Who Ate the First Oyster?

by Cody Cassidy

“Those two words – ‘genius’ and ‘prehistoric’ – are not often put together thanks to the stereotypes of cartoons, early caricatures, and the temptation to equate tools and technology with intelligence. Though ‘prehistoric’ is is supposed to refer only to those who lived before writing, its first listed synonym is ‘primitive’ and the implications are clear: The people who lived ‘before the dawn of history’ were illiterate savages. Morons. Brutes who lived in dark caves, munching on mammoth burgers between grunts.

But like most stereotypes, this one collapses under even the briefest interrogation. The so-called cavemen – who for the most part didn’t even live in caves – required a far wider knowledge base than those of us living in the era of mass food production and job specialization. Their survival depended upon an encyclopedic understanding of their environment. They each had to find, gather, hunt, kill, and craft virtually everything they ate, lived in, or used. They had to know which plants killed you, which ones saved you, which ones grew in what seasons and where…It feels controversial, or even speculative, to assert that geniuses lived in prehistoric times. It shouldn’t be.”

Ratings & Reviews

Book Grade: A

Who Ate the First Oyster? has a goofy title, but is a serious book that highlights ages-old inventions that we now take for granted. There are no characters – indeed the names given are all granted by the author based upon geography, era, climate, and folklore – but this book is laden with facts and has stories that are memorable and meaningful.

Stories like that of the inventor of soap are compelling and totally fascinating. Cassidy dives into details about how it might have been created, how it likely was (or wasn’t) adopted early on, and how it has impacted society to the present day.

I loved how this book can be picked up at any point – you don’t need to read through the whole book to appreciate some of the historical insights. It is an easy book to get lost in and as a lover of history, I loved learning little tidbits that I had never known before.

Movie Rating: PG

As historical nonfiction, there is little objectionable material in Who Ate the First Oyster? There is mention of death, disease, and some generally gross historical habits. This book isn’t dry like most history textbooks, but rather a fascinating book that doesn’t need to rely on gory details to lure readers in.

Would I Buy This for My Library: Yes

This is a clever book that will appeal to nonfiction fans and history buffs. It is an easy read with memorable details and I am excited to have this available for students who may want quick bites of history without having to read the whole book.

Summary:

Who Ate the First Oyster? The Extraordinary People Behind the Greatest Firsts in History is a fascinating look at the little things that people from the past have done to shape the modern world today. Organized in chronological order, Cassidy focuses on revolutionary inventions that we largely take for granted today: baby carriers, wheels, and soap, among others.

With a quick wit and easy-to-follow historical details, Cassidy makes this deep dive into the past entertaining and fun. He readily admits that names and genders of these geniuses of the past are unknown, but justifies the specifics of the inventors with archaeological facts.

For history buffs and curious minds, Who Ate the First Oyster? is a quick read that is informative, insightful, and totally brilliant. After reading this, I might not ever look at supposedly simple inventions the same way ever again.

Book Talk Questions:

  1. Why was the invention of the child sling so revolutionary? How does it set humans apart from other species?
  2. What was the first surgery? Why is this so surprising?
  3. What was the first wheel used for? Why was the adoption of the wheel so slow to take place?
  4. Why were animals not domesticated for so long? What evidence suggests that the process of domesticating horses was not easy?
  5. Why did it take so long for soap to be invented? Why did it also take a long time for others to adopt it? How did doctors react when soap slowly began to be understood?
  6. Which invention do you think was the most revolutionary? Why?

A Perfect Read for Fans Of…

  • And Then You’re Dead by Cody Cassidy & Paul Doherty
  • A History of the World in Six Glasses by Tom Standage
  • An Edible History of Humanity by Tom Standage

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