The Invention of Yesterday

A 50,000-Year History of Human Culture, Conflict, and Connection


By Tamim Ansary

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From language to culture to cultural collision: the story of how humans invented history, from the Stone Age to the Virtual Age

Traveling across millennia, weaving the experiences and world views of cultures both extinct and extant, The Invention of Yesterday shows that the engine of history is not so much heroic (battles won), geographic (farmers thrive), or anthropogenic (humans change the planet) as it is narrative.

Many thousands of years ago, when we existed only as countless small autonomous bands of hunter-gatherers widely distributed through the wilderness, we began inventing stories–to organize for survival, to find purpose and meaning, to explain the unfathomable. Ultimately these became the basis for empires, civilizations, and cultures. And when various narratives began to collide and overlap, the encounters produced everything from confusion, chaos, and war to cultural efflorescence, religious awakenings, and intellectual breakthroughs.

Through vivid stories studded with insights, Tamim Ansary illuminates the world-historical consequences of the unique human capacity to invent and communicate abstract ideas. In doing so, he also explains our ever-more-intertwined present: the narratives now shaping us, the reasons we still battle one another, and the future we may yet create.


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This book was born some years ago when I happened to be reading three seemingly unrelated works of history at the same time. One was about the First Emperor of China, who put a million peasants to work building that Great Wall. Another was about Central Asian nomadic life in the centuries before the Mongol conquests. The third one was about barbarian warriors such as Attila the Hun attacking Rome in its later days.

Because I was reading all three books concurrently, I noticed something that probably would not have occurred to me otherwise. The Great Wall of China going up had something to do with the Roman Empire coming down. A provocative thought. China and Rome were two entirely different worlds and knew almost nothing of each other back then, but between them stretched the Central Asian grasslands of the nomads whence the Huns came riding out. When something big happened in China—like the construction of a wall that blocked invading nomads—it sent ripple effects through the nomadic world, which eventually reached Rome. And, of course, big events in Rome sent ripple effects the other way.

What intrigued me was not the Rome-China connection per se but interconnectedness itself as an aspect of human history. I went looking for other examples, and they weren’t hard to find. The religious practices prescribed by the Prophet Muhammad, it turned out, had something to do with Europeans acquiring the magnetic compass. The twelfth-century conquest of Jerusalem by the Seljuk Turks had subtle roots going back to crop failures in Scandinavia centuries earlier. The policies of the Ming dynasty in China contributed to the American Revolution. The nineteenth-century invention of the cotton gin in the United States devastated family life in sub-Saharan Africa—the list goes on endlessly.

Even tens of thousands of years ago, it seems, when we were isolated bands of hunter-gatherers ignorant of the many other bands of humans roaming Earth, we were, somehow, some single far-flung network of interconnected peoples. The globalized tangle that we are today is only the latest chapter of a story that goes back at least forty thousand years and perhaps as many as sixty thousand.

This book takes interconnectedness as one of the through lines of world history but acknowledges another side to the story. Even as we grow ever more intertwined, we stay ever more resolutely distinct from one another as groups. We live on the same planet but in many different worlds. What any of us humans see as the whole world is just the world as we see it, whoever “we” might be. What we know as the history of the world is actually a socially constructed somebody-centric world historical narrative. There’s a Euro-centric one, an Islamo-centric one, a Sino-centric one, and many more. How many more depends on how many collections of people on Earth think of themselves as a “we” distinct from “others.” Any two world historical narratives might have the same events and yet be different stories because the shape of the narrative depends on the teller of the tale. To say that one of the many possible somebody-centric world histories is the real history of the world is like saying that one of these maps depicts the world as it really is.

The shape of the narrative is what it all comes down to in the end. History deals in facts, of course, but in history, those facts fundamentally serve a narrative. When we construct our story, we are inventing ourselves. That’s what we were doing in those caves, long ago, gathered around the fire, passing on to our children what we remembered about our grandparents and reminiscing about life-changing adventures we’d shared and arguing about which of us really killed the bear and drawing conclusions about the meaning of life from the stars we saw above—for when ancient folks looked up at the night sky, they didn’t just see stars, they saw constellations. They said, “There’s a bear,” and they said, “Hey look, a mighty hunter,” and their companions nodded, and as long as everybody in the group saw the bear and the mighty hunter, there they were.

