Charting the Role of Prehistoric Genius in Technological Revolution
An English scientist has charted the spread of ancient survival technologies. His awe-inspiring maps reveal how individual ancient geniuses innovated in one place, and how these new ideas spread outwards like wildfire as part of a globally and ever-evolving technological revolution.
Authored by Plato around 375 BC, Republic famously says that “our need will be the real creator.” Over time this became the English proverb: “Necessity is the mother of invention.” Now, the new article by a British scientist has charted the invention locations, and outward flow of ancient technologies starting in deep-history.
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Human ancestors started emerging around seven million years ago. At this time in Africa, apelike creatures began walking on two legs. If we fast forward to around 2.5 million years ago, these early human ancestors spread from Africa into Europe and Asia. “Necessity” was peaking at this time and the day-to-day struggle to survive inspired some people to invent shaped, chipped stone flakes, and by two million years ago effective hand-axes were being lashed together with vine cordage.
Clovis points from the Rummells-Maske Site in Iowa, are part of an ongoing technical revolution. (Billwhittaker / CC BY-SA 3.0)
The Technological Revolution Was Fueled by Big Minds
The new article was published by Dr. Nicholas R. Longrich, a senior lecturer in paleontology and evolutionary biology at England’s University of Bath, on The Conversation. The researcher says that around a million years ago our forebears began mastering fire, and 500,000 years ago a surge of innovation saw the making of spear points, axes, beads and bows. Many of these inventions were “one-offs, unique, created independently then shared,” wrote Longrich, suggesting “a few clever people created many of history’s big inventions.”
Longrich points out “an underlying pattern” relating to single origin innovations, made by individual genius, and how they spread. The researcher says his work has “another remarkable implication” in that progress was “highly dependent on single individuals.” It was/is generally considered that technological leaps were a by-product of greater cultural, or community, forces.
Fire-drill technology was an important step in the ongoing technological revolution. (Gorodenkoff / Adobe Stock)
Charting the Unique Origins of Ancient Innovations
Paleontologists have dated charcoal and bones to around 400,000 years ago in Europe, the Mideast and Africa. The author says this points towards “invention, then rapid spread” of fire-drill technology, spinning sticks against dry wood and dust to create friction sparks.
Then, 100,000 years later, use of the spear point spread across East Africa and the Mideast, and 250,000 years ago in Europe by Neanderthals. According to Longrich, this means the technology “gradually passed on from one person to another, all the way from Africa to Europe.”
Around 270,000 years ago in central Africa new core-axes with wooden handles displaced traditional hand axes. The new research shows how this technology spread through Africa, the Arabian Peninsula, Europe and to Australia.
Furthermore, early humans living in what is today Morocco started drilling snail shell beads for wearing around 140,000 years ago, then, around 115,000 to 120,000 years ago, Neanderthals in Europe started wearing beads. It wasn’t until 70,000 years ago that modern humans in southern Africa started manufacturing beads.
Map showing the diffusion of bow and arrow technology around the world. (Nick Longrich)
The Arrow of Time
The researcher published a map charting the spread of the bow and arrow beginning with the oldest arrows ever discovered in Africa, over 70,000 years old. Bows were adopted by modern humans in East Africa and South Asia 48,000 years ago, and in Europe 40,000 years ago. The professor shows how the bow and arrow finally reached Alaska and the Americas around 12,000 years ago.
The author of the new study claims “it’s not impossible that people invented similar technologies in different parts of the world at roughly the same time, and in some cases, this must have happened.” He says it is clear that humans didn’t reinvent technologies; and that many “advances were made just once, then spread widely.”
Hadzabe Men with bow and arrow. (Idobi / CC BY-SA 3.0)
A Handful of Geniuses Was All It Took
How did these ancient technologies actually spread between distant people groups, in the real world? The article suggests tech was passed by diffusion, through conflicts, trading and gifting. The bow and arrow, for example, passed from one tribe to the next, sometimes captured at battle and sometimes gifted when tribal unions occurred. The author calls this diffusion, “a vast chain linking modern Homo sapiens in southern Africa to archaic humans in North and East Africa, and Neanderthals in Europe.”
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Longrich says his “single origin, then spread of innovations” pattern implies that rather than being the inevitable outcome of larger cultural forces, technological progress may have been “highly dependent on single individuals.” He thinks “one clever Bushman invented the bow,” and that the idea spread outwards across the planet.
Top image: Was the ever-evolving technological revolution dependent on single-minded genius? Source: Kovalenko I / Adobe Stock
By Ashley Cowie