There have been so many “firsts” throughout human history that it would be impossible to calculate them all. But what if you took a few very important ones and deconstructed their evolution—how, when, where and why they happened, their outcome and their effect on humankind?
That’s exactly what Cody Cassidy (co-author of And Then You’re Dead) does in his intriguing new book, Who Ate the First Oyster? The Extraordinary People Behind the Greatest Firsts in History. Delving deep into our primordial past, Cassidy profiles “seventeen ancient individuals who lived before or without writing” whom he deems responsible for humankind’s greatest “firsts.” These range from “Who Invented Inventions?” and “Who Discovered Fire?” to “Who Discovered Soap?” and “Who First Rode the Horse?”
Using these individuals as examples, Cassidy describes in detail what it was like to live in premodern times, along with contemporary touchstones for how these firsts have shaped who we are today. He gathers expert data to offer opinions from a variety of disciplines, including archaeology, anthropology and engineering, providing a well-rounded vision of each subject. Some results are rather surprising, such as the scholarly speculation that geniuses were just as common throughout ancient history (perhaps even more so), and the finding that head surgery was performed over 7,000 years ago with a stone tool (not a sterilized scalpel). He also discusses the things that universally define us as “human,” such as body decoration and the fact that the wheel and axle were independently invented by parents in both Europe and the Americas to make a toy.
Ultimately, Cassidy presents the impact of new technology on our current knowledge base. “With modern tools,” he writes, “scholars can now engage in more educated speculation about the greatest people, moments, and firsts of ancient history than ever before.” Who Ate the First Oyster? is a fascinating dive into the history of us all.