilities of geopolitical overextension.

The old geopoliticians tended to particularize their subject, as in Mackinder’s assertion that hegemony depends upon controlling a geographical heartland lying at the center of Eurasia. Contemporary geopolitics shows instead that the expansion and contraction of state borders is determined by the relations among the geopolitical advantages and disadvantages of neighbouring states, wherever they might lie upon the globe.

One influence in the revival of geopolitical theory has been the world history of William McNeill. McNeill’s The Rise of the West (a deliberately anti-Spenglerian title), appearing in 1963, represents the maturity of world historiography, the point at which enough scholarship had been accumulated so that the history of the globe could be written in conventional narrative form, without resort to metaphor.

In comparison to the flamboyant efforts of the generation of pioneers, McNeill’s world history is that of the professional historian, extending routine techniques and building on knowledge that had accumulated to the point where a world history was no longer a miraculous glimpse. This maturing of world historiography can be seen too in the contemporaneous appearance of other monumental works covering huge swaths of non-Western history: Joseph Needham’s multi-volumed Science and Civilization in China (1954-present), and Marshall Hodgson’s The Venture of Islam (1974).

McNeill succeeds in decentering world history from a European standpoint, giving pride of place to the process by which “ecumenes” of inter-civilizational contact have been gradually widening for several thousand years. McNeill shows the significance of geopolitical relationships in the expansion of empires, their clashes and crises; he presents a wealth of instances ranging from the far east to the far west of states undergoing invasions from their marchlands, overextending their logistics to distant frontiers, or disintegrating in internal fragmentation. The military side of the state may have been a passing concern in McNeill’s early work, but it grows into explicit importance in his later works, especially The Pursuit of Power (1982) which documents the world history of the social organization of armaments and their impact upon society.

Another type of compendium, alongside McNeill’s world history, has fostered the modern scholarship on geopolitics. This is the development of comprehensive historical atlases, such as the series edited by McEvedy [1961,1967,1972,1978,1982]. This too is an indication of the synthesis now possible by the accumulation of historical scholarship. The endless complexities of state histories come into a visual focus when we can examine them as a series of maps allowing us to see the changing territories of states in relation to one another. The difficulty of comprehending all this material in purely verbal form is one reason why older narrative histories either fragmented into specialized narratives or glossed over the general pattern by reference to a unrealistically small number of great empires. Historical atlases appearing in the 1960s and 70s marked the phase of consolidating information upon which more explicit theorizing could take place.

The geopoliticaIIy-oriented or military-centered view of the state has become increasingly important through the convergence of three areas of scholarship: geopolitical theory; the state-breakdown theory of revolution; and the historical sociology of the modern state as a expanding apparatus of military organization and tax extraction.

In the 1960s through the 80s, an analytical theory of geopolitics began to take shape. Stinchcombe, Boulding, Modelsky, van Creveld, Paul Kennedy and others developed a coherent set of geopolitical principles. In my synthetic account, these comprise a set of causes concerning the dynamics of relative economic and material resources of contending states; geographical configurations affecting the number of potential enemies upon their borders; and the logistical costs and strains of exercizing the threat of force at a varying distances from resource centers. In contrast to the older geopolitical theories of the pioneering age, contemporary geopolitical theory has become multi-dimensional: there is no single overriding cause of state expansion or decline, but a combination of a processes which can produce a wide range of outcomes. Although there remains a natural tendency to concentrate on the fate of the great hegemonic states, geopolitics applies analytically not merely to single states but to regions of state interrelations, and encompasses times and places where small states and balances of power exist as well as hegemonies and major wars. Since war and peace are analytically part of the same question, geopolitics implies a theory of peace as well as its opposite.

A second strand of research elevating the importance of geopolitics is the state breakdown theory of revolutions, especially in Skocpol’s formulation. The fiscal crisis at the heart of major revolutionary situations has most commonly been brought about by the accumulation of debts through the largest item of state expense, the military. The next step back in the chain of causes is the geopolitical conditions which determine how much a state has been fighting, with what costs, what destruction and what recouping of resources through military success. I have argued that the Skocpolian model of state breakdown not only meshes with geopolitical theory, but with a neoWeberian theory of legitimacy. The state breakdown theory is resolutely material, emphasizing hardnosed military and economic conditions.

