Human Story

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Has there ever been a history of the world as readable as this?

In The Human Story, James C. Davis takes us on a journey to ancient times, telling how peoples of the world settled down and founded cities, conquered neighbors, and established religions, and continues over the course of history, when they fought two nearly global wars and journeyed into space.

Davis's account is swift and clear, never dull or dry. He lightens it with pungent ...

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Overview

Has there ever been a history of the world as readable as this?

In The Human Story, James C. Davis takes us on a journey to ancient times, telling how peoples of the world settled down and founded cities, conquered neighbors, and established religions, and continues over the course of history, when they fought two nearly global wars and journeyed into space.

Davis's account is swift and clear, never dull or dry. He lightens it with pungent anecdotes and witty quotes. Although this compact volume may not be hard to pick up, it's definitely hard to put down.

For example, on the death of Alexander the Great, who in a decade had never lost a single battle, and who had staked out an empire that spanned the entire Near East and Egypt, Davis writes: "When they heard how ill he was, the king's devoted troops insisted on seeing him. He couldn't speak, but as his soldiers — every one — filed by in silence, Alexander's eyes uttered his farewells. He died in June 323 B.C., at the ripe old age of thirty-two."

In similar fashion Davis recounts Russia's triumph in the space race as it happened on an autumn night in 1957: "A bugle sounded, flames erupted, and with a roar like rolling thunder, Russia's rocket lifted off. It bore aloft the earth's first artificial satellite, a shiny sphere the size of a basketball. Its name was Sputnik, meaning 'companion' or 'fellow traveler' (through space). The watchers shouted, 'Off. She's off. Our baby's off!' Some danced; others kissed and waved their arms."

Though we live in an age of many doubts, James C. Davis thinks we humans are advancing. As The Human Story ends, he concludes, "The world's still cruel; that's understood, / But once was worse. So far so good."

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Editorial Reviews

Publishers Weekly
Davis, who taught history at the University of Pennsylvania, has taken on an unusual project-to relate all of human history in the simplest terms possible for the broadest audience possible. The chapter titles illustrate his method of abstracting large themes from a multitude of events-"The richer countries grab the poorer," for example, isn't a bad summary of 19th-century imperialism, but it does risk seeming remedial. At his best, Davis does for human history what Stephen Hawking did for the atom and the universe-take a step back from the details and translate them into common terms. But human history lacks the elegance of subatomic particles, so the book constantly flirts with a kind of riotous overgeneralization, treating immensely complex entities like "England" or "workers" as much as possible like single individuals in psychological terms. The method works better for events that are known widely but not in detail-an example is Stalin's purges-for which Davis can bring the reader a smattering of pungent details and move on. For more familiar subjects, the reader may feel the author is being glib. Davis elevates thinkers above leaders, devoting far more space to Newton and Darwin than to Napoleon and Caesar. It is refreshing to have a treatment of human life at once learned and optimistic, and one that so forcefully focuses on the primacy of ideas in our triumphant story. 9 maps, 4 line illus. Agent, Richard Balkin.(July 1) Copyright 2004 Reed Business Information.
Library Journal
Davis (history, emeritus, Univ. of Pennsylvania) has performed a small miracle by writing a history of humanity in under 500 pages, beginning with Homo erectus and continuing up to the current war in Iraq. While the author surveys almost all of the major civilizations, some receive more extensive coverage than others. The focus is on Western civilization and the peoples Greek, Roman, and Hebrew who have contributed to its formation and development. Davis considers the major religions, as well as environmental factors such as disease, inventions such as the internal combustion engine and computer, and discoveries such as that of DNA. Given the scope of this ambitious work, it is not surprising that some topics are glossed over. Radio, motion pictures, and television do not receive the coverage they deserve, while fast food franchises receive perhaps too much coverage. On the whole, however, this volume would be useful for both students and casual readers. Recommended for academic and larger public libraries. Robert J. Andrews, Duluth P.L., MN Copyright 2004 Reed Business Information.
Kirkus Reviews
A brisk and cheerfully traditional trip through our history, from Homo erectus to George W. Bush. Davis (ret., History/Univ. of Pennsylvania) is cautiously optimistic in this view of our past. In a piece of poetic piffle that serves as an epilogue, he writes, "The world's still cruel, that's understood, / But once was worse. So far so good." He tells us immediately that he will be slighting women (after all, he says, much of history is like a Shakespeare play-all parts played by men) and ignoring much that was minor. This results in a highly conventional chronicle: migrations, explorations, and discoveries, wars, revolutions, and politics. The arts didn't survive the final cut, except for some analysis of prehistoric cave paintings and Greek drama. Neither does he find much space for popular culture, though he devotes five pages to the rise of McDonald's-about the same amount he allows for the French Revolution. Last century's world wars get more thorough treatment, as does the Holocaust. He tries valiantly to particularize, sometimes to great effect. We learn that in 1991 some women offered to bear the child of the frozen 5,000-year-old "Iceman" just found in the Alps. He tells us that Galileo's blindness may have come from his staring at the sun through a telescope. These details add flesh to the skeleton of flitting history. The author does stake out positions occasionally: using the atomic bomb against Japan was probably a good idea; invading Iraq last year was probably not. Davis's tone is so light that he sometimes miscalculates (must we be reminded that the pyramids had a burial function?). And at times he brushes up against the controversial, as when he points out the benefits ofimperialism (better railroads and schools). He strives mightily to appear impartial regarding the claims of various religions, although he does not call Joseph the father of Jesus. No, Joseph was the man who raised Jesus. Swift, simple, unremarkable. (9 maps, 4 line illustrations)Agent: Rick Balkin
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Product Details

