“The average forager had wider, deeper, and more varied knowledge of her immediate surroundings than most of her modern descendants,” writes Yuval Noah Harari in Sapiens. Individual human hunter-gatherers had to know a lot about their environment, and they were not learning from text books and schools. They were learning by trial and error, by being shown what was edible and what was not edible older members of their tribe, and they had to develop a plethora of skills in order to do all the things necessary for survival.
Humans today are not very likely to be able to weave baskets from reeds (as much as we joke about basket weaving courses for college athletes). They also likely can’t sharpen a flint arrowhead, don’t know what animals are around their location and how to hunt them, and don’t know what wild plants are helpful or harmful. Individually, modern humans don’t seem to have the same regionalized knowledge as the ancient humans that came before them. But today we definitely know far more than the humans before us as a whole.
The difference, Harari explains, is that the location of human knowledge has changed. We no longer all hold the same helpful regional information in our heads. Instead, we have a collective knowledge spread across humanity. Each of us is an expert in our own little niche. For example, I studied political science and Spanish. I know a bit about theories of policy processes, such as the Multiple Streams Framework, and I know a bit about medieval literature from the Iberian Peninsula. On the other hand, I don’t really know much about how nuclear submarines work, how my city’s sewage system works, and I don’t really know what migratory birds can be found in the area during the spring versus the fall. Someone else in the collective of human knowledge is an expert in each of those things.
“The human collective,” writes Harari, “knows far more today than did the ancient bands. But at the individual level, ancient foragers were the most knowledgeable and skillful people in history.” This quote may be a broad overgeneralization, but it is nevertheless interesting and thought provoking. Some of us are incredibly skilled with a variety of things and have a great deal of knowledge about much of the world around us. Others don’t seem to have as much skill, and know more about celebrities than we do about what is happening in the world. Overall, the important thing to consider is that the modern world has seen a shift in the distribution of knowledge. We don’t all have to hold information about our immediate surroundings in our heads, and we don’t all have to be able to produce the things necessary for our survival. Only some humans need to know those things and have the skills to produce the basic necessities for life. The rest of us can then go off and explore different areas and learn different things, constantly increasing the collective human knowledge and skill base, even if we individually seem more narrowly skilled and less immediately knowledgeable compared with our ancient forager ancestors.