There remains the realm of belief and emotion, the cultural and social realities which many sociologists argue are primary in human experience, a realm of lived meanings through which material conditions are filtered in affecting human action. In my argument, the theoretical circle is closed by taking up the Weberian point that the power-prestige of the state in the external arena, above all the experience of mobilization for war, is the most overwhelming of all social experiences.

The legitimacy of state rulers comes in considerable part from their people’s sense of geopolitics as it affects their own state. Militarily expanding states and prestigeful actors on the world scene increase their domestic legitimacy and even help create it out of whole cloth. Conversely, states in geopolitical straits not only go down the slope towards fiscal crisis and state breakdown, but also follow an emotional devolution which brings about delegitimation. Geopolitics leads to revolution by both material and cultural paths.

A third strand of contemporary research has shown that the modern state developed primarily through ramifications of its military organization. Historians and social scientists have documented the “military revolution”, the huge increase in scale of armies that began in the 16th and 17th centuries. In its train came organizational changes; weapons became increasingly supplied centrally by the state instead of through local provision; logistics trains became larger and more expensive; armies converted to close-order drill and bureaucratic regimentation.

Two summary works may be singled out: Michael Mann’s The Sources of Social Power, shows how prominently military spending, along with debts incurred from previous wars, has loomed in the budgets of modern states. Mann goes on to show that a series of increases in the scale of military expense, first at the time of the military revolution and the second around the Napoleonic wars, have successively motivated the penetration of the state into civil society: in part to secure funding, in part to mobilize economic resources and military manpower. This distinctively modern penetration of society by the state has proven a two-edged sword, creating national identities and loyalties, but also mobilizing classes to participate with full weight of their numbers in an overarching arena and to struggle for political representation and other concessions in response to fiscal demands.

Mann plays a neo-Weberian trump card upon the Marxist theory of class mobilization; in the state-centered model, the development of the state, through the expansion of its own specific resource, the organization of military power, determines whether classes can be mobilized at all as political and cultural actors. The same process of state penetration into society simultaneously mobilizes nationalist movements. We could add here another Weberian point: once the military-instigated penetration of society has occurred, processes of bureaucratization and interest mobilization are both set in motion; the organizational resources of the modern state now becomes an instrument to be turned to uses far removed from the original military ones, ranging from the welfare state to experiments in socialism or cultural reform.

The other modern classic summarizing the military centered theory of state development is Charles Tilly’s Coercion, Capital and European States, 990-1990. Marshalling the wealth of scholarship now available, Tilly shows how the pathways of states diverged as they underwent the military revolution. Depending upon which kinds of economic organization were in range of their forces, states relied upon extraction from urban merchants or from the conquest of agrarian territories; these several bases determined the difficulty of the fiscal task and the kinds of opposition rulers faced in raising funds for their armies.

As the large number of small medieval states winnowed down to a few through geopolitical processes, modern states crystalized into a range of democratic or autocratic polities, shaped by these differing fiscal bases. The historical pathways of state military organization mesh with their external geopolitical experiences and their internal struggles over taxation and representation; the result has been to instigate revolutions, and to shape the constitution of the various kinds of modern states.

The areas of scholarship I have just reviewed are prime evidence for my claim that we are living in a Golden Age of macro-history. Obviously not all problems have been solved; but no period of creative work ever solves all its problems, to do so would bring innovation to a standstill, and creative scholars always generate new issues as they go along. What we can say is that the range and depth of our vision of world history has permanently widened. Analytically, I believe we have the firm outlines of some important features the state breakdown theory of revolutions, the world-system gestalt in the most generic sense of looking for causal processes from the outside in, the elements of geopolitical processes, the military-resource trajectory of the development of the modern state.

I have given pride of place to political and economic topics of macrohistorical sociology, because these are the topics which have seen the most sustained research and the most cumulative theorizing. I must neglect, in a discussion of this scale, many other areas in which the maturing of modern social history has reached a critical mass, or at least passed the threshold into works of considerable sophistication. Let me just mention a few of the advances which have been made in the historical study of the family (the Laslett school; the comparative works of Jack Goody); the history of civilizing manners (Elias, Mennell, Goudshloml: the macro-history of diseases and the history of civilizing manners (Elias, Mennell, Goudsblom); the macro-history of diseases and the environment (McNeill again, Alfred Crosby); the macro-history of art (Arnold Hauser; André Malraux).