  • ISBN-13: 9780060516192
  • Publisher: HarperCollins Publishers
  • Publication date: 6/29/2004
  • Pages: 480
  • Product dimensions: 6.00 (w) x 9.00 (h) x 1.45 (d)

Meet the Author

James C. Davis taught history at the University of Pennsylvania for thirty-four years. He is the author of four other books, dealing with Venice, the early history of European nations, and the lives of peasants and blue-collar workers.

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Read an Excerpt

The Human Story

Our History, from the Stone Age to Today
By Davis, James C.

HarperCollins Publishers

ISBN: 0060516194

Chapter One

We Fill the Earth

Our tale begins when humans much like us evolved and filled the earth.

Before that happened other humans had already come and gone. The most important of our forebears was Homo erectus, or Upright Men, so named because they stood on their two feet. They evolved in Africa about two million years ago and wandered into Asia. They sometimes lived in caves and sometimes in the open, and they chipped their simple tools from stone and learned the use of fire. Erectus had heavy brows and flatter skulls than we do, and if one were to enter a bus today the other riders probably would stealthily slip out.

Before erectus vanished perhaps 300,000 years ago, they begat the species we belong to. We of course are Homo sapiens, or Wise Men. Immodestly we gave ourselves that name because we have larger brains, encased in higher skulls, than erectus. In spite of having larger brains, the early sapiens humans may not have had the gift of language.

* * *

They change their minds every time they find an ancient skull, but anthropologists are fairly sure that our own subspecies evolved from sapiens about 160,000 years ago. We probably evolved in Africa, below the Sahara Desert. To indicate that we are a subspecies of sapiens, we call ourselves Homo sapiens sapiens, or Wise Wise Men. We are now the only variety of humans on earth.

We evolved in different ways. Some of those in Africa developed tall, thin bodies that exposed a lot of skin and that air could therefore cool more easily. Dark pigment in their skin protected them from the tropical sun's ultraviolet rays, and their tight-curled hair protected their heads from the heat. But humans who lived in Europe and Asia, coping with the long, dark winters, had other needs. To keep their bones from weakening, they needed sunlight to stimulate vitamin D production. Dark skin would have blocked out too much sun, so they developed pink or sallow skin with little pigment.

Prehistorians have learned a lot about the life of our sapiens sapiens ancestors, especially those who lived in southwest Europe about thirty thousand years ago. For example, individuals took as much pleasure in looking different from each other as modern humans do. In a cave in the Pyrenees Mountains between France and Spain, an artist scratched on the walls more than a hundred sketches of what appear to be real people. Some of them wore their hair long, and others short; some had it in braids, others in buns. Some men had beards and mustaches, while others were clean-shaven.

