The Short Story Of Mankind
by John Steinbeck

It was pretty draughty in the cave in the middle of the afternoon. There wasn't any fire, the last spark had gone out six months ago and the family wouldn't have any more fire until lightning struck another tree.

Joe came into the cave all scratched up and some hunks of hair torn out and he flopped down on the wet ground and bled. Old William was arguing away with Old Bert who was his brother and also his son, if you look at it one way. They were quarrelling mildly over a spoiled chunk of mammoth meat.

Old William said, "Why don't you give some to your mother?"

"Why?" asked Old Bert. "She's my wife, isn't she?"

And that finished that, so they both took after Joe.

"Where's Al?" one of them asked and the other said, "You forgot to roll the rock in front of the door."

Joe didn't even look up and the two old men agreed that kids were going to the devil. "I tell you it was different in my day," Old William said. "They had some respect for their elders or they got what for."

After a while Joe stopped bleeding and he caked some mud on his cuts. "Al's gone," he said.

Old Bert asked brightly, "Sabre tooth?"

"No, it's that new bunch that moved into the copse down the draw. They ate Al."

"Savages," said Old William. "Still live in trees. They aren't civilized. We don't hardly ever eat people."

Joe siad, "We got hardly anybody to eat except relatives and we're getting low on relatives."

"Those foreigners!" said Old Bert.

"Al and I dug a pit," said Joe. "We caught a horse and those tree people came along and ate our horse. When we complained, they ate Al."

"Well you go right out and get us one of them and we'll eat him," Old William said.

"Me and who else?" said Joe. "Last time it was warm there was twelve of us here. Now there's only four. Why, I saw my own sister Sally sitting up in a tree with a savage. Had my heart set on Sally, too, Pa," Joe went on uncertainly, because Old William was not only his father, but his uncle and his first and third cousins, and his brother-in-law. "Pa, why don't we join up with those tree people? They've got a net kind of thing - catch all sorts of animals. They eat better than we do."

"Son," said Old William, "they're foreigners, that's why. Thye live in trees. We can't associate with savages. How'd you like your sister to marry a savage?"

"She did!" said Joe. "We could have them come and live in our cave. Maybe they'd show us how to use that net thing."

"Never," said Old Bert. "We couldn't trust 'em. They might eat us in our sleep."

"If we didn't eat them first," said Joe. "I sure would like to have me a nice juicy piece of savage right now. I'm hungry."

"Next thing you know, youl'll be saying those tree people are as good as us," Old William said. "I never saw such a boy. Why, where'd be authority be?" Those foreigners would take over. We'd have to look up to 'em. They'd outnumbered us."

"I hate to tell you this, Pa," said Joe. "I've got a busted arm. I can't dig pits any more- neither can you. You're too old. Bert can't either. We've got to merge up with those tree people or we aren't gonna eat anything or anybody."

"Over my dead body," said Old William, and then he saw Joe's eyes on his skinny flank and he said, "Now, Joe, don't you go getting ideas about your pa."

Well, a long time ago before the tribe first moved out of the drippy cave, there was a man named Elmer. He piled up some rocks in a circle and laid a brush on top and took to living there. The elders killed Elmer right off. If anybosy could go off and live by himself , why, where would authority be? But pretty soon those elders moved into Elmer's house and then the other families made houses just like it. It was pretty nice with no water dripping in your face.

So, they made Elmer a god - used to swear by him. Said he was the moon.

Everything was going along fine when another tribe moved into the valley. They didn't have Elmer houses, though. They shacked up in skin tents. But you know, they had a funny kind of a gadget that shot little sticks... shot them a long way. They could just stand still and pick off a pig, ohh... fifty yards away - wouldn't have to run it down and maybe get a tusk in the groin.

The skin tribe shot so much game that naturally the Elmer elders said those savages had to be got rid of. They didn't know about Elmer - that's how ignorant they were. The old people sharpened a lot of sticks and fired the points and they said, "Now you young fellas go out and drive those skin people away. You can't fail because you've got Elmer on your side."

Now, it seems that a long time ago there was a skin man named Max. He thought up this stick shooter so they killed him,naturally, but afterwards they said he was the sun. So, it was a war between Elmer, the moon, and Max, the sun, but in the course of it a whole slew of young skin men and a whole slew of young Elmer men got killed. Then a forest fire broke out and drove the game away. Elmer people and skin people had to make for the hills all together. The elders of both tribes never would accept it. They complained until they died.