It’s all too easy for us modern folks to say the constellations weren’t really there. Yes, it’s true that those constellations existed only in the minds of the people looking, but then, everything we see and know as human beings is in some sense a constellation: it’s there because we see it. We exist as constellations of people. We’re immersed in constellations of ideas. We live in a universe of constellations, which are themselves made up of constellations. In the social universe, constellations are as real as it gets.

Social constellations form intentions and set the agendas of history: countries, families, empires, nations, clans, corporations, tribes, clubs, political parties, societies, neighborhood groups, social movements, mobs, civilizations, high school cliques—they’re all constellations. They do not exist outside culture. The mighty hunter dissolves upon closer examination into random individual stars. The same is true of social constellations. Clan, country, movement, mob—get up close to any of these and all you see are individual human beings and their ideas.

Culture is a world we invented and keep inventing, a world that would disappear without us. Social constellations are not like rivers or rocks, they do not exist in the physical universe, and yet they have an existence as real as floods or landslides. They must, for they do things in the physical world: build bridges, make wars, invent cars, send rockets to the moon. Any individual human who is part of such a constellation can drop out without the constellation winking out of existence. All the individuals in a social whole can be replaced by other persons without the constellation losing its identity and continuity. Every American who existed one hundred fifty years ago is dead and gone, yet America still exerts clout. Every Muslim alive in 1900 is dead now, but a palpable Islamic entity still influences real events. When we talk about history, we’re talking about events that happened only in the cultural universe, and in that universe, social constellations enact the drama; they’re the characters strutting the stage.

Forty thousand years ago, such social constellations were imagined into existence by small groups of people who knew each other personally and what they saw together was who they were together. We’re not fifty people in a cave anymore; we’re eight billion people spread all over the world. None of us can have the perspective of all eight billion. Each of us is part of some smaller social world and bound to the perspective of our own world. We don’t see the same stars, and even if we did, we wouldn’t see the same constellations: what we see up there reflects who we are down here, and down here we’re not all one group. History keeps happening because of that fact: we’re not all one group.

When I was in high school, I ran across the word defenestration. I had to consult a dictionary to learn that this odd word meant “throwing someone out of a window,” and it puzzled me that such a word even existed. After all, there is no term for throwing someone off a balcony or through a doorway or out of a moving car, so why defenestration?

The answer (I discovered) goes back to something that happened in Central Europe four centuries ago. In 1618, one fine day, a group of Catholic lords came to the city of Prague, where most of the people were Lutherans. The Catholic lords had come to deliver a message from the Holy Roman Emperor: Lutherans, the emperor said, must stop building churches on royal land. The Lutherans listened, and then hauled two of those Catholic lords to the window and threw them out. The meeting room was on the third story of the building, so the drop from there to the ground was seventy feet. This was the famous Defenestration of Prague.

Amazingly enough, both lords survived. The stage was then set for interpretation. What did their survival mean? Well, it depended on who you were. Catholics saw the event as a miracle, proof that God was on their side. Lutherans focused on the reason why the lords survived: they landed in a deep heap of dung. The Catholics and Lutherans were both Christians, but when they met, they didn’t see fellow Christians or fellow Germans or fellow anything. When they looked at the same event, they didn’t see the same event. Even sitting in the same room, they were living in different worlds, and those worlds existed only in culture.

It wasn’t just Catholics and Lutherans. Back then Europe was teeming with diverse groups of Christians who saw themselves as “us” and other European Christian groups as “them.” Lutherans and Calvinists were both Protestants, but Protestants themselves consisted of many mutually exclusive groups, each with its own worldview. In the tinderbox of us and them that was seventeenth-century Europe, the Defenestration of Prague kicked off the Thirty Years’ War, a horrific struggle in which some eight million people were killed or died of starvation, many of them noncombatants. But the contenders weren’t individual people, ultimately; they were social constellations.

Could groups involved in such savagery ever reconcile? Could their descendants ever look upon one another as anything but the other? It must have seemed unthinkable four hundred years ago. And yet today, a Lutheran family descended from Germans might live next door to a Presbyterian family descended from Scots, in some small town in Minnesota, without either of them necessarily even knowing what kind of Christian their neighbors are, much less caring. A Catholic and a Protestant might join the same book club without worrying about defenestration and have lively conversations in which religion never comes up.