Other work has been proceeding apace in the history of gender, of sexualities, and of material culture. There is every indication that the Golden Age of macro-history is continuing. Approaches pioneered for European societies are just now being used in depth elsewhere (such as lkegami’s work on the civilizing process in Japan). Durkheim’s sociological microscope on becoming a macroscope has accumulated a first and second round of discoveries; another round surely lies ahead.

Critics of Macro History

Having viewed the side of the 20th century’s love affair with macro history, let us turn back now to the opposing side. Alongside the developing vistas of world-encompassing and analytically illuminating history, there has been a persistent countertheme attacking its misuses and denouncing its epistemology. Here too we can schematize the account into two waves, corresponding to the pioneering generation of macro-historians, and the late 20th century wave of sophisticated reflexivity.

In the 1930s and 40s, grand historical visions were repudiated on many grounds. Spengler’s vague poetic metaphors and Toynbee’s religious pronouncements were taken as the sort of flaws that are inevitable in works of this pretentious scope. Popper, in revulsion to Nazism and Soviet totalitarianism, claimed that what his idiosyncratic terminology labelled the “historicist” mentality (i.e. the search for historical laws) was at the roots of anti-democratic movements. In a narrower professional sphere, anthropologists reacted against the earlier generation which had approached ethnographic materials in a comparative and historical light, construing items of culture against the template of what kind of ”survival” they represented from the earlier track of evolutionary development. Against this approach, the structural functional program held that an entire society must be studied in depth as a kind of living organism, revealing how its various institutions meshed with one another as an integrated system operating in the present.

The first wave of objections to macro-history proved ephemeral, and a newer generation of historians and comparative sociologists began to publish the works that I have referred to as the Golden Age.

On the anthropological side, the tide turned again as well. Beginning already in 1949, and with increasingly prominence in a series of works in the 1950s and 60s, Lévi-Strauss took a new approach to writing the history of “peoples without histories”, i.e. tribal societies without written records and hence without the explicit consciousness of an historical frame of reference. Levi-Strauss proposed to read their implicit historical memory by cracking the symbolic code in which mythologies are recollected. The method led him to reconstruct events of epochmaking importance such as the practice of cooking which divides human from the animals that they eat. Lévi-Strauss’s Mythologiques parallels his earlier work on the structural patterns of kinship, in which he attempted to reconstruct the pattern of a kinship revolution by which some family lineages constituted themselves as an elite, breaking with primitive reciprocity and leading towards to the stratification of the state. Lévi-Strauss’s structuralism had an ambiguous relation to history; its affinities to structural-functionalism and to other static structuralist theories like Chomskyian linguistics gave the impression that it too dealt with unchanging structural relationships. At the same time, structures were depicted as dynamic relations, systems in disequilibrium, which both motivated historical changes, and left symbolic residues by which we can memorialize them. Lévi-Straussian structures are both historical and supra-historical in much the same way language is.

Via this ambiguity, the receding wave of enthusiasm for structuralism flowed directly into a wave of or post-structuralism. Lévi-Strauss had shown no reliable way either to decode symbolic history or to correlate symbols in a straightforward Durkheimian way with social structures. In the French intellectual world, the failure of Lévi-Strauss’s project was taken as a warrant for historicizing all the codes. The notion was retained that we live in a world structured by codes, and that we see the world only through the lenses of our codes. But what we see through them is shifting and unreliable, like using eyeglasses made of flowing water.

The movement attacking macro-history, and along with it any substantive sociological theorizing of wide analytical scope, has been fed by several streams. These include the influence of later generations of phenomenological philosophy; the extension of Hegelian reflexivity in Foucault’s expansion of the history of psychiatry contextualizing and relativizing Freud; the 1960s’ generation combining mind-blowing psychedelic “cultural revolution” with political radicalism tied no longer to industrial workers but to movements of student intellectuals; the anti-westernism of ethnic insurgencies; rebellion by feminist intellectuals against the dominance of male textual canons. The result has been a formidable alliance of political and intellectual interests. To these we might add an implicit rivalry inside the world of scholars, between specialists concerned with their own niches, and synthesizers drawing specialized researches into broader statements.