You can see from this that the world started going to pot right from the beginning. Things would be going along fine - law and order and all that and elders in charge - and then some smart aleck would invent something and spoil the the whole business - like the man Ralph who forgot to kill all the wild chickens he caught and had to build a hen house, or like the real trouble-maker Jojo au front du chien, who patted some seeds into the damp ground and invented farming. Of course, they tore Jojo's arms and legs off and rightly so because when people plant seeds, they can't go golly-wacking around the country enjoying themselves. When you've got a crop in, you stay with it and get the weeds out of it and harvest it. Furthermore, everything and everybody to take your crop away from you - weeds - bugs - birds - animals - men - A farmer spends all his time fighting something off. The elders can call on Elmer all they want, but that won't keep the neighbours from over the hill out of your corn crib.

Well, there was a strong boy named Rudolph, but called Bugsy. Bugsy would break his back wrestling but he wouldn't bring in an armload of wood. Bugsy just naturally liked to fight and he hated to work, so he said, "You men just plant your crops and don't worry. I'll take care of you. If anybody bothers you, I'll clobber 'em. You can give me a few chickens and a couple of hadfuls of grits for my trouble."

The elders blessed Bugsy and pretty soon they got him mixed up with Elmer. Bugsy went right along with them. He gathered a dozen strong boys and built a fort up on the hill to take care of those farmers and their crops. When you take care of something, pretty soon you own it.

Bugsy and his boys would stroll around picking over the crop of wheat and girls and when they'd worked over their own valley, they'd go rollicking over the hill to see what the neighbours had stored up or born. Then the strong boys from over the hill would come rollicking back and what they couldn't carry of they burned until pretty soon it was more dangerous to be protected than not to be. Bugsy took everything loose up to fort to protect it and vey little ever came back down. He figured his grandfather was Elmer now and that made him different from other people. How many people do you know that have the moon in their family?

By now the elders had confused protection with virtue because Bugsy passed out his surplus to the better people. The elders were pretty hard on anybosy who complained. They said it was a sin. Well, the farmers built a wall around the hill to sit in when the going go rough. Thye hated to see their crops burn up, but they hated worse to see themselves burn up and their wife Agnes and their daughter Clarinda.

About that time the whole system turned over. Instead of Bugsy protecting them, it was their duty to protect him. He said he got the idea from Elmer one full-moon night.

People spent a lot of time sitting behind the wall waiting for the smoke to clear and they began to fool around with willows from the river, making baskets. And it's natural for people to make more things than they need.

On the other side of the hill people were taking mud and patting it out. They they put it in the fire and you can boil water in it. It wasn't long before the basket people got to sneaking over the hill and coming back with pots. Bugsy tried to stop it and the elders were right with him. It took people away from the fields, exposed them to dangerous ideas. Why, pots got to be like money and money is worse than an idea. Bugsy himself said, "Make folks restless - why, it makes a man think he's as good as the ones that got it a couple of generations earlier" and how's that for being un-Elmer? The elders agreed with Bugsy, of course, but they coudn't stop it, so they all had to join it. Bugsy took half the pots they brought back and pretty soon he took over the willow concession so he got the whole thing.

About then some savages moved up on the hill and got to raiding the basket and pot trade. The only thing to do was for Bugsy, the basket, to marry the daughter of Willy, the pot, and when they all died off, Herman Pot-Basket pulled the whole business together and made a little state and that worked out fine.

Well, it went on from state to league and from league to nation. (A nation usually had some kind of natural boundary like an ocean or a mountain range or a river to keep it from spilling over.) It worked out fine until a bunch of jokers invented long-distance stuff like directed missles and atom bombs. It got too dangerous to have separate nations just as it had been to have separate families.

When people are finally faced with extinction, they have to do something about it. Now we've got the United Nations and elders are right in there fighting it the way they fought coming out of caves. But we don't have much choice about it. It isn't any goodness of heart and we may not want to go ahead but right from the cave time we've had to choose and so far we've never chosen extinction. It'd be kind of silly if we killed our selves off after all this time. If we do, we're stupider than the cave people and I don't think we are. I think we're just exactly as stupid and that's pretty bright in the long run.