It’s not that differences between these groups have evaporated. Their doctrines remain as different as ever. It’s just that somehow, over time, they’ve become different parts of the same culture, some single, amorphous, larger, shared us. Examples like this abound in every civilization. Small worlds sometimes do merge into larger worlds; or small worlds intermesh to become distinct parts of single larger wholes, and how this happens is a riddle that can be unraveled only in the cultural universe. Maybe someday two families who live on the same street and send their children to the same kindergarten won’t know or care whether their neighbors are Lutheran Christians or Wahhabi Muslims.

Or maybe not, because even though, yes, we’re getting ever more interconnected, let’s not overlook the way we’re doing it: by coalescing relentlessly as social clusters, clumps, and constellations. Ideas and information don’t just ripple through the human sea; they travel from culture to culture, and when they cross such borders, some things change. And some things don’t. And sometimes borders blur and a bigger cultural something comes into existence, in which parts of both cultures are included, and in which the ghosts of earlier, smaller cultural constellations still live and breathe.

Consider one small example. Chess is played all over the world today, but in the sixth century, it was played only in India, where it was invented. Back then, according to legend, there was a king who fervently believed in free will. Dice games irked him; he wanted a game in which players controlled their own destiny. A savant named Sissa rose to the challenge by inventing a game that depended entirely on strategic thinking, the kind of thinking that makes for success in war. The king was so delighted he offered the inventor gold, but humble Sissa only wanted wheat as his reward: one grain for the first square on his game board, two for the next, four for the next, and so on. The game was played on a board divided into sixty-four squares, and when the king tried to comply with Sissa’s request, he discovered that doubling the amount of wheat for each of the sixty-four squares added up to more wheat than the kingdom produced in a year—as Sissa well knew, for he was a mathematician, and mathematics was one of the glories of Indian culture at that time.

Sissa’s creation reflected his cultural context in many ways, big and small. It was a game for four players, each of whom had eight pieces. One represented the king and one his top general. The rest of the pieces stood for the four divisions typical of Indian armies at that time: chariots, cavalry, elephants, and, of course, foot soldiers. The game was called chaturanga, which means “four branches or limbs.” In politically fragmented India, a simultaneous war among four combatants struck a chord.

From India, however, the game moved to Persia, a monolithic society locked into an epic struggle with an equally monolithic Rome. Persia was permeated by a worldview that saw polarity as the fundamental principle of reality: light versus dark, night versus day, good versus evil, life versus death—that’s what the world was all about, said the Persians, and the world they were thinking about existed only in culture, that socially constructed realm.

Sure enough, there in Persia, chaturanga turned into a game for just two players, each of whom had sixteen pieces. The board was redesigned to feature alternating squares of light and dark. And the game picked up numerous bits of local color. The very name chaturanga changed into the similar-sounding Persian word satranj, “a hundred worries.” The general became the vizier, a chief political adviser—every Persian monarch had one of those. Chariots were no longer used in war, so the chariot of the Indian game became a rukh, a gigantic, ferocious bird of Persian folklore.

By medieval times, the game had found its way through Spain into Western Europe. And look what happened there. The vizier became the queen. The cavalry turned into knights. The elephants became bishops. Europe had no folkloric bird like the Persian rukh, but rukh sounded like roq, which was French for stone, so the pieces formerly known as rukhs now became stone castles.

Yet even as surface features were changing, the internal structure of the game endured: the order among its parts, the template, you might say. The number of pieces remained constant, and they moved the same way. Elephants were bishops now, but there were still two of them, and they could only move diagonally. Chariots became castles, but chariots moved, and therefore so did castles. The king remained the most precious piece on the board, and the whole game was still about protecting one dude who hardly did anything. Check was still check, and checkmate, checkmate. The pawns remained pawns because, apparently, every society has lots of those. And the strategies that worked in India worked just as well in Persia and in Europe. Sissa is long gone (beheaded, perhaps, after trying to claim the kingdom’s entire annual output of wheat), but the mathematical ideas of sixth-century India remain solid planks in the edifice of human knowledge today.

What happened to chess happens to pretty much everything in human culture. We’re all one humanity, but we never stop creating whirlpools of exclusion. As we interact, ripple effects pass from one human whirlpool to another, and in the process some things change, some things don’t, and sometimes, something new comes into being—in general, something bigger.