At some point, but the time is much debated, humans learned to speak to one another. They may have done this because they were developing a richer culture that depended on communication. They must have often hunted and collected food in groups, and they probably worked together when they fashioned fishing boats and sheltered entrances to caves.

They had clever hands. They could light a fire by striking sparks from lumps of iron ore, and they carved their sewing needles out of bones, each one with a tiny hole through which a thread could pass. With these they sewed their clothes, using skins of animals. They made tiny cutting tools, half as long as a paper match, from flint, and glued them with resin into holes in handles made from wood or antlers.

They invented the spear thrower, which is a short shaft with a hook at one end that fits into the back end of a spear. It enables a hunter to throw a spear very hard. Some ancient artist carved the end of a spear thrower that was found in the Pyrenees Mountains in the shape of a fawn. Its head is facing backward, and it is looking at a little bird that is perched atop a lump of feces emerging from the fawn.

When someone died the early humans often left his necklaces of teeth and shells on his body, and food and tools beside it. They made a powder from the soft red stone called ocher, and sprinkled it on his body. So they clearly thought of death as meaningful and solemn. Perhaps they thought the one who died would have an afterlife where he or she would once again need tools and food, in a place where beauty mattered.


Nothing that we know about the early humans is as awesome as what they painted in the depths of caves. Prehistorians first learned about these paintings in 1875, when an amateur archaeologist was hunting bones and tools in a cave at Altamira near the northern coast of Spain. His little daughter, whom he'd brought along for company, wandered into a nearby chamber. Holding up her candle, she saw paintings on the ceiling of two dozen nearly life-size bison, drawn in yellow, red, brown, and black. The paintings are so masterful that experts quickly -- wrongly -- called them modern fakes.

The greatest find of prehistoric paintings took place at Lascaux in southwest France soon after the start of World War II. Four teenaged boys were rambling on a hillside. In a place where a storm had uprooted a tree, the boys discovered that where the roots had been there was now a deep hole in the ground. A few days later they returned with a kerosene lamp, and one of them climbed down inside the hole. In the scanty light he clambered down a rocky slope and found that he was in a cavern.

The boy was stunned by what he saw. On the cavern walls were mural paintings of short and shaggy horses, bison, oxen, deer with spreading antlers, and that mythic beast the unicorn. Some of the animals were merely staring; others running for their lives. In a sloping gallery near the main one, other searchers later came on sketches of a stag swimming across a river ...

Continues...

Excerpted from The Human Story by Davis, James C. Excerpted by permission.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
Excerpts are provided by Dial-A-Book Inc. solely for the personal use of visitors to this web site.

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Table of Contents

List of Maps and Illustrations ix
To the Reader xi
1. We fill the earth 1
2. We gather by the rivers 11
3. The wanderers settle down 31
4. Two ancient cities follow diverse paths 48
5. China excels and endures 68
6. Some attempt to rule us all 87
7. We found the worldwide faiths 107
8. Europe prepares for its big role 127
9. We find each other 147
10. The New World falls to the Old one 167
11. We suffer famine, war, and plague 182
12. We discover who we are and where we live 195
13. Here and there, the people rule 215
14. We make more and live better 235
15. The richer countries grab the poorer 248
16. We multiply, and shrink the earth 263
17. We wage a war to end war 277
18. A utopia becomes a nightmare 295
19. A Leader tries to shape a master race 311
20. We wage a wider, crueler war 323
21. The Asian giants try to feed their poor 351
22. Some of us do well 372
23. We walk along the brink 398
24. We do the unbelievable 420
Epilogue: So Far So Good 441
Recommended Reading 443
Permissions 451
Index 453
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First Chapter

The Human Story
Our History, From the Stone Age to Today

Chapter One

We Fill the Earth

Our tale begins when humans much like us evolved and filled the earth.

Before that happened other humans had already come and gone. The most important of our forebears was Homo erectus, or Upright Men, so named because they stood on their two feet. They evolved in Africa about two million years ago and wandered into Asia. They sometimes lived in caves and sometimes in the open, and they chipped their simple tools from stone and learned the use of fire. Erectus had heavy brows and flatter skulls than we do, and if one were to enter a bus today the other riders probably would stealthily slip out.