A common denominator of this contemporary wave of attack upon macro-history is the priority of contextuality and particularism. This anti-historical consciousness nevertheless arises from the same circumstances as its opposite. Today’s antihistorians arise from a surfeit of history. Postmodernist thinking might perhaps be described as a kind of vomiting up history, a choking fIt that began in disillusionment with Marxism and to some extent with Freudianism which in certain fashionable circles had been considered the only Grand Narratives worth knowing about.

Both the macro-historians of the current Golden Age, and the anti-grand-historians who are their contemporaries, are products of a rising tide of consciousness of our location within history. All of us, those who write history and those who write against it, exist and think within history; a future intellectual history will doubtless be written about the late 20th century, just like everything else. Our ideas, our very language, are part of history. There is no standard outside of history by which anything can be judged. Does this recognition weigh in favor of macro-historians, or condemn them? There is no escape from the prison of contextuality. What follows?

Theory and Analytical Particularism

Let us bring the two positions into close confrontation. I have emphasized that the Golden Age of macro-history in which we are living rests upon the accumulation of scholarly work by generations of historians. In today’s fashionable philosophies, is this not warrant from dismissing macro-history as nothing but naive empiricism? My response would be simply: we are intellectually constituted by the brute fact that a community comprising thousands of historians and social scientists have been working for several centuries, and that their accumulated archives have been tapped by McNeill, Wallerstein, Mann, Tilly, and others, just as the spottier archives were tapped years ago by Weber and Toynbee. It is a polemical simplification to suppose that attending to empirical research makes one guilty of obliviousness to theoretical activity.

It is equally arbitrary to assume that the development of theoretical interpretations proceeds by reference to nothing but other ideas, much less by mysterious ruptures in the history of consciousness. In the social reality of the intellectual world, today’s hyper-reflexive philosophies and advocates of narrow contextuality are products of the same accumulation of historical archives as the macro-historians; the only difference is that one group specializes in the history of intellectual disciplines, of literary criticism and linguistics, whereas the other has drawn upon the histories of economies, polities and religions.

The answer to conceptual embeddedness in historical contexts is not less theory, but more. Falling back on local contextuality is often a way of begging questions, leaving us not with greater sophistication but with implicit dependence upon unexamined theories encoded in the very language one uses. All history is theory-laden. The effort to disguise this fact results in bad history and bad theory.

There is no such thing as purely narrative history. It is impossible to recount particulars without reference to general concepts. Nouns and verbs contain implicit generalizations (“another one of those again”). Even proper names are not as particularistic as they might seem, for they pick out some entity assumed to have enduring contours over time, and contain an implicit theory of what holds that “thing” together: an innocuous reference to “France” or to “Paris” is laden with assumptions. To impose a name, whether abstract or particular, is to impose a scheme of what hangs together and what is separated from what; by this route, rhetorical devices become reified, and multi-dimensional processes are construed as unitary. And narrative is always selection; from the various things that could be told, some are focussed upon as significant, and their sequence implies what is supposed to cause what consequences.

Let us take an example from what is usually regarded as the most mindlessly event-driven of particularistic narrative, traditional military diplomatic history. “Napoleon marched his battle hardened veterans all day, surprising the Austrians in the late afternoon with 6000 men; by the end of the battle, Austrian control of Italy had been lost.” This has the sound of a narrative in which history is made by heroic individuals, but its effects are achieved by abstracting the individual from the organizational context. It assumes a world in which troops are organized into disciplined armies, and in such a fashion that a commander can exercise centralized control over rapid organizational response; it further assumes a theory of combat, such that the sheer number of troops amassed at certain kinds of terrain win victories; that previous combat experience makes troops more capable of such manoeuvers; that the speed and timing of troop movements determine battlefield outcomes. These assumptions may or may not be generally true; there now exists an extensive military sociology which explains the social and historical conditions under which such things do or do not come about. Napoleon’s organizational preconditions would not have existed at the time of the Gauls, and they would fail again in several particulars by World War I. The narrative also assumes a theory of the state, in which decisions are driven straightforwardly by military outcomes; again this may be true under certain conditions, but only if we specify the organizational context, victory by Visigothic armies in 410 did not result in a Visigothic empire taking control of Italy, unlike the way Napoleon’s victory in 1800 resulted in building a French empire.

