Monica L. Smith


On her book A Prehistory of Ordinary People

Cover Interview of January 30, 2011

In a nutshell

Multitasking isn’t something new to the twenty-first century: our species was designed for it!  On the cognitive, linguistic, and social level, humans are highly adapted to doing and thinking about many things at once.

Over a million years ago, our first tool-using ancestors learned to manage their time to address many different types of needs simultaneously, from gathering raw material and fighting off predators to investing in sophisticated communication in the form of language and gestures.

The skills exhibited by our earliest multitasking ancestors eventually made it possible for humans to adapt to many different conditions as they migrated throughout the world.  Many cultures subsequently developed elaborate rituals, increased their resource base through the domestication of plants and animals, and gathered together for the construction of monuments.

We have inherited those talents today—that is how we can live in cities and multitask our way through our daily lives.

But multitasking isn’t just about doing many things at once.  It’s also the cognitive ability to put down a piece of work and then pick it up again where you left off.

During the interval of not working on something, however, you may have acquired new information that affects how you complete the task.  Our species evolved to be uniquely capable of interacting with the world through multiple stops and starts while interweaving new information and techniques for creative purposes.

Looking at the way in which humans have interacted with food, goods, and work over the long span of the past million years, we see how the incremental accumulation of many individuals’ thoughts and activities provided the foundation for larger and larger social groups.  Leaders were people who added onto the daily multitasking of individuals, getting their followers to put a little extra work onto their daily routines in order to create monuments and civic architecture.