For the primary few million years of human evolution, applied sciences modified slowly. Some three million years in the past, our ancestors had been making chipped stone flakes and crude choppers. Two million years in the past, hand-axes. One million years in the past, primitive people typically used hearth, however with issue. Then, 500,000 years in the past, technological change accelerated, as spearpoints, firemaking, axes, beads and bows appeared.
This technological revolution wasn’t the work of 1 individuals. Improvements arose in several teams – trendy Homo sapiens, primitive sapiens, presumably even Neanderthals – after which unfold. Many key innovations had been distinctive: one-offs. As an alternative of being invented by totally different individuals independently, they had been found as soon as, then shared. That suggests just a few intelligent individuals created lots of historical past’s massive innovations.
And never all of them had been trendy people.
The tip of the spear
500,000 years in the past in southern Africa, primitive Homo sapiens first sure stone blades to wood spears, creating the spearpoint. Spearpoints had been revolutionary as weaponry, and because the first “composite instruments” – combining parts.
The spearpoint unfold, showing 300,000 years in the past in East Africa and the Mideast, then 250,000 years in the past in Europe, wielded by Neanderthals. That sample suggests the spearpoint was progressively handed on from one individuals to a different, all the best way from Africa to Europe.
400,000 years in the past hints of fireside, together with charcoal and burnt bones, grew to become frequent in Europe, the Mideast and Africa. It occurred roughly the identical time all over the place – moderately than randomly in disconnected locations – suggesting invention, then fast unfold. Fireplace’s utility is clear, and maintaining a hearth going is simple. Beginning a hearth is tougher, nonetheless, and was in all probability the principle barrier. If that’s the case, widespread use of fireside probably marked the invention of the fire-drill – a stick spun in opposition to one other piece of wooden to create friction, a software nonetheless used at present by hunter-gatherers.
Curiously, the oldest proof for normal hearth use comes from Europe – then inhabited by Neanderthals. Did Neanderthals grasp hearth first? Why not? Their brains had been as massive as ours; they used them for one thing, and residing by means of Europe’s ice-age winters, Neanderthals wanted hearth greater than African Homo sapiens.
270,000 years in the past in central Africa, hand-axes started to vanish, changed by a brand new know-how, the core-axe. Core-axes seemed like small, fats hand-axes, however had been radically totally different instruments. Microscopic scratches present core-axes had been sure to wood handles – making a real, hafted axe. Axes rapidly unfold by means of Africa, then had been carried by trendy people into the Arabian peninsula, Australia, and in the end Europe.
The oldest beads are 140,000 years outdated, and are available from Morocco. They had been made by piercing snail shells, then stringing them on a wire. On the time, archaic Homo sapiens inhabited North Africa, so their makers weren’t trendy people.
Beads then appeared in Europe, 115,000-120,000 years in the past, worn by Neanderthals, and had been lastly adopted by trendy people in southern Africa 70,000 years in the past.
Bow and arrow
The oldest arrowheads appeared in southern Africa over 70,000 years in the past, probably made by the ancestors of the Bushmen, who’ve lived there for 200,000 years. Bows then unfold to trendy people in East Africa, to south Asia 48,000 years in the past, on to Europe 40,000 years in the past, and at last to Alaska and the Americas, 12,000 years in the past.
Neanderthals by no means adopted bows, however the timing of the bow’s unfold means it was probably utilized by Homo sapiens in opposition to them.
Buying and selling know-how
It is not unimaginable that individuals invented related applied sciences in several elements of the world at roughly the identical time, and in some circumstances, this should have occurred. However the easiest rationalization for the archaeological knowledge we’ve got is that as an alternative of reinventing applied sciences, many advances had been made simply as soon as, then unfold extensively. In any case, assuming fewer improvements requires fewer assumptions.
However how did know-how unfold? It is unlikely particular person prehistoric individuals travelled lengthy distances by means of lands held by hostile tribes (though there have been clearly main migrations over generations), so African people in all probability did not meet Neanderthals in Europe, or vice versa. As an alternative, know-how and concepts subtle – transferred from one band and tribe to the following, and the following, in an enormous chain linking trendy Homo sapiens in southern Africa to archaic people in North and East Africa, and Neanderthals in Europe.
Battle might have pushed trade, with individuals stealing or capturing instruments and weapons. Native People, for instance, bought horses by capturing them from the Spanish. However it’s probably that individuals usually simply traded applied sciences, just because it was safer and simpler. Even at present, trendy hunter-gatherers, who lack cash, nonetheless commerce – Hadzabe hunters trade honey for iron arrowheads made by neighbouring tribes, for instance.
Archaeology reveals such commerce is historical. Ostrich eggshell beads from South Africa, as much as 30,000 years outdated, have been discovered over 300 kilometres from the place they had been made. 200,000–300,000 years in the past, archaic Homo sapiens in East Africa used instruments from obsidian sourced from 50-150 kilometres away, additional than trendy hunter-gatherers sometimes journey.
Final, we should not overlook human generosity – some exchanges might merely have been presents. Human historical past and prehistory had been likely stuffed with battle, however then as now, tribes might have had peaceable interactions – treaties, marriages, friendships – and should merely have gifted know-how to their neighbours.
Stone Age geniuses
The sample seen right here – single origin, then unfold of improvements – has one other outstanding implication. Progress might have been extremely depending on single people, moderately than being the inevitable consequence of bigger cultural forces.
Take into account the bow. It is so helpful that its invention appears each apparent and inevitable. But when it actually was apparent, we would see bows invented repeatedly in several elements of the world. However Native People did not invent the bow – neither did Australian Aborigines, nor individuals in Europe and Asia.
As an alternative, it appears one intelligent Bushman invented the bow, after which everybody else adopted it. That hunter’s invention would change the course of human historical past for 1000’s of years to come back, figuring out the fates of peoples and empires.
The prehistoric sample resembles what we have seen in historic instances. Some improvements had been developed repeatedly – farming, civilisation, calendars, pyramids, arithmetic, writing, and beer had been invented independently around the globe, for instance. Sure innovations could also be apparent sufficient to emerge in a predictable vogue in response to individuals’s wants.
However many key improvements – the wheel, gunpowder, the printing press, stirrups, the compass – appear to have been invented simply as soon as, earlier than changing into widespread.
And likewise a handful of people – Steve Jobs, Thomas Edison, Nikola Tesla, the Wright Brothers, James Watt, Archimedes – performed outsized roles in driving our technological evolution, which means extremely artistic people had a huge effect.
That implies the percentages of hitting on a significant technological innovation are low. Maybe it wasn’t inevitable that fireplace, spearpoints, axes, beads or bows could be found after they had been.
Then, as now, one particular person might actually change the course of historical past, with nothing greater than an concept.
Nicholas R. Longrich, Senior Lecturer in Paleontology and Evolutionary Biology, College of Tub