Before erectus vanished perhaps 300,000 years ago, they begat the species we belong to. We of course are Homo sapiens, or Wise Men. Immodestly we gave ourselves that name because we have larger brains, encased in higher skulls, than erectus. In spite of having larger brains, the early sapiens humans may not have had the gift of language.

* * *

They change their minds every time they find an ancient skull, but anthropologists are fairly sure that our own subspecies evolved from sapiens about 160,000 years ago. We probably evolved in Africa, below the Sahara Desert. To indicate that we are a subspecies of sapiens, we call ourselves Homo sapiens sapiens, or Wise Wise Men. We are now the only variety of humans on earth.

We evolved in different ways. Some of those in Africa developed tall, thin bodies that exposed a lot of skin and that air could therefore cool more easily. Dark pigment in their skin protected them from the tropical sun's ultraviolet rays, and their tight-curled hair protected their heads from the heat. But humans who lived in Europe and Asia, coping with the long, dark winters, had other needs. To keep their bones from weakening, they needed sunlight to stimulate vitamin D production. Dark skin would have blocked out too much sun, so they developed pink or sallow skin with little pigment.

Prehistorians have learned a lot about the life of our sapiens sapiens ancestors, especially those who lived in southwest Europe about thirty thousand years ago. For example, individuals took as much pleasure in looking different from each other as modern humans do. In a cave in the Pyrenees Mountains between France and Spain, an artist scratched on the walls more than a hundred sketches of what appear to be real people. Some of them wore their hair long, and others short; some had it in braids, others in buns. Some men had beards and mustaches, while others were clean-shaven.

At some point, but the time is much debated, humans learned to speak to one another. They may have done this because they were developing a richer culture that depended on communication. They must have often hunted and collected food in groups, and they probably worked together when they fashioned fishing boats and sheltered entrances to caves.

They had clever hands. They could light a fire by striking sparks from lumps of iron ore, and they carved their sewing needles out of bones, each one with a tiny hole through which a thread could pass. With these they sewed their clothes, using skins of animals. They made tiny cutting tools, half as long as a paper match, from flint, and glued them with resin into holes in handles made from wood or antlers.

They invented the spear thrower, which is a short shaft with a hook at one end that fits into the back end of a spear. It enables a hunter to throw a spear very hard. Some ancient artist carved the end of a spear thrower that was found in the Pyrenees Mountains in the shape of a fawn. Its head is facing backward, and it is looking at a little bird that is perched atop a lump of feces emerging from the fawn.

When someone died the early humans often left his necklaces of teeth and shells on his body, and food and tools beside it. They made a powder from the soft red stone called ocher, and sprinkled it on his body. So they clearly thought of death as meaningful and solemn. Perhaps they thought the one who died would have an afterlife where he or she would once again need tools and food, in a place where beauty mattered.


Nothing that we know about the early humans is as awesome as what they painted in the depths of caves. Prehistorians first learned about these paintings in 1875, when an amateur archaeologist was hunting bones and tools in a cave at Altamira near the northern coast of Spain. His little daughter, whom he'd brought along for company, wandered into a nearby chamber. Holding up her candle, she saw paintings on the ceiling of two dozen nearly life-size bison, drawn in yellow, red, brown, and black. The paintings are so masterful that experts quickly -- wrongly -- called them modern fakes.

The greatest find of prehistoric paintings took place at Lascaux in southwest France soon after the start of World War II. Four teenaged boys were rambling on a hillside. In a place where a storm had uprooted a tree, the boys discovered that where the roots had been there was now a deep hole in the ground. A few days later they returned with a kerosene lamp, and one of them climbed down inside the hole. In the scanty light he clambered down a rocky slope and found that he was in a cavern.

The boy was stunned by what he saw. On the cavern walls were mural paintings of short and shaggy horses, bison, oxen, deer with spreading antlers, and that mythic beast the unicorn. Some of the animals were merely staring; others running for their lives. In a sloping gallery near the main one, other searchers later came on sketches of a stag swimming across a river ...

The Human Story
Our History, From the Stone Age to Today
. Copyright © by James Davis. Reprinted by permission of HarperCollins Publishers, Inc. All rights reserved. Available now wherever books are sold.
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