The extent to which the narrated sequence of events makes a coherent story, an adequate explanation cannot be judged merely from examining one single narrative. My point is not that narrative histories of the Napoleonic type are inherently wrong; but that we only know why and to what extent they are right in the light of our more general theoretical knowledge. Such knowledge does not come out of thin air. It comes in part from having studied a wide enough range of other histories so that we can tell what are the central conditions, and which are local concomitants with no important effect upon the particular outcome.

What sociological theory does is to cumulate what we have learned from histories.

Specialized, locally contextual histories are not immune to theory; their atheoretical assertions mean that the theories they implicitly assume are only those old enough to have passed into common assumptions. Histories of democracy are particularly vitiated by unconsciously accepting popular ideological categories. Sociological macro-historians have the advantage of consciously checking whether their models of large-scale processes in time and space are coherent with what we have learned from any other areas of sociological research. The battlefield processes, mentioned above, are more securely understood to the extent that we find them consistent with analysis of organizations and their breakdowns, of face-to-face violence, of emotional solidarity within groups. The sociologist devoted to bringing out the explicit dynamics underlying historical narratives generates more confidence in being on the right track to the extent that s/he can cross-integrate historical patterns with other parts of sociology.

The end product need not be theory as a concern in itself. In the light of such cumulation of sociological knowledge via explicit theory, we are better able to produce new histories. These are not necessarily new comparisons or new cases (which is fortunate, since the amount of history is finite and the distinct cases of macro-phenomena are soon exhausted), but studies which select new facets of our previously studied narratives for analysis with greater depth and fresh insight. [For instance, there is considerable overlap among the cases studied by Moore 1966, Skocpol 1979, Goldstone 1991 and Downing 1993.] It is an old story that theory and research recycle through each other; but true nevertheless, and indispensible advice even when fashionable metatheories hold that one or the other pole is irreducibly autonomous. When history or general theory goes its own way without the other, it is really shadowed by what it has vaguely and unconsciously accepted from the other. The result is bad history and bad theory.

Let Fernand Braudel have the last word on the relation between the deeper currrents of abstract theory charted by macro-history, and the details that fill the eyes of contemporaries in the form of:

“l’histoire événementielle, the history of events: surface disturbances, crests of foam that the tides of history carry on their strong backs. A history of brief, rapid, nervous fluctuations, by definition ultrasensitive; the least tremor sets all the antennae quivering. But as such it is the most exciting of all, the richest in human interest, and also the most dangerous. We must learn to distrust this history with its still burning passions, as it was felt, described, and lived by contemporaries whose lives were as short and as short-sighted as ours…

A dangerous world, but one whose spells and enchantments we shall have exorcised by making sure first to chart those underlying currents, often noiseless, whose direction can only be discerned over long periods of time. Resounding events are often only momentary outburts, surface manifestations of these larger movements and explicable only in terms of them.” (Braudel, 1949/1972: 21, Preface to the First Edition).

Deeper currents, for today’s sociological macrohistorians, are analytically deep, not merely descriptively broad. Metaphor should not lead us to conclude that they are far beneath the surface, but rather that they mesh together to generate the endless array of patterns which are what we mean by the surface of events.

What is Historical Sociology?

Richard Lachmann

The Sense of a Beginning

Sociology was created to explain historical change. Sociology’s founders were convinced they were living through a social transformation that was unprecedented in human history, and that a new discipline was needed to describe and analyze that change, explain its origins, and explore its implications for human existence. As Tocqueville ([1835] 2003, p. 16) put it, “A new political science is needed for a totally new world.”

The founders disagreed over the nature of that change and over how their discipline should go about studying it. They also were not sure if the theories they developed to explain their own epoch of change could be used to develop a general “science of society.” Nevertheless, they all Marx, Weber, Durkheim, and their less illustrious contemporaries saw the new discipline of sociology as historical. Sociology at its beginning was historical because of the questions its founders asked.

