Sapiens: A Graphic History, The Birth of Humankind Vol. 1

“Homo Sapiens has grown so accustomed to being the only human species that it’s … eas[y] for us to imagine we’re the pinnacle of creation, separated from the rest of the animal kingdom by an unbridgeable chasm” (51)

Sapiens: A Graphic History, The Birth of Humankind Vol. 1 is a graphic novel interpretation of Yuval Noah Harari’s best-selling nonfiction book Sapiens: A Brief History of Humankind. Volume 1 includes four chapters. “Rebels of the Savannah” covers the evolution of Homo Sapiens, including theories about the extinctions or exterminations of other Homo species. “Masters of Fiction” deals with the cognitive revolution, arguing that the ultimate human superpower is the ability to invent and believe in fictional stories that enables cooperation in large numbers. “Sex, Lies and Cave Painters” compares aspects of hunter-gatherer lifestyles to our lives and norms today. Lastly, “Intercontinental Serial Killers” describes how Sapiens killed off most of the world’s animal species. The book adapts the historical information to graphic novel format that engages young readers. Harari and his niece, Zoe, are main characters, traveling through the world to meet with experts who explain the various stages of human history. They learn from conversations with experts, such as biologist and geneticist Professor Saraswati, anthropologist and geographer Dr. Suarte, and archeologist Herr Doctor Father Klüg. This overarching narrative is interspersed with comics such as “Prehistoric Bill and Cindy,” “The Adventures of Doctor Fiction” and the story of “Detective Lopez” trying to determine who is responsible for the demise of megafauna in Australia and the Americas 50,000 years ago. Please note that almost exactly the same story, except that told in a textual narrative, can be found in Harari’s Unstoppable Us, vol. 1.

This book can help spark nuanced discussions about anthropocentrism, animism, evolution, animal extinctions, deep time and the power of stories to shape societies. By starting with human evolution and ending at the point when Sapiens outpaced evolution with the invention of technology, this narrative generates a number of climate literacy realizations for the young reader. First, the book challenges anthropocentrism by affirming that Sapiens are animals. “Over the last 30,0000 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. Having no siblings makes it easier for us to to imagine we’re the pinnacle of creation, separated from the rest of the animal kingdom by an unbridgeable chasm” (51). This is the focus in chapter 1 and 2. These chapters challenge the notion of human exceptionalism on a biological level, affirming that we are just like any other animal. “If the Neanderthals had survived, would we still think of ourselves as a creature apart?” (51). At the same time, chapter 2 asserts human exceptionalism on a cognitive level. As Doctor Fiction declares: “Sapiens rule the world because they’re the only animals capable of creating and believing fictional stories” (82). Chapter 3—a conference discussion about human lifestyles over millennia—explains how beliefs are tied to lived realities: for example, how kinship with animals and animistic beliefs arose from living close to nature and affirmed the world’s aliveness. Finally, the last chapter explores the Sapiens’ responsibility for animal extinctions, past and present. This is illustrated through a humorous story of a police detective trying to indict her suspect, early Sapiens, for a crime of mass extinction of megafauna in Australia. The chapter stresses that the killing has not stopped, and that today’s humanity should take responsibility for the fate of the biosphere.

These three key realizations—that humans are animals, dependent on other forms of biological life; that we have unintentionally caused multiple extinctions of other species; and that we can use stories to reimagine our relationship with the world—help ground the climate emergency in the larger narrative of humanity’s relationship with the Earth. Harari’s history of Sapiens as a species contextualizes modern, post-industrial human society as a mere moment in deep time. This geologic context has the power to shift a reader’s worldview away from anthropocentrism and further toward ecocentrism.

©2023 ClimateLit (Abby Hartzell)

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Publisher: Harper Collins, 2020

Pages: 245

ISBN: 978-0-06-305133-1

Audience: Questers (8-13), Rebels (14-older)

Format: Comics & Graphic Novels

Topics: Animism, Anthropocentrism, Biosphere, Climate Emergency, Climate Literacy, Deep Time, Earth's Aliveness, Ecocentrism, Evolution, Extinction, Hunter-Gatherers, Kinship with Animals, Neanderthals, Prehistory, Storytelling

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