Origin Stories

Big Histories of the Kings, Cavepeople, Beasts, and Battles Behind Today’s News

David Tollen’s new book tells the histories behind today’s great issues. It’s a “reader’s digest” for the vital ideas of anthropology and world history – with a user-friendly voice and a rare breadth of topics. Those topics include the origins and role of “races,” humanity’s 50,000-year management of the environment, the sources of Western power, the deaths of democracies, our species’ unusual war with microorganisms, and the myths and realities of conspiracies. Each of the fifteen chapters covers one topic — in just eight to eighteen pages.

Origin Stories is a work of “Big History,” offering a clearer view by telling stories spanning centuries, millennia, and even greater spans of time. Its genre includes works like Harari’s Sapiens and Diamond’s Guns, Germs and Steel. But it’s shorter and simpler than those and similar books, so it will serve a broader audience.

Table of Contents

Introduction: Fast Change, Big History, and Origin Stories


  1. Our Forager Story
  2. Human Species, Hybrids, and Races: How Different Are We and How Did We Get That Way?
  3. Ancient Environmental Engineering
  4. Assault of the Germs
  5. Lost Races: The Origins of Today’s Populations


  1. Spirits and Gods: The Origins of Today’s Religions
  2. Violence: Why We’ve Never Given Peace a Chance
  3. The History of Gender and Sexual Orientation
  4. Decline and Fall … and Rebirth: How Civilizations Have Died or Transformed
  5. The Roots of Euro-American Power: Before Nationalism and the Enlightenment

  1. Nationalism: The Teams We Play On … Lately
  2. The Enlightenment and the Great Powers It Created
  3. Races and Racism: Their Invention and Evolution
  4. Conspiracies in History: What the Past Tells Us About Conspiracy Theories
  5. Death of Democracy and Freedom: How We Lose Them
  6. Modern Civilization vs. the Alternatives: How We’re Doing So Far

A. Genetics
B. Evolution
C. Timeline of Big History


  • Hanging Gardens of Babylon from 16th century CE engraving by Martin Heemskerck, cropped – public domain and provided through World History Encyclopedia
  • Neanderthal woman, cropped, © Stiftung Neanderthal Museum
  • The Emperor Augustus Rebuking Cornelius Cinna for His Treachery, Etienne-Jean Delécluze, 1814, cropped (including to remove Cinna) — provided through VanGoYourself
  • Judith with the Head of Holofernes, Lucas Cranach the Elder (1520-1540)
  • Double helix, courtesy of Pixabay.com and iStock

Six Milestones

These six histories shape our world, yet they’re seldom told. This unique booklet recounts six pivotal events – ancient, medieval, and modern – in brief and simple language, accompanied by detailed maps and beautiful original illustrations.

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