For Marx the key questions were: What is capitalism, why did it supplant other social systems, and how is it transforming the ways in which people work, reproduce themselves biologically and socially, and gain knowledge and exploit the natural world? What effect do those changes have on relations of power, domination, and exploitation?

Weber also asked about epochal historical shifts. He sought to explain the origins of world religions, of capitalism, and of rational action, and to see how that species of rationality affected the exercise of power, the development of science (including social science), religion, and the humanities, the organization of work, government, markets and families, and pretty much everything else humans did.

Durkheim asked how the division of labor, and the historical shift from mechanical to organic solidarity, changed the organization of workplaces, schools, families, communities, and entire societies, and affected nations’ capacities to wage wars.

Since its beginnings as a historical discipline concerned with epochal social transformation, sociology has become increasingly focused on the present day and on trying to explain individual behavior. Like the children’s book All About Me (Kranz 2004), in which pages are set aside for their young owners to write about what they like to do in their “favorite place,” to describe their hobby, or to “name three things that make you feel important,” many sociologists, especially in the United States, look to their personal biographies or their immediate environs to find research topics.

Take a look at the program of the annual meeting of the American Sociological Association. It contains sociology’s version of the ages of man. First we are born, and legions of demographers explain why our mothers had us when they were 26.2 instead of 25.8 years old. We become sexually aware and active, and there are sociologists who keep on reliving their teen years in research on losing virginity or coming out of the closet. As adults, we have criminologists to tell us which ghetto youth will mug us and which will become a nerd in his failed urban school. The medical sociologists can tell us why we will be overmedicated and overbilled in our dotage. And most of this research is ahistorical and noncomparative, focused on the United States in the last five minutes.

Meanwhile, in the larger world, fundamental transformations are underway: the world’s population grew to unprecedented levels in the past century, even as those billions of people consumed resources at a pace the global ecosystem cannot sustain. Soon whole countries will run out of water or be submerged under rising seas. Global warming will force mass migrations on a scale never seen in human history. Governments lack the organizational capacity and almost certainly the desire to accommodate those refugees; many, however, will have the military means and popular support to repel needy migrants.

Today service jobs are following manufacturing and agriculture in being replaced by machines, creating the possibility that most human labor will no longer be needed to sustain current or future levels of production. The nature of war also is being transformed. Mass conscription which originated at the end of the eighteenth century, made possible wars between armies with millions of soldiers, and encouraged states to develop weapons capable both of killing thousands of enemy fighters at a time and of targeting the civilian populations that manufactured the weapons and provided the recruits for those armies has over the past half-century been abolished in almost all Western nations, which now either no longer fight wars or attempt to rely on high-tech weaponry.

Inequality within the wealthiest countries of the world has risen rapidly in the last three decades after declining for the previous four decades, while at the same time some of the countries that before World War II had been dominated by the US and Europe and were mired in poverty have achieved high levels of geopolitical autonomy and are rapidly closing the economic gap with the West. Ever fewer people on this planet live in communities that are isolated from the rest of the world, and the population of farmers that dwindled to a tiny fraction of the people living in rich countries is now rapidly declining in most of the rest of the world. For the first time in human history a majority of the world’s population lives in urban areas. Links of exploitation that were established, as Marx first explained, with the advent of capitalism now are joined with various sorts of communicative links that hold the potential for more egalitarian relations within and among nations.

Sociology is especially equipped, analytically and methodologically, to analyze the implications of these early twenty-first-century transformations, just as it was created to explain the complex of disruptive and unprecedented changes that accompanied the advent of modern capitalist societies. But sociology can help us understand what is most significant and consequential about our contemporary world only when it is historical sociology. As Craig Calhoun rightly notes: “The most compelling reason for the existence of historical sociology is embarrassingly obvious (embarrassingly because so often ignored). This is the importance of studying social change.”

My goal in this book is to turn our attention away from the sort of solipsistic and small-bore research that is presented in sociology textbooks, and which dominates too many of the major academic journals, and focus instead on understanding how sociological analyses of historical change can allow us to understand both the origins of our contemporary world and the scope and consequences of current transformations. Since much of that research is confined today to the subfield of historical sociology, this then has to be a book that examines what is historical sociology. My hope is that historical sociology‘s concerns, methods, and understandings can invigorate the broader discipline of sociology, making it once again a discipline about social change rather than one that confines itself to models and ethnographic descriptions of static social relations.

