Synopsis + Table of contents + Prologue


A Brief History Of Man by Anthony O’Keeffe


A BRIEF HISTORY OF MAN is about what we now know, and how we know it. Because for the first time in man’s history we can look back and say, scientifically, where we came from, how we got here and what it is that makes us who and what we are.

Soon after we left Africa about 70,000 years ago our evolution suddenly took flight. Our population exploded and we quickly began living as cultural beings in an increasingly organized, proto-society.

We began to trade, to use personal ornamentation, to ritually bury our dead, to paint caves, and to produce the thousands of “Venus” figurines that we have now unearthed. And it was at this point that we began to speak.

Yet all this happened in the depths of the Ice Age, and at a time when our closest neighbour and nearest rival the Neanderthal suddenly perished. Why? What were all of these developments for? And why did we suddenly become so much better at surviving because of them?

Because it was then that we began to practice belief. Belief is what makes us who and what we are, and is what those practices were for. But what we believe in is immaterial.

God does not surface until much later, and only emerges with our need for a legal code. And that only happens after the ending of the Ice Age and the arrival of agriculture.

Belief on the other hand is the ultimate response to our understanding of what it means to be human. For we are first and foremost problem solvers. And belief is our way of solving all our problems.

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Table of contents:

Chapter 1 – Knowledge – Part 1          5,000-2,500 years ago

the first civilizations – the Ice Age – agriculture – cultural evolution – the scientific method – the sun, the moon and the stars – Greece

Chapter 2 – Knowledge – Part 2      2,500 years ago to the present

the Greek legacy – Plato and Aristotle – the Golden Age of Islam – the Islamic legacy –the Scientific Revolution – archaeology – today

Chapter 3 – Our Ancestors      6 million to 100,000 years ago

the first threshold: bipedalism – the second threshold: stone tools – induction – mimicry – our tool kit expands – fire – emigration – dissatisfaction – curiosity – the third threshold: language

Chapter 4 –  Language     100,000 to 50,000 years ago

cave paintings – the beginnings of speech – the larynx, and the origins of language – writing as a precedent – what is language for?

Chapter 5 –  Belief      50,000 to 15,000 years ago

from survival to culture – burial of the dead – the extinction of the Neanderthals – cave paintings – the “Venus” figurines – our population begins to increase – the two worlds we live in – the shape and form of spirits

Chapter 6 –  God and Law     15,000 to 5,000 years ago

Sumer and Egypt – God – our population spreads – agriculture – the first villages – politics – the Law – a moral universe – belief and God

Epilogue –  Man

Select bibliography


When we look back at the most important thinkers throughout history, the vast majority of them have one thing in common. Almost without exception, they were powered by their belief in God.

Whether expressing themselves artistically, or exploring their curiosity scientifically, whatever they did was done either for the glory of God, or in the hope of better understanding His design.

But belief and God have only very recently become so invisibly entwined.

God is a relatively recent concept. He only emerged with our need for a legal code. That only materialized with the emergence of the first complex societies, after the advent of agriculture some 10-11,000 years ago.

Belief on the other hand is the defining characteristic that distinguishes us from all of the other species in our genus. It is what makes us who we are. And we began to practice it soon after we left Africa, around 70,000 ya. So belief and God emerge independently, and for different reasons, serving their own separate ends.

But in order to understand the difference between belief and God, and the specific needs they fulfil for us, we have to start looking at them both scientifically. And so far, there has been an enormous reluctance to view belief and God in the light of the evidence available.

At this particular moment in time, a scientific overview of the world, and our beliefs, are seen as two completely separate entities. Which is a reaction to what has happened to belief and science over the last few centuries.

As we moved from the Age of Reason into the Enlightenment during the 17th and 18th centuries, there was a growing sense that we were on the cusp of solving everything. That feeling of innate superiority was one of the defining characteristics of the Romantic movement in the 19th century that followed. There was a quiet confidence that very soon, our unique ability to reason would reveal the complete workings of the universe, and our place in it.

But the 20th century failed to produce the clarity and concrete understanding that the Scientific Revolution had seemed to promise. On the contrary, the worlds of the quantum universe in the age of Relativity appeared to be impossibly complex and incomprehensibly opaque.

There was however one aspect of that Romantic sense of superiority that continued to flourish throughout the 20th century. Given that we were on the verge of understanding everything, it was felt, we no longer had the need for religion, and the shackles of superstition could finally be cast aside.

This sense of Religion and Science being not merely oppositional, but actually incompatible, goes back to the publication of Darwin’s The Origin of Species, in 1859. Very unusually, the other three principle thinkers of the age, Nietzsche, Marx and Freud were also atheists, and the huge influence that all four had subsequently meant that belief was understood as an impediment to progress. Indeed, it came to be seen as its very antithesis.

But over time, people began to notice that the world they lived in had changed far less profoundly than some had hoped. We were not, after all, living in a post-religious world. The vast majority of people throughout the modern world and across the globe believed with just as much passion as people had always done, and they practiced those beliefs as seriously as ever.

It was only in the microscopic world of academia and in the mass media that the world had become largely secular. Even here, there were many who held their beliefs as ardently as everyone else did in the rest of the world.

Which then resulted in a reaction against the idea of seeing science and belief as being inherently oppositional. It was possible to practice science rationally and reliably, and to hold and practice your beliefs in private. There was even a technical term for this, which Stephen Jay Gould invented; NOMA, or Non-overlapping Magisteria.

What you thought, intellectually, and what you believed, spiritually, were two entirely separate entities. Not only that, but so they must remain.

It is just as important, it was now thought, that you keep your beliefs out of your scientific enquiries as it is that you keep your prejudices, whether as a believer or as a sceptic, out of your judgement on the findings of others.

So that today, instead of being seen as oppositional, science and belief are now viewed as two distinct spheres, that do not and must not intersect.

All of which has come to leave prehistory in something of a conundrum.

Everyone working in prehistory is agreed, that something significant happened in the course of our development around 45,000 ya. Before which, we evolved at a certain pace, and after which we suddenly began to evolve much, much quicker. And the more evidence we un-earth, the more it all points to the one thing. It was around then that we began to practice belief.

But there has been an enormous reluctance to make the connection, between that explosion in our evolution, and the fact that it took place precisely at the point when we began to practice belief. Because belief and science have become so isolated, so compartmentalized to use the contemporary term, that the idea of looking at belief scientifically has become an anathema.

Nevertheless, the evidence that we now have linking that explosion in our evolution with the beginnings of belief means that it is here that we must now look.

We need to examine belief from a materialistic perspective. And once we come to appreciate how belief operates, and what it was that it emerged for, it will quickly become clear why it was that our development was so transformed once we began to practice it.

Belief did not merely emerge at the same time as our development took flight. It was the engine that powered that transformation and drove us forward. What we believe in though is immaterial. It is not what we believe in that powers us. It is the act of believing that gives us our unique strength, and makes us what and who we are.


There is nothing remotely surprising about the fact that nearly all of our most important thinkers were and always will be passionate believers. It was their belief that drove them on and drew them aloft. Belief is what separates us from our fellow hominids, and ensured that we survived and they did not.

But before we can go back to our very beginnings, we need first to appreciate how it is that we got to where we are. For it is only by fully acknowledging the privileged position that we enjoy today, that we can understand how it is that, for the first time in our history, we can now look back and describe who we are, and how we got here.

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