A Short History of Humanity by Johannesburg Krause & Thomas Trappe, translated by Caroline WaightA Short History of Humanity by Johannesburg Krause & Thomas Trappe, translated by Caroline WaightA Short History of Humanity by Johannes Krause & Thomas Trappe, translated by Caroline Waight

A Short History of Humanity: A New History of Old Europe (2021) is, as one might expect from the title, a surprisingly concise volume covering a lot of ground. It is also, thanks to the combined efforts of its co-authors — Johannes Krause, director of the Max Planck Institute for Evolutionary Biology; and Thomas Trappe, a science journalist — an authoritative, informative, accessible, and engaging work of non-fiction.

The focus of the book is archaeogenetics, a recent field that uses newly created technology and new discoveries to “decode ancient genomes, some of which are hundreds of thousands of years old … uncovering not only the genetic profiles of the dead, but also how their genes spread across Europe … [and] sift[ing] out DNA from bacteria that cause deadly disease.”

Migration and disease are certainly timely topics, even if the authors here are looking long into the past. Lessons, though, can be learned; misconceptions can be cleared up. And if, as the authors note, “people open to migration will find arguments in this book to support their beliefs, as will those in favor of stricter border control … ideally you will be persuaded that a global approach to society … Will also be the key to progress in the future.”

A Short History of Humanity opens with a brief introduction into the birth and workings of archaeogenetics, and a broad overview of the human evolutionary bush, including our own species, Neanderthals, and Denisovans, noting that all three populations interbred and shared genes that can still be found in our bodies today.

After the introduction, the first half of the book deals with several mass migrations of humans (and some minor ones) and the impact of those migrations on the pre-existent populations and/or cultures (one point made is that migration often, but not always, brings a change of culture). The first is the human migration out of Africa in several ways, with one 40, 000 years ago leading to massive spread across Europe and Asia.

Along with digressions into bipedalism and other evolutionary attributes of early humanity, as well as some discussion of how climate affected migration and long-term viability (or not), Krause and Trappe also greatly detail the artistic cultures of several of the early waves, such as the Aurignacians and the subsequent Gravettians, discussions nicely enhanced with a number of photographs, such as of cave paintings in southern France or figurines carved from mammoth ivory.

A Short History of Humanity continues exploring successive waves of migration, from the steppes, from Anatolia, and for each explains the changes wrought in art, in ways of living, in violence and weaponry, and in basic modes of lifestyle (hunter-gatherers eventually replaced by farmers, nomadic life replaced by settled communities). They also step aside to discuss the skin tones of people in various regions, making clear how silly the use of skin color as the basis of “racial difference” is. Another topic explored in some depth is the evolution of language from its earliest speculative form into those in use around the world today. It’s all fascinating material, and while it’s true that it may be difficult to recall exactly which group is in which time period and in which region, the general sweep of events is always clear.

About halfway through, the book turns away somewhat from human migration to the topic of disease (though the two are, of course, closely related). The plague is one disease explored, with some interesting revelations (such as how long it has been with us). The authors also discuss leprosy and syphilis, as well as the destruction wreaked on the New World with the arrival of Europeans and their diseases which natives had no immunity to. Here, though no less detailed, the more familiar history and names of places/people/events will probably make this section easier going for most in terms of retaining specifics.

In the end, readers will have a far clearer view, thanks to A Short History of Humanity’s clear prose and organization and the wealth of images, maps, diagrams, etc. of how humans and their civilizations evolved, and how migration and disease have played major roles in that development.

Published in April 2021. Johannes Krause is the director of the Max Planck Institute for Evolutionary Anthropology and a brilliant pioneer in the field of archaeogenetics — archaeology augmented by DNA sequencing technology — which has allowed scientists to reconstruct human history reaching back hundreds of thousands of years before recorded time. In this surprising account, Krause and journalist Thomas Trappe rewrite a fascinating chapter of this history, the peopling of Europe, that takes us from the Neanderthals and Denisovans to the present. We know now that a wave of farmers from Anatolia migrated into Europe 8,000 years ago, essentially displacing the dark-skinned, blue-eyed hunter-gatherers who preceded them. This Anatolian farmer DNA is one of the core genetic components of people with contemporary European ancestry. Archaeogenetics has also revealed that indigenous North and South Americans, though long thought to have been East Asian, also share DNA with contemporary Europeans. Krause and Trappe vividly introduce us to the prehistoric cultures of the ancient Europeans: the Aurignacians, innovative artisans who carved flutes and animal and human forms from bird bones more than 40,000 years ago; the Varna, who buried their loved ones with gold long before the Pharaohs of Egypt; and the Gravettians, big-game hunters who were Europe’s most successful early settlers until they perished in the ice age. Genetics has earned a reputation for smuggling racist ideologies into science, but cutting-edge science makes nonsense of eugenics and “pure” bloodlines. Immigration and genetic exchanges have always defined our species; who we are is a question of culture, not biological inheritance. This revelatory book offers us an entirely new way to understand ourselves, both past and present.


  • Bill Capossere

    BILL CAPOSSERE, who's been with us since June 2007, lives in Rochester NY, where he is an English adjunct by day and a writer by night. His essays and stories have appeared in Colorado Review, Rosebud, Alaska Quarterly, and other literary journals, along with a few anthologies, and been recognized in the "Notable Essays" section of Best American Essays. His children's work has appeared in several magazines, while his plays have been given stage readings at GEVA Theatre and Bristol Valley Playhouse. When he's not writing, reading, reviewing, or teaching, he can usually be found with his wife and son on the frisbee golf course or the ultimate frisbee field.

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