How did humans get the way we are? Pants-wearing, horseback-riding, disease-fighting jokesters, some of whom eat oysters? Cody Cassidy has a few answers, in a book that’s far more well-researched and thoughtful than its quirky cover suggests. Who Ate the First Oyster? The Extraordinary People Behind the Greatest Firsts in History is inventive and clever, which makes it appeal to a mass audience and to those of us who yearn for a little light, but not dumb, reading. It is supported by substantial research in evolutionary biology, archaeology and anthropology, and makes innovative connections that stitch together three million years of human development. Cassidy starts at our pre-human stage, but places the most emphases on the past 300,000 years, since the arrival of the first anatomically modern Homo sapiens.
When did we begin wearing pants? As far as scientists can tell, that happened 164,000 years ago—a date that is measurable because it matches the arrival of the body louse, which evolved from the head louse. Why? What? Huh? Apparently the louse jumped from the head of one of our ancestors and onto his clothing, which means he had clothing. Probably not pants, more likely some sort of adornment, but duds nevertheless. Cassidy calls this person Ralph, after Mr. Lauren.
We can trace horseback riding to 5,600 years ago, when anthropologists date the first known bridle, which allowed a rider to control a horse. Before that, horses were used as meat and milk (kudos to people who have the guts to milk a horse) but were too wild to consider riding. No doubt many broken bodies preceded the first successful ride, which, Cassidy notes, changed history and became the dominant from of transportation until the 20th century. It also changed economics, because those without horses could not compete for resources with those who had the beasts and could control them. Cassidy names the first rider Napoleon “in honor of Napoleon Cybulski, the Polish physiologist who first isolated adrenaline, a molecule that played no small role in this moment of inspiration.”
The first oyster? That came because Oyster Gal—not one of Cassidy’s best choices of names—figured out how the moon affects the tides, so she could know when it was safe to go to the sea for her oysterfest. Why eat them in the first place? Because she saw other animals doing it, and surviving. Also, she was probably hungry and darn tired of eating roots.
In a sobering and eye-opening section, Cassidy explains how the tools of warfare typically evolved from toys, and how the bow and arrow was the first weapon not to mimic nature. It was invented by a man he calls Archie, for obvious reasons.
Cassidy personalizes his characters throughout, explaining that most early Homo sapiens could have handled a contemporary discussion or task just fine, given preparation, although they might have been shorter, with larger brows. His names, while often witty, show an understanding of history and culture. The woman who invented fire is called Martine after a French geologist who was “jailed for witchcraft, which you can imagine is an accusation our Martine, after striking the first fire, would almost certainly have risked as well.” The first person whose name we know is Kushim, a bookkeeper who lived along the Euphrates River and signed his name on his tallies.
Noting that Columbus was the last person to discover the Americas, he introduces us to the first, whom he calls Dersu, after the Siberian explorer Dersu Uzala. Why? You’ll have to read the book. I’ve probably told you too much already.
This is an easy read, but it offers much to think about. Chapters are digestible and short, and you can read one at a sitting, never worrying about losing the storyline. The book comes with maps and a timeline that help illustrate what is essentially a highly accessible history of the development of human civilization. Sometimes Cassidy’s conclusions feel like a stretch, but they make you think of what might have been and how it might have happened.