This book, and historical sociology, will not help you learn all about you. Historical sociology can help you understand the world in which you will live your life. It provides context to determine the magnitude and significance of present-day changes in gender relations, family structure, and demographic patterns, and in the organization and content of work, the economy, culture, politics, and international relations. Because historical sociology is inherently comparative, we can see what is unusual about any particular society, including our own, at each moment in time and to distinguish mere novelties from fundamental social change.

If the sociology envisioned by its founders is very different from much of contemporary sociology, that early sociology was also distinguished from the history written by historians. Since Marx, Weber, and Durkheim were trying to explain a single unprecedented social transformation, they ended up slighting and even ignoring the bulk of the world’s history that occurred before the modern era. They also decided what history to study, and how to understand the historical evidence they examined, deductively in terms of the metatheories and master concepts they advanced. That led them to rummage through the works of numerous historians, often taking the latter’s findings out of context to construct broad arguments about social change. Professional historians, not surprisingly, found it easy to ignore sociological theories that floated above, and failed to engage, the archival evidence and the specific times and places upon which they define themselves and engage with one another. As a result, Weber and Durkheim and their theories have had little influence on historians.

Durkheim has been easy for historians to ignore, since he almost never referred to or engaged specific historical events. Weber, who drew on a vast range of historical research, has suffered because virtually every contemporary historian of the Reformation rejects his most famous work, The Protestant Ethic and the Spirit of Capitalism. Fernand Braudel (1977) accurately summarizes his profession’s judgment: “All historians have opposed this tenuous theory, although they have not managed to be rid of it once and for all. Yet it is clearly false.” As a result, historians are not inclined to look to Weber for theoretical or empirical guidance on other historical changes.

Marx has faired better among historians, perhaps because they do not regard him as a sociologist. Yet, historians who define themselves as Marxist, or who seek to draw on elements of Marxism, for the most part use Marx to inform their studies of specific historical eras and problems. Few historians see themselves as contributors to Marx’s overarching project of explaining the origins of capitalism or tracing the dynamics of capitalism on a global or even a national scale.

Marx, Weber, and Durkheim’s theories also have been challenged by non-European scholars (and by Western scholars aware of the histories and intellectual traditions of the rest of the world) who doubt that the transformation those theories are designed to explain was “anything like a ‘universal human history’ ” (Chakrabarty 2007). Instead, Chakrabarty, like other “post-colonial” scholars, sees those early sociological theories and much of what Europeans and North Americans have written since as “histories that belonged to the multiple pasts of Europe drawn from very particular intellectual and historical traditions that could not claim any universal validity”. Or, as Michael Dutton (2005) puts it, “Why is it that, when it comes to Asian area studies, whenever ‘theory’ is invoked, it is invariably understood to mean ‘applied theory’ and assumed to be of value only insofar as it helps tell the story of the ‘real’ in a more compelling way?” One of my goals in this book is to explore the extent to which “Western” historical sociology can address social change elsewhere in the world, and also to see how theories and research from the “rest” of the world can inform, deepen, and challenge sociology from and about Europe.

Historical sociologists in recent decades have worked to narrow the distance between their scholarship and that of historians. Yet, the two disciplines have not merged. An aspiring academic’s decision to study and pursue a career in historical sociology rather than history still has implications for what sort of intellectual they will become and what sort of research they will undertake. While historical sociologists and historians do interact with each other, they still spend most of their time learning from and seeking to address scholars in their own discipline. That matters because history and sociology have their own histories, and the past intellectual, institutional, and career decisions made by historians and sociologists shape the questions asked, the methods employed, the data analyzed, and the arguments offered within each discipline today. While there are many historians whose work influences sociologists, and some historical sociologists who have won the respect of sociologists, in practice scholars in the two disciplines study history in quite different ways. Often undergraduate and even graduate students are not much aware of those differences and may decide which field to pursue without considering all the implications of their choice. I wrote this book in part to clarify what it means to do historical sociology so that readers who are considering studying that field will have a clear idea of what it is like to pursue an academic career as a historical sociologist.

