5 Books on the Histories of Humanity

Nov 7, 2022  •  6 minute read

What better reason to write than sharing something that I love?

It’s not worth anyone’s time if I write a full-on review for each of these books. It’s easy enough to google thousands of well-written reviews. But in writing this I also hope to examine the works that have been foundational in my understanding of humanity’s history, to reflect on how I’ve been biased by them, and to uncover where I can supplement further learning. So, here we go!

Guns, Germs, and Steel

Jared Diamond, 1999

That is, the different historical trajectories of Africa and Europe stem ultimately from differences in real estate.

When I was 23 I figured it was about time in life to start reading. One of the first books I bought was Guns, Germs, and Steel. I can’t claim to know much about history today, but back at that time I knew exactly nothing, save for what my brain had somehow held onto from grade school (Julius Caesar existed; the Pyramids, too). This book was my first real venture into world history and anthropology: the flowering of human civilization, the emergence of agriculture and empires, when we took up animal husbandry and writing. I was engrossed!

It was also foundational in my relationship between humanity and nature. Before, I would look out at modern society and wonder how the hell could humans have built TVs and WiFi routers. How did we get to a place from where trees, rivers, and rocks could be crafted into microchips? Guns, Germs, and Steel showed me the path from primitive humans to the modern day. Additionally, it sparked my joy of anthropology and ancient history—here I am, 9 years later, writing about it.

With any book where a single author explains history, it’s good to be wary of not placing full trust in every detail. The broad strokes Diamond paints with are provoking, but remember that this book (like many others) holds theories about humanity’s growth. We’ll see if time proves these correct.

The History of the Ancient World

Susan Wise Bauer, 2007

Many thousands of years ago, the Sumerian king Alulim ruled over Eridu: a walled city, a safe space carved out of the unpredictable and harsh river valley that the Romans would later name Mesopotamia. Alulim’s rise to power marked the beginning of civilization, and his reign lasted for almost thirty thousand years.

If Guns, Germs, and Steel introduced me to the wide strokes of human development, The History of the Ancient World filled in the the lines with ancient peoples and civilizations. Bauer covers the histories of the most prominent societies from the earliest histories of writing until the fall of the Roman Empire.

What this book gave me more than anything else was a sense of placement for when and where co-temporal civilizations flourished. Here were the Romans, and there the Parthians; then the Persians with Cyrus, the Zhou kings of China, the Assyrians, the Mauryans, the Assyrians again, the Greeks, the Egyptians. All the way back to Alulim and his thirty-thousand year reign.

The quote above hints at another joy that this book helped me discover: the blending of historic fact and myth. Ancient history is so interesting to me because that we don’t really know what happened thousands of years ago. We just trust that the few historians and monks who dictated their accounts were accurate, even though they were often multiple degrees (and often centuries) removed from their subjects, and biased towards their own leanings.

Sapiens: A Brief History of Mankind

Yuval Noah Harari, 2015

How do you cause people to believe in an imagined order such as Christianity, democracy or capitalism? First, you never admit that the order is imagined.

I was surprised to learn that Sapiens is a meme in tech culture, associated with Silicon Valley tech bros. I guess I fit into that!

Regardless, it’s mega-popular for good reason. I picked it up to learn more about human evolution, but I surprised at how impactful it was for me by questioning assumptions about modern society. Sapiens showed me—for example—the interplay of religion, science, and capitalism in the 1700s, as well as the abstract definitions of nations, businesses, gender, money, and more.

Above any set of distinct facts or trivia, Sapiens is useful because it highlights the biological what is from the cultural what it means. We ascribe meaning to physical reality (e.g, this patch of grass underneath my shoe is part of the idea we call “Michigan”), but these meanings are an entirely manmade agreement amongst society. “Michigan” isn’t tangible. You can’t pick it up or hold it. Splintering the meaning of something from its earthly, tactile reality was a new concept for me in my mid-20s. This breakthrough also helped me in other, seemingly unconnected areas, such as internalizing the stoic idea of separating one’s reaction or interpretation of an event from the event itself.

If someone asked me for a recommendation on where to first start reading about the history of humanity, this is the book I would offer.

The Silk Roads

Peter Frankopan, 2015

From the beginning of time, the centre of Asia was where empires were made.

Honestly, the reason I first picked up this book was because of the the cover art. It’s gorgeous!

But, thankfully, the content lives up to its cover’s promise. I wanted to learn more about history in the Middle East and Steppe, and The Silk Roads offers just that. It reframes the typical Westero-centric societal progression of Greece → Rome → Medieval Europe to a history that’s centered on the often more impressive cultures to the east of the Mediterranean. What’s more, it discusses how even modern conflicts (e.g: WWII, The Cold War) were rooted in the pursuit for primacy in Asia.

Each chapter is simple to read and self-contained; the book is easily digestible. I read a large portion of it in a hammock on the beach in Eleuthera. The Silk Roads deepened my love for the old history of the world between Asia Minor and Himalayan Mountains.

When We Ruled

Robin Walker, 2006

It was in 1324 … that the world awoke to the splendor and grandeur of Mali.

I bought this book after reflecting on my (very, very, very limited) knowledge of the world. When it came to Africa, all I knew was ancient Egypt, followed by a great gap, then European colonialism. When We Ruled is an extensively researched tome that encompasses all periods of the history of Africa.

I picked-and-chose my way through the chapters that I found most interesting. The prose is, admittedly, quite dry and lacking of narrative. But I loved discovering new figures and cultures that I had little or no knowledge of beforehand, notably:

  1. Ta-Seti
  2. Yoruba
  3. Mali
  4. Eredo
  5. Ana Nzinga
  6. Ibn Battuta’s Travels in Asia and Africa
  7. Caliphate of Cordoba

As is so often the case when plunging into a new area of study, I came out with more questions than I started with. Each of the above topics is a launching point for even more learning opportunity! But I’m thankful that my model of humanity has been given a little more dimension, especially as these places and people are so hidden from the typical curriculum of world history.

I’ll never be able to learn all that I want to—or all that I should—but I can see now where I’d like to explore more next: the ancient Americas, the Indian subcontinent, and northern Steppe region. If anyone has any suggestions for good resources, I’d love to hear them. Please ping me on my Twitter @jessetweettweet.