A hundred thousand years ago, a mother rubbed a willow stick against a piece of aspen root, moving it between her palms, waiting to see the familiar soft glow as the heat started to light up the wood. From inside the cave, she could hear her child wake up and start crying. She wanted to take the child in her arms, but if she put her work down now, she would have to start all over again.
She thought: just a little more, and I will come to you, I will nurse you, and when you open and close your mouth, it will make a sound: ma, ma, ma. Without letting go of the spindle, she spoke:
Just a mimic of that familiar sound, yet much more. It meant: You are safe, I care for you, I’ll be there for you. Every child needs to hear that But what she gave her child was more than reassurance.
She gave her child a word.
A simple sound that changed humanity forever. With words, humans could now let others know their thoughts, even when thinking of something they could not directly point at. They could share their ideas or make others imagine things that are yet to happen, and even things that are not real.
It took a long time for the first word to be developed into a language. The crying child grew up, and gave the word to their child. Maybe it was that child that added another word and gave those to their children, who took them and used them until the words changed and grew richer and more meaningful than their great grandmother could have ever imagined.
A hundred thousand years later, quite recently, words were passed on to another child. Having heard voices muffled by the walls of the womb, the child would recognize its native tongue from the day it was born. From its first day, it would practice, until it, too, learned to speak.
That child was you.
Words are humanity’s gift to you.
Five thousand years ago, after a successful harvest, an elderly father decided to trade some of the family’s wheat for goats. A woman from the near-by village was willing to take the grain right away, but could only pay when her goats would give birth to new kids in the spring. To mark what she owed him, he did as was custom: he cut a piece of reed and drew the shape of the animal on soft clay. After they negotiated the price and agreed on four goats, he also drew four little dots, signifying the number. Afterwards, both of them pressed their nails into the clay. This sealed the contract.
When she left, the father grew worried. He remembered every single one of his trades and contracts, what had been agreed on and when the payment was due. But what if he would pass away during winter or start losing his memory like his mother? Would his eldest know who had promised those four goats?
If the woman had been named the River or the Swallow, he could have drawn something to mark not only what had been traded on, but also the traders. But her name had no other meaning than herself: it sounded a bit like the Sesame, but ended like the Bow.
He drew the shape of a sesame leaf and a bow and a woman, and told his eldest how to interpret this drawing, to read only the sounds, and for this one time to forget the meaning of sesames and bows.
A symbol of sounds: a letter. A new gift for humanity.
The next spring, after his funeral, the eldest child taught the secret to all their siblings. Some of them had a hard time grasping the concept, but they all enjoyed the admiration of outsiders, who would not understand how anyone could hear words that had not been said aloud, and even know the thoughts of the dead.
Five thousand years later, the gift was passed on to another child. It took you years to fully acquire it, but people around you knew how important it was. With their support, you learned to read.
I know you did, because it’s with this gift that I’m able to talk to you right now, even if we are separated by space and time. And yet: even today, this gift is not within the reach of everyone.
Four thousand years ago, a king sat in his hall built of stone, in the middle of a city, the greatest city he had ever heard of – there were many humans and cities and kings this king would never know about.
The king was tired. He thought he had been chosen by gods to rule over mortals, and that it was his divine duty to settle disputes about trades and contracts. He had to come up with a fair resolution if planted grain did not grow on a rented field, or if a slave that had already been sold turned out to be sick.
Giving his judgement was even more difficult when there was no contract to begin with. Nobody had pressed their fingernails into clay promising not to kill and not to steal, agreeing that a son must not hit his father and that a man who harms another man in a mutual fight must pay for the treatment of his opponents wounds.
So the king ordered his scribes to write a contract that would be binding to all humans, to engrave it in stone, so that his words would last forever. Thousands of years later, we can read why he gave that order:
“To bring about the rule of righteousness in the land.”
“So that the strong should not harm the weak.”
“To further the well-being of mankind.”
An all-binding, all-protecting contract: a law.