Forty thousand years ago, we existed only as countless small autonomous bands of hunter-gatherers, widely distributed throughout the wilderness, roaming a world almost entirely unaltered by our existence. Hardly anyone ever met anyone they didn’t already know, except at birth—and yet somehow, even then, with no awareness of the fact that we were all interconnected. Today, every habitable inch of the planet is inhabited by humans; no place on the planet remains unaltered by our activity, no life can unfold in isolation from the general flux and flow of human activity, any human action anywhere can have consequences for any other human anywhere—yet somehow, interconnected though we be, we’re still grouped into many different socially constructed microcosms that stand in for the unknowable totality of the world itself.

From the bird’s-eye perspective, we might consider human history as the story generated by the expansion of these microcosms in the cultural realm and the interactions that occur when they intersect or overlap—interactions that produce everything from psychological confusion, social chaos, and war to cultural efflorescence, religious awakenings, and intellectual breakthroughs. Most significantly, however, even amidst the conquests and enslavements, the rapes and murders, ideas mingle and interleaf until new and more comprehensive conceptual frameworks emerge. We see this in social and economic developments, in warfare, in technology and invention, in religion, art, philosophy, and science. We see it in the course of empires and the spread of ideas. We see it in the occasional overthrow of one global paradigm by another.

The human web has been thickening for tens of thousands of years and will surely go on doing so. In one year, ten years, a hundred years, if we are still around, our lives will not have become less intertwined but more so. More so is the trend, the relentless trend. There does seem to be some single human enterprise going on, but it’s too big to see. Or at least, we cannot see it yet, any more than the ancient Chinese could see how they were affecting ancient Rome or vice versa. We all want to be part of something bigger than ourselves, but the something bigger has never yet been humanity as a whole. The trajectory looks like it’s moving from many to one, but trajectory alone cannot tell us if that’s really where this story is headed, especially since we certainly aren’t one big happy family yet—or one big anything for that matter.

To get any inkling of the road ahead, we have to look at the road that stretches behind us. How did we get from where we were to where we are? If ever-increasing interconnectedness is the through line, what is the shape of the narrative so far? What are its themes and turning points? What have been its chapters and stages and key events? In short, if history is a story that we’re telling one another, what is its plot?

That’s the story I went looking for all those years ago when it first occurred to me that the rise of China had something to do with the fall of Rome. And this book is the story that I found.


Tools, Language, and Environment

Alone among the creatures of Earth, we humans use tools and language to deal with our environment effectively as groups. Language makes stories possible, and mythic stories are what knit human groups together. In our earliest days, our mythic narratives were spawned by geography. We formed webs of meaning with people in our immediate environment. Where we lived was who we were. Through constant intercommunication, we built up shared assumptions about deep matters such as time and space, life and death, good and evil. We lived and died in symbolic landscapes woven of our ideas, and as far as we knew, those landscapes were the world itself. Meanwhile in some other environment, perhaps only a few hundred miles away, people who were clustered around some other great geographical fact and were working as one to wring their nourishment out of that environment were living in a different symbolic landscape, one that they had built collectively.


The Physical Stage

(15 billion BCE to 50,000 BCE)

One day in the fall of 1940, four French teenagers were roaming the woods near their home in southwestern France, searching for a legendary buried treasure they’d heard about, when their dog, Robot, suddenly scurried into a depression formed by an uprooted tree and began pawing at something. The teenagers rushed over hoping—but no: it wasn’t an old treasure chest; it was only a small dark opening in the ground.

So, they did what teenagers do, what I might certainly have done: they squeezed through the opening to see where it led. They had flashlights with them, which was a good thing, because the hole went down a long way before opening at last into a cavernous room; and there, flashing their lights around, they saw, on the walls and even on the ceiling fifteen or twenty feet above their wonderstruck eyes, bigger-than-life paintings of buffaloes and deer and other animals, rendered gracefully and realistically in black and red and ocher and yellow. They’d found one of the world’s most spectacular galleries of Paleolithic art: Lascaux cave.

