Chapter 2A Timeless People

The polymath is as old as the Homo sapien himself. The capricious nature of early human life, in which human knowledge was limited yet the challenges and opportunities so great, would have demanded exceptional versatility and creativity. Zoologist and ethnologist Desmond Morris, in his popular book The Naked Ape, confirmed that the human is by nature the most non-specialised, adaptive, opportunistic animal of all. So it's not surprising that the leading world historian Felipe Fernández-Armesto postulated that ‘the further back you go the more polymathy there was, because, until fairly recently sub specie aeternitatis, domains were undefined and expertise in one field would not have inhibited interest in another … an expert stargazer could be a healer or hunter or whatever he or she seemed apt for.’

In such early societies, most humans would have made it their business to become ‘practical generalists’ – that is, to acquire a wide range of knowledge and skills which had a practical value for their survival. This often meant that one person would have the knowledge of a botanist or physician (to know which plants harm, heal or are edible), the skills of a hunter (to provide for themselves and their families), the creativity of an architect or engineer (building a safe house or shelter on the correct terrain using the right materials) and the mind of an artist (to entertain and enlighten his family or community through games, shows and visual artwork). ...

Get The Polymath now with O’Reilly online learning.

O’Reilly members experience live online training, plus books, videos, and digital content from 200+ publishers.