Today, the king is dead. The realm is gone, the city buried in sand. The law he dictated no longer seems fair to us.
But the gift of law remains. You too have been protected by an invisible contract for longer than you can recall, for this protection started before you had the ability to form conscious memories.
You were so small, so weak. And yet, a decision was made thousands of years before you were born: the strong shall not harm you.
Are you unharmed? I hope you are, I fear you are not. I’m glad you are at least alive to read these words. Not everyone shares even this much protection.
The work to further the well-being of mankind is far from over.
A little more than two thousand years ago, a young man sat in the park, engaged in discussion with his friends. In the cooling shadow of olive trees, he suddenly made an observation.
Even the wisest king is not wise enough to always know what is right and reasonable. Yet, the king's decisions affect all citizens: the wealth of the city is the wealth of the citizens, and the laws of the city apply to everyone who lives there.
Thus, the citizens should be the ones who make the laws.
His friends deemed the idea unrealistic. But there were others who believed in his idea and were willing to even stand against the king for it. When the city was declared a democracy, the young man was already an old man.
That observation was his gift to those who came after him.
But the city of that young man was never ruled by everyone who lived there. The power belonged to the citizens, but those citizens were free and male. By today, the gift has changed so much we would not call their city a democracy anymore.
Shaping the gifts of humanity is an important gift in itself. Every gift starts small, from one idea, from one action. But the gift must be shared and modified by many before it reaches its full purpose.
Seven hundred years ago, there lived a king who promised to free every slave who would set foot in his country. And yet, mere two hundred years ago, almost all nations deemed slavery acceptable. Many of those who fought for its abolition died before they saw the products of their work. They did not know if they would ever succeed, and some never found out they did.
Those who worked for women’s right to vote celebrated their first victories over a hundred years ago. It is not even for a decade that women can vote in every country that has elections.
The gifts of humanity were never meant to be taken as they are and passed on unaltered. The first language is long forgotten, but we have new languages and new words and concepts beyond their imagination. And what we call democracy today, what we call equality, was beyond imagination for those who first said: laws must be made by the people.
Can we imagine what democracy will look like in two thousand years time?
After two devastating wars, the Earth’s nations gathered together to declare what it means to be human:
“All human beings are born free and equal in dignity and rights. They are endowed with reason and conscience and should act towards one another in a spirit of brotherhood.”
You are a human being, and this is your birthright. But it did not become yours by coincidence. It was built on the work of those who came before you, just like everything else you have.
Are you reading this on paper? An ordinary object, ready to be tossed to recycling when no longer needed. Creating it required thousands of years of development: not just how to print letters and design fonts, but also how to turn sounds into symbols and back; not just how to dry and bleach pulp made of cellulose fibers, but also how to build an axe that can cut trees.
If you would start from the cave where the first word of humanity was spoken, how long would it take for you to produce a sheet of paper with printed letters on it? Would your lifetime be enough?
But you can never start from nothing, since without the gifts of language and reading and using tools you would not be you. Humanity has already changed you forever, modified your brain in ways that can never be undone. Can you look at a word and not read it? Can you form a conscious thought and not put it into words or images?
Human beings are born free and equal. But the gifts we are given make us human.
You are alive, and that puts you in a very special position. Only those who live can create and develop and spread humanity’s gifts. Since you live right now, your ability to do so is remarkably good. You have a significant advantage over anyone who lived before you: none of them had all the gifts you have.
You came after those who are now dead, and others will come after you. For them, you will be one of the ancients. It is the living who decide the history of the future. What will be given to those who are yet to come; what will make them human.
I don’t know what kind of a gift you would like to give them: that depends on you. I hope it's something that keeps them safe and makes them happy. I hope it spreads out and becomes so normal that people will stop paying attention to it, because after a while, they cannot imagine life without it.
We live surrounded by miracles we don’t even notice. May your gift to the people of the future be something we think is impossible, something they’ll take for granted.