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Would Modern Humans Survive Ancient History?

VO: Noah Baum WRITTEN BY: Nathan Sharp
In the modern world we have the latest technology, advanced knowledge and the internet. But how would today's generation fare if they were suddenly placed at an earlier time in human history? Would we defy the odds and thrive? Or inevitably struggle?

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Would Modern Humans Survive Ancient History?

We, as 21st century beings, tend to take a lot for granted. And, while some suggest that we’re currently living through our own, drawn-out Armageddon, things have also arguably never been better. Our health and medicine are the best they’ve ever been. Research has shown that we’re actually in the midst of a statistically peaceful time. Extreme poverty is decreasing around the world. Advances in science and technology have garnished us with knowledge, at a level simply unfathomable to the generations before us. And, our entertainment options have never been wider, with the invention of TVs, games consoles and the internet, among many other things not even envisaged a century ago.

We could go on, but the overriding point is that modern, 21st century humans have it pretty darned good. Yes, we’re still very far from enjoying the perks of modern life on an equal basis, and there are whole countries and societies that do not have some (or all) of the privileges listed. But on a general, world-wide scale, there’s at least the potential for us be positive.

So, say we – with all our mod-cons and contemporary attitudes – were suddenly transported back in time. Would we even be able to cope with what history would throw at us?

Firstly, a few ground rules and criteria. For the purposes of this video, we’ll be primarily focussing on those from today’s most technologically advanced countries, with access to food and water, money, health care, and modern conveniences like wi-fi, public transport and smartphones. Then, when pitching these people back in time, we’ll be homing in on two distinct eras in human history – the Middle Ages and the pre-agricultural period. And it’s only us ourselves that will be transported back – leaving our gadgets, gizmos and inventions behind.

But, back to the matter at hand. The good news is that human beings are extremely adaptable. We’re able to quickly adjust to new situations, so even though being transported back to, say, the 1300s would be scary, we’d likely knuckle down and get on with it. As much as we may believe otherwise, neither our phones nor the strength of our internet connection are integral to our survival. Our brains would quickly forget them and refocus on the resources available.

Our inherent personality traits would carry over, however… seeming to majorly benefit us in our new medieval world. For one, we’d be considered extremely intelligent, if only because we’d be able to read – although historic languages and dialects could still prove tricky to decipher. We’d also be privy to centuries’ worth of information, including modern perceptions on religion and science. Though, good luck explaining black holes and human evolution to your 14th century neighbours down the pub. In fact, striking up any kind of conversation could prove problematic. While we might assume our modern-world intelligence would impress everyone else, it’s more likely that it’d get us into trouble. Should you start chatting about televisions, airplanes or microwaves, before long you’d be labelled a heretic, or some sort of witch – and probably executed.

Biologically-speaking, we’d surely be at an advantage, though? Over time, and thanks to past outbreaks, human beings have actually developed an increased immunity against some major diseases and conditions, including tuberculosis and malaria. Much of our apparent protection has come through our living in congested – though relatively hygienic – cities, the like of which our Medieval ancestors would struggle to comprehend.

Of course, in terms of the Medieval period, one concern probably trumps all others: The Black Death. If, as part of our hypothetical re-write of history, you found yourself dropped off in Europe in the 1340s or early 1350s, curse the mysterious entity that brought you there… because you’re probably dead. The Plague swept through Europe and Asia in the mid-14th century, killing up to 200 million people, and up to 60% of Europe’s entire population. It was spread (and, in fact, still is spread) by the bacterium Yersinia pestis, which is mostly passed on by rats. Even today, there are thousands of cases reported annually by the World Health Organization, but modern medicine and safety techniques allow us to contain and manage potential outbreaks. Any human – modern, or not – would struggle to dodge Black Death. And if you caught it, you’d probably die from it. There’s no amount of centuries-old immunity that can save you from that one.

In general, disease was so prevalent back then due to a lack of hygiene and personal care, and unsanitary habits. Streets ran with sewage, drinking water was often contaminated, personal hygiene was non-existent, and – as previously mentioned – disease-inflicted rodents freely ran the streets. As well as the Plague, problems like dysentery and influenza often proved fatal. Modern humans rarely have to overly worry about these illnesses now, but our biological barriers against them could begin to break down – if thrown back in time indefinitely.

Quickly, our reliance on modern medicine would show itself. Asthmatics and diabetics – amongst many others – would suddenly find themselves without the pills, shots, treatments or devices that they need. Anti-depressants would also be non-existent – along with any awareness of mental health conditions. And woe betide the modern human if they were to injure themselves. Not only would there be no pain relief, but you’d also be at the mercy of various stomach-churning medical practices, such as using urine as an antiseptic, using leeches for bloodletting, having a red-hot iron stuck up your butt to burn away what ails you, and the eye-watering art of trepanning, which involved drilling a hole into the skull. Add into the mix the general lack of soaps or disinfectants, and even the smallest of wounds could grow infected enough to kill you.