Spectacular but not unique. Cave paintings like this have been found all over the world since 1868, and they are still being found in hundreds of sites, from Spain to Libya to Indonesia. In many cases, the paintings in a given cave were made over the course of thousands of years; people were coming there to paint, generation after generation. But the oldest of them were made about forty thousand years ago, and the odd thing is, those earliest paintings were already quite sophisticated. What hasn’t turned up are transitional products. It’s not like Stone Age painters spent a few hundred generations learning to doodle and then a few hundred making blotches vaguely suggestive of animal shapes and then finally figuring out how to make recognizable horses and hunters. Instead, it seems that around thirty-five to forty-five millennia ago, people rather suddenly started making sophisticated art. And it wasn’t just paintings. In Asia Minor, paleoanthropologists have dug up complex jewelry made around the same time as the cave paintings. In southern Africa, they found decorative stone knives polished to an elegance still unmatched. In Germany, an amulet-sized bone sculpture of a woman turned up with spindly arms and legs but huge breasts, buttocks, and vulva.

Why did human beings achieve artistic prowess so abruptly? There were other tool-making primates living at the same time as our Homo sapien ancestors, and they made the same range of tools, more or less, but theirs didn’t change much over thousands of years, whereas ours took a sudden dramatic uptick. Something must have happened around forty-five thousand years ago, but what was it? What could it have been?

Coiled inside the answer to that question is our human story.

Every story has a setting, and in our case the setting is the physical universe, so let’s start there. Physicists tell us that the physical universe was born about 13.32 billion years ago, which may sound like a long time until you consider that if all those years were dollars, there wouldn’t be enough of them to build three modern aircraft carriers, so in some ways, even according to physicists, the universe is rather young.

It all began, they say, with an explosion from a point without dimension. Incidentally, many religious scriptures say something similar. Until this big bang, there was no space, so it would be meaningless to say this point was small. Also, with this explosion, time itself was born, so it would be meaningless to begin any sentence with the words “just before the big bang.” There was no such thing as before; there was only after.

In the aftermath of the big bang, the expanding mass of simple matter congealed into countless trillions of stars, all moving away from all the others, though not away from some central point, for everything, including space itself, was expanding (and still is). From our perspective, the universe began to get interesting roughly 4.54 billion years ago, when Earth came into existence, one of eight clouds of astral dust coalescing in this region of space around a local star. Due to the gravitational attraction of every particle to every other, each cloud gradually pulled together, spinning like an ice skater, closer and tighter, until it compacted into a round body turning on its own axis and revolving, like its seven sister planets, around the sun.*

In its youth, our own dear Earth was a hot ball of lava. Over the course of a billion years or so, its outer layer cooled into a crust of rock. Then the rains started, and the rains went on until the whole planet was covered with water.

Mixed into this water were a few simple molecules, such as methane, carbon dioxide, and ammonia, molecules with a chemical propensity to link up if they bumped together. When this happened, they formed more complex single units. It’s true that only a limited number of new combinations could form randomly out of those first few types of molecules, but as new combinations came into existence, the number of next possible combinations increased as well. Thanks to the ever-expanding set of “adjacent possibles,”* the material universe kept growing in variety and complexity. There was no chance that those first few simple molecules bumping together could accidentally form a frog or a bird. Frogs and birds weren’t adjacent possibles. But bump together to form slightly more complex substances such as amino acids? Lipids? Nucleotides? Sure. Not only possible, but inevitable.

In any closed system (physicists tell us) the amount of disorder tends to increase. Apparently, that’s the law. Books shelved randomly by random people don’t accidentally end up in alphabetical order; that’s just not the default direction of physical reality. Overall, the current is always flowing downhill, from more order to less order until there is no more “down” to go, at which point the current pools up as pond and ceases to exist at all. That’s called entropy. But the laws of physics also declare that entropy can be held at bay or even reversed for a while within a closed system—if some outside energy can be tapped. Water always flows downhill—unless a pump comes into the picture. Fire always dies out—unless fresh wood is fed into it. A neat room gets messier—unless someone puts a little effort into tidying things up. Presumably, this cannot happen in the universe as a whole. Why? Because, by definition, nothing lies outside the universe as a whole. To paraphrase the philosopher Ludwig Wittgenstein, “The universe is everything that is the case.” Since there’s no outside from which the energy could come, entropy can be held at bay only in a small closed system situated within that larger environment.

