The journey of the human race has been as much about changes in communities and culture as it has been about our physical evolution. That’s perhaps the key takeaway from the fittingly titled A Story of Us, which charts humankind’s journey back to seven million years ago.
Through seven stages of human evolution we’ve morphed into the species we are today. However, while physical evolution – our switch to walking upright, larger brains, the ability to use tools – has been fundamental, without social constructs we might not have made it, let alone become the dominant species on the planet. Authors Lesley Newson and Peter Richerson show how, in the early days, group dynamics such as those needed to raise offspring helped us to survive. ‘Fitting into such a group isn’t just a matter of knowing your rank in a dominance hierarchy,’ they write. Large populations could also share a bigger body of cultural information, with this information tending to change more rapidly in such populations, aiding our growth. Better tools eventually followed, as well as art and culture. At the same time, going to war seems to have begun only recently, with archaeological evidence suggesting that warfare was rare before about 8,000 years ago. Interestingly, the authors suggest that early human groups might have been made up of people with different-sized brains, with mixed groups likely faring better; some would be able to learn faster, plan further ahead, remember more, while others would be hardier and less hungry. It’s an intriguing idea.
A Story of Us argues strongly for the role that culture played in our evolution and how it sets us apart from other species. The book also places women firmly at the centre of our journey. ‘Our ancestors tackled their challenges as part of a collective or team,’ the authors write at one point. In short, the ‘us’ is key to our story.