And it isn’t only the health risks that could prove hazardous. The culture clash would take its toll, too. Modern humans don’t tend to be fluent in medieval English, so communicating would likely be difficult. Today’s man, woman or child would also have a major lack of transferable skills. While some would easily transition to the labour-intensive job market of Medieval Europe, others (especially white-collar workers) would find their particular skill sets rendered pretty pointless. Being a whizz on Microsoft Word wouldn’t get you anywhere in your new surroundings… so, despite years of modern education, diplomas, degrees and doctorates, the majority of modern humans would seriously struggle to find a purpose – leading to a lack of wealth, a lack of housing and food, and therefore an even higher susceptibility to disease and death.

Head further back in time, and it only gets worse. Let’s say you were dropped somewhere between 50,000 BCE and 10,000 BCE – between the rise of behavioural modernity in humans and the beginnings of agriculture, respectively. Back then, humans were entirely reliant on their natural instincts and survival skills. There was no farming, no trade – just the wild, and the daily challenge to live within it. We’re talking back when humans really were hunter-gatherers, which meant they hunted for food and gathered for natural resources (and also food).

While this time period comes with many of the same problems as the Middle Ages – like a lack of medicine, a lack of necessary skills, and massive differences in culture – it also brings its own unique disadvantages.

Firstly, there are the obvious dangers that come with living in the wild. Humans are biologically able to survive in bleak or extreme conditions but, having adapted to the ease and safety of our modern lifestyles, most of us aren’t exactly highly trained in the great outdoors. Being both relentlessly exposed to the elements and constantly at risk of predators (and nature in general), we’d be thrown very far from our comfort zones. And we wouldn’t have long to wizen up. Could you catch and kill your own dinner? Could you determine whether water was safe to drink? Could you build a shelter strong and safe enough to sleep under? If you’re unsure on any of them, you’d probably be in trouble pretty quickly.

Speaking of dinner, we’d have to immediately and radically alter our diets, which could lead to sickness, and perhaps even malnourishment. Given that around 12% of the current world population is obese, it’s clear that we may not be ready, or able, to make such sweeping changes to what we eat. Plus, you can’t really outrun a predator – or move quick enough to catch your own prey – if you’re not fit.

We’d also miss our modern devices, now more than ever. We’d have to swap our climate-controlled houses – with things like air conditioning and central heating – for the flickering warmth of a fire (which we’d have to know how to make), or the grisly protection of an animal fur (which we’d have to know how to obtain). Even today, thousands die during heatwaves and cold snaps due to overexertion, dehydration, or hyperthermia. Now just imagine if everyone unavoidably lived outside, all of the time. It’s clear that most of us wouldn’t last very long.

Not many of us can boast 20/20 vision or perfect hearing, either. There are some studies to suggest that our senses have weakened over time, mostly because we don’t need to rely on them quite as much as we did. But, without glasses, hearing aids, or even caps and visors to shield from the sun, even our most fundamental skills could fall short of what’s required. There’s also our need for sleep – which has reportedly increased throughout history. Early hunter-gatherers spent much less time sleeping, partly because of the vulnerable position it placed them in. So, if we found ourselves suddenly switched back in time, we’d need to cut down on our Z’s. In general, a pre-agricultural existence required constant attention and alertness, but we’d struggle to achieve that.

Finally, there’s the case of our tiny brains to consider. Believe it or not, our brains are actually smaller than they were 30,000 years ago. Experts estimate that we as a species have lost about 150 cubic centimetres of brain, which is about the size of a tennis ball. While there’s no solid consensus as to why this has happened, there are some theories… and none of them offer much hope for our temporal relocation.

Some researchers suggest that the relative safety of modern life has allowed us to focus less and less on our survival instincts – resulting in a gradual reduction of brain size. Others argue that our brains have evolved to make us less primal and predatorial, which allows us to communicate more efficiently. So, our cerebrum getting smaller is all part of an evolutionary effort to streamline our thought processes, enabling us to efficiently work together, solve problems and build contemporary societies.

Regardless of the reason though, our modern-day, smaller brains would clearly be a massive disadvantage in a bygone world. If it isn’t our weakened senses or increased sleep cycles, it could be our comparatively passive natures that would get us into danger. The ‘kill or be killed’ mantra simply doesn’t resonate as strongly with most of us, anymore. So, if we were thrown into a world where it was much more relevant, we’d likely ‘be killed’ pretty quickly.

For all our apparent advances, if the 21st century human inexplicably awoke at various points throughout history, we’d likely be lucky to survive. Yes, we’d enjoy some advantages, like a strong immunity to some diseases, superior intelligence, and a willingness to adapt. But, the bad would outweigh the good. With all of our mod-cons, home comforts and computer technologies taken away, we’d struggle to feed, protect or medicate ourselves. And, because we’ve become so reliant on sanitary products, sources of energy and service industries just ‘being there’, most of us would realise how impractical our skills are when it comes to cold, hard survival.

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