Some four billion years ago, small closed systems of just this sort began to appear on planet Earth. They developed in places where minute cracks in the ocean floor let in heat from Earth’s still-molten core. There (or maybe elsewhere) molecules such as amino acids, lipids, and nucleotides connected up to form coherent environments wherein the laws of entropy did not apply: wherein water could (metaphorically speaking) run up hill, wherein fires could (metaphorically speaking) keep burning. These little clots of molecules were the forerunners of the first simple cells, the fundamental units of life.

Life, then, is a closed system within a surrounding environment: it has an internal order among its parts, which transforms its many molecules into a single whole. This is true of every life-form. A cell. A frog. A human being. You name it.


  • "Ansary offers a remarkable big-picture synthesis that draws upon geography but resists determinism, and celebrates diversity while embracing humanity's commonalities."—Booklist
  • "In his terrific new book, Tamim Ansary explores the underappreciated ways that empires, nations and smaller sets of people have responded to their surroundings, influenced one another and developed stories that give their lives meaning."—San Francisco Chronicle
  • "A beautifully written world history focused on the stories different civilizations have told about who we are. It ends with a fundamental question: In today's extraordinary world, can we build new narratives that are inclusive and global enough to encourage worldwide cooperation in the task of building a better future for humanity?"—David Christian, distinguished professor, MacquarieUniversity, Sydney, Australia, and author of Maps of Time: An Introductionto Big History and Origin Story: A Big History of Everything
  • "Tamim Ansary has done it again, writing an expansive, wonderfully readable account of our present world. With deft examples drawn from across history, he skewers the idea that there's anything pure about culture or race. Ideas have blended and meshed across space and time to make the modern world what it is. Ansary is a charming guide to this blesh of civilizations, and to the world's permanent-and hopeful-capacity for change."—Raj Patel, author of Stuffedand Starved: The Hidden Battle for the World Food System
  • "Brimming with essential insights and yet always approachable, this is the global history we need now."—Lynn Hunt, author of WritingHistory in the Global Era
  • "Weaving together multiple complex strands of the human experience into a single compelling storyline, Ansary delivers-in his usual down-to-earth yet erudite style-an engaging global 'narrative of narratives' informed by decades of critical study, reflection, and personal transcultural experience. A deeply enriching, highly relevant read from an important, unique voice of our day."—R. Charles Weller,Central Eurasian and Islamic world history, Washington State and KazakhNational University
  • "The Invention of Yesterday is an insightful guide into human civilization packed with information that shows how we have been connected globally since the beginning of history. Tamim Ansary unpacks complicated theories to make sense of how we became who we are today."—Fariba Nawa, authorof Opium Nation: Child Brides, Drug Lords and One Woman's Journey throughAfghanistan
  • Praise for Destiny Disrupted:

"Ansary has written an informative and thoroughly engaging look at the past, present and future of Islam. With his seamless and charming prose, he challenges conventional wisdom and appeals for a fuller understanding of how Islam and the world at large have shaped each other. And that makes this book, in this uneasy, contentious post 9/11 world, a must-read."—Khaled Hosseini, author of The Kite Runner and A Thousand Splendid Suns
  • Praise for Games without Rules

    "In "Games Without Rules," Tamim Ansary has written the most engaging, accessible and insightful history of Afghanistan. With gifted prose and revealing details, Ansary gives us the oft-neglected Afghan perspective of the wars, foreign meddling and palace intrigue that has defined the past few centuries between the Indus and Oxus. This brilliant book should be required reading for anyone involved in the current war there -- and anyone who wants to understand why Afghanistan will not be at peace anytime soon."—Rajiv Chandrasekaran
  • On Sale
    Oct 1, 2019
    Page Count
    448 pages

    Tamim Ansary

    About the Author

    Tamim Ansary is the author of Destiny Disrupted and Games without Rules, among other books. For ten years he wrote a monthly column for, and has published essays and commentary in the San Francisco Chronicle, Salon, Alternet,, Edutopia, Parade, Los Angeles Times, and elsewhere. He has appeared on the Oprah Winfrey Show, Bill Moyers, PBS The News Hour, Al Jazeera, and NPR. Born in Afghanistan in 1948, he moved to the U.S. in 1964. He lives in San Francisco.

    Learn more about this author