Review: They Were Here Before Us by Ran Barkai & Eyal Halfon

Posted January 25, 2024 by Stephanie in 4 Stars, Nonfiction, prehistory, Review / 6 Comments

Title: They Were Here Before Us: Stories from the First Million Years
Authors: Ran Barkai & Eyal Halfon
Publication: March 12, 2024 by Watkins Publishing
Genre: Nonfiction, Prehistory
Rating: 4/5★

An epic and highly readable investigation into our very earliest ancestors, focusing on the land corridor thorough which humans passed from Africa to Europe and the evidence left behind of their lives and deaths, struggles and beliefs.

This is not a book about archaeological sites. We shall come across flint tools, bones, skulls, surprising structures, and layers of earth that we can date to different periods—but they are not the heart of the matter. This book is about us, human beings, and about our place in the world. About what we have done, where we came from, which other humans used to be here, why they are no longer with us, and how and why our lives have changed. It’s also about where we went wrong. What did early humans do because they had no choice and what is the price we are paying for this now?

Taking as the focus ten sites in Israel, the land corridor through which the human species passed on its journey from Africa to Europe, the story ranges far and wide from France, Spain, Turkey and Georgia to Morocco and South Africa, North America, Columbia and Peru. The authors follow the footsteps of our ancestors, describing the tools they used, the animals they hunted and the monuments they built. Fascinating revelations include:

  • The earliest evidence of human use of fire;
  • The meaning of cave art and the transformative effect of touching rock;
  • The woman for whom 90 tortoises were sacrificed;
  • What happened in the Levant following the disappearance of elephants;
  • The monumental tower built at the lowest place on earth;
  • Why we should envy modern hunter-gatherers – and much more …

This provocative and panoramic book shows readers what they can learn from their ancestors, and how the unwavering ability of prehistoric people to survive and thrive can continue into the present.


“This book is about us—human beings—and about our place in the world. About the amazing things we have done, where we came from, which other humans used to be here, why they are no longer with us, and how and why our lives have changed so much.”

I had hoped to at least like They Were Here Before Us but I hadn’t expected to enjoy it as much as I did. It was a really good and solid book about our oldest ancestors. I flew through the book in no time and couldn’t stop being amazed at the tidbits and facts I learned with each chapter.

What I loved about this book was that it wasn’t a dry book throwing around scientific words. As is stated in the introduction, the authors have chosen to interrrupt the reader’s reading experience as little as possible and to purge the book scientific jargon as much as they could. They certainly accomplished that, in my opion. I really appreciated this because it made for a really nicely flowing narration.

The book covers humanity from 1.5 million years ago to c. 5,700 years ago. The main focus are ten sites in Israel but it also visits various sites located in different countries like Georgia, Ehtiopia, United States, France, Equador, Turkey and more. So needless to say, it was quite the journey and exploration into the footsteps of early humankind.

They Were Here Before Us: Stories from the First Million Years by Ran Barkai and Eyal Halfon was a fascinated and insightful glimpse into the intriguing and thought-provoking world of prehistory and early humans. If you loved Yuval Noah Harari’s Sapiens: A Brief History of Humankind then you will doubtlessly also enjoy this one!


Quotes/Fun Facts:

  • The hypothesis that Homo habilis was the first to craft tools is no longer accepted, and modern scholars believe that even older species of humans made basic use of tools.


  • Just as there are different kinds of leopards and different kinds of whales, there were once different kinds of humans. At a certain point over two million years ago, it is likely that six human species existed side by side in Africa. And like the many kinds of leopards and elephants, not all survived.


  • Hand axes are informally known as “Paleolithic Swiss Army knives,” to explain not only their multifunctionality but also their established presence in human life.


  • The oldest cemetery in the world is a pit of bones, discovered in Spain in 1983. It is not exactly a pit, more like a natural hidden shaft created in the karstic rock. At the bottom of the shaft, archeologists discovered the skeletons of at least thirty prehistoric humans dated to 400,000 years ago, and it is hard to believe that they wound up there by accident. Someone placed or threw them there with some sort of intention. Perhaps the intention of burying them.


  • If you were to compress the whole of earth’s history into a single calendar year, humankind would only appear in the last few hours of December, and the past 6,000 years would be no more than a few clicks of the second hand.




About the authors:

Ran Barkai is a professor of prehistoric archaeology and former chair of the Department of Archaeology and Ancient Near Eastern Cultures at Tel Aviv University. For the past 20 years, he has co-directed the excavations and research at Middle Pleistocen Qesem Cave.

Eyal Halfon is a screenwriter and movie director. He holds a master’s degree in Archaeology from Tel Aviv University, and his thesis was on the material and mental ramifications of the disappearance of animals on human beings, past and present.



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