Charles Tilly offers an apt and accurate generalization of historians: they share an “insistence on time and place as fundamental principles of variation” (1991) e.g., the eighteenth-century French Revolution is very different, because it was earlier and in a different part of the world, from the twentieth-century Chinese Revolution. As a result most historians are recognized and define themselves by the particular time and place they study, and organize their careers around that temporal and geographic specialization. The boundaries of those specializations coincide with and “are firmly embedded in institutional practices that invoke the nation-state at every step witness the organization and politics of teaching, recruitment, promotions, and publication in history departments” worldwide (Chakrabarty 2007).

Today, most academic historians everywhere in the world are hired as historians of nineteenth-century US history, Renaissance Italian history, twentieth-century Chinese history, or some other such temporal-geographic specialization. Usually, history departments will hire more specialists, and make finer distinctions, for the history of their own country than for the rest of the world. Thus a US history department might have a specialist in the military history of the Civil War among a dozen Americanists along with a single historian of China, while in China a department might have one or two Americanists along with a dozen historians who each specialize in a single dynasty.

Historians’ country specializations make sense because they “anchor most of [their] dominant questions in national politics,” which leads historians to use “documentary evidence [for the] identification of crucial actors [and the] imputation of attitudes and motives to those actors” (Tilly 1991). Historians’ country specializations, in turn, influence and limit when and how they go about making comparisons across time periods and geographic spaces. “Historians are not accustomed, or indeed trained, to make grand comparisons or even to work with general concepts, and they often view the whole past through the lens of the particular period in which they have specialized” (Burke 2003).

Immanuel Wallerstein offers a wonderful example of how national categories shape historical thinking in an essay entitled “Does lndia Exist?” (1986). Wallerstein notes that what today is India was an amalgamation of separate territories, created by British colonization in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries. India’s political, and also cultural, unity is an artifact of Britain’s ability to colonize the entire subcontinent. Wallerstein poses a counterfactual proposition. Suppose the British colonized primarily the old Mughal Empire, calling it Hindustan, and the French had simultaneously colonized the southern (largely Dravidian) zones of the present-day Republic of India, giving it the name Dravidia. Would we today think that Madras was “historically” part of India: Would we even use the word “India”? Instead, probably, scholars from around the world would have written learned tomes, demonstrating from time immemorial “Hindustan” and “Dravidia” were two different cultures, peoples, civilizations, nations, or whatever. India’s present-day unity is a combined creation of British colonization, the nationalist resistance to British rule, and the inability of other imperial powers (such as France, which tried and failed) to grab part of the subcontinent for themselves.

Wallerstein’s point is that a contingent series of events, and non-events that failed to occur, created both a political unit and an academic terrain (the study of India) that affects not just scholarship about the era that began with British colonization but also historical and cultural studies of the centuries before then, when a unified Indian polity or culture did not yet exist. Had the contingencies of the past three centuries played out differently, not only would the present-day reality be different, but so would historians’ retrospective reading of the distant past.

Historical sociologists, in contrast, organize their research and careers around theoretical questions e.g., what are the causes of revolutions, what explains the variation in social benefits offered by governments to their citizens, how and why have family structures changed over time? These questions, like Marx, Weber, and Durkheim’s questions about social change in the modern era, cannot be answered with a focus on a single era in a single nation. History itself, thus, matters in very different ways in historians and sociologists’ explanations. For example, historians are skeptical that knowledge gained about how French people acted during their revolution in 1789 is of much help in understanding how the Chinese acted in 1949 during their revolution. Historical sociologists instead see each revolution as the culmination of a chain of events that open certain opportunities for action while foreclosing others. Thus, to a sociologist, both the French in 1789 and the Chinese in 1949 gained the opportunity to make their revolutions as a result of previous events that created certain social structures and social relations and ended others.

Historical sociologists focus their attention on comparing the structures and events of those, and other, revolutions. What is distinctive about each is secondary, in sociological analysis, to what is similar. Sociologists analyze differences systematically in an effort to find patterns that can account for each outcome. The goal, for sociologists, is to construct theories that can explain ever more cases and account for both similarities and variations.



What is Historical Sociology?

by Richard Lachmann

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