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Human History from the Bottom Up

Social institutions—groups of people working toward a common aim—began with people who shared a language. From this, small-scale social structures developed. These structures have evolved over time. Today they include local schools and businesses, as well as nations.

My work examines how these social institutions function, and where they have succeeded and failed over the course of history. In particular, I focus on the debates over social priorities within each institution. There are five main areas I’m currently exploring:


Origins of Social Evolution: Language and Institutional Evolution

Preprint (2021), forthcoming in Anthropos

Early humans were smart but did not have the ability to complete a sentence. This essay explores a theory of how adolescent children formed a group, created spoken language through play, and began the processes of detailed communication, collaborative groups, and social institutions. The theory goes on to examine how language spread throughout Africa and how African communities settled the Earth. This process marks the beginning of the large-scale social institutions we know today.

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The Founders: A Novella

Unpublished (2021)

This imaginative essay tells the story of the East African children who created language. It traces the early results of their work and play: the excitement of exchanging ideas and creating words for every action, emotion, object, and experience. Their little group survived, and they went on to teach language to new generations and new communities.

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Migration in World History

Published (2020), in Heikkela, Ed., In Which Direction Is Finland Evolving

As soon as early language communities formed, migration from one group to another became an important process for learning. Communities linked by migration settled the Earth, leading to Pleistocene-era transformation of habitats, Holocene-era climate stability, Medieval collisions of climate and society, and Anthropocene social inequality and degradation of the environment.

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Anthropology and Human History: Broadening a Debate

Forthcoming (2022) in World History Connected

In a widely praised and debated book, The Dawn of Everything, anthropologists David Graeber and David Wengrow argue that early human life was full of choices and alternatives, rather than a boring egalitarian existence of hunter-gatherers. They ask, “What went wrong? Is there no way to live a modern life except through subordination to hierarchy?” This essay argues that Graeber and Wengrow have shown that historians need to decide whether it is time to expand the study of world history to the days before cities and literacy existed.

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Published (2020) in Manning, History of Humanity, 237–40, 249–54

The arts and culture of people all over the world are connected by new social institutions and networks. While the local cultures of separate communities and ethnic groups persist, these groups have been exchanging and combining ideas about music, dress, visual art, poetry, prose, and drama for centuries. This has created a global basis for sharing, discussion, and debate—even consensus—among people all over the world.

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