How a handful of prehistoric geniuses launched humanity’s technological revolution

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 generally 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 folks. Improvements arose in numerous teams – trendy Homo sapiens, primitive sapiens, presumably even Neanderthals – after which unfold. Many key innovations had been distinctive: one-offs. As a substitute of being invented by completely different folks independently, they had been found as soon as, then shared. That means just a few intelligent folks created lots of historical past’s large 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 picket spears, creating the spearpoint. Spearpoints had been revolutionary as weaponry, and because the first “composite instruments” – combining parts.

Image of a Serengeti spearpoint.

Serengeti spearpoint.
Nick Longrich, Writer offered

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 regularly handed on from one folks to a different, all the way in which from Africa to Europe.

Catching hearth

400,000 years in the past hints of fireplace, together with charcoal and burnt bones, turned widespread in Europe, the Mideast and Africa. It occurred roughly the identical time in every single place – fairly than randomly in disconnected locations – suggesting invention, then fast unfold. Fireplace’s utility is clear, and protecting a hearth going is straightforward. Beginning a hearth is tougher, nevertheless, and was in all probability the primary barrier. If that’s the case, widespread use of fireplace doubtless 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 this time by hunter-gatherers.

Image of a Hadzabe fire drill.
Hadzabe hearth drill.
Nick Longrich, Writer offered

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 large as ours; they used them for one thing, and residing by Europe’s ice-age winters, Neanderthals wanted hearth greater than African Homo sapiens.

The axe

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 regarded like small, fats hand-axes, however had been radically completely different instruments. Microscopic scratches present core-axes had been sure to picket handles – making a real, hafted axe. Axes shortly unfold by Africa, then had been carried by trendy people into the Arabian peninsula, Australia, and finally Europe.


The oldest beads are 140,000 years previous, and are available from Morocco. They had been made by piercing snail shells, then stringing them on a twine. On the time, archaic Homo sapiens inhabited North Africa, so their makers weren’t trendy people.

Image Kondoa beads.
Kondoa beads.
Nick Longrich, Writer offered

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

Image of Hadzabe archer.
Hadzabe archer.
Nick Longrich, Writer offered

The oldest arrowheads appeared in southern Africa over 70,000 years in the past, doubtless 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.

Diffusion of Bow and Arrow out of Africa.
Wikipedia (map) & Nick Longrich

Neanderthals by no means adopted bows, however the timing of the bow’s unfold means it was doubtless utilized by Homo sapiens in opposition to them.

Buying and selling know-how

It’s not unimaginable that individuals invented comparable applied sciences in numerous components of the world at roughly the identical time, and in some instances, 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 broadly. In any case, assuming fewer improvements requires fewer assumptions.

However how did know-how unfold? It’s unlikely particular person prehistoric folks travelled lengthy distances by lands held by hostile tribes (though there have been clearly main migrations over generations), so African people in all probability didn’t meet Neanderthals in Europe, or vice versa. As a substitute, 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 may have pushed alternate, with folks stealing or capturing instruments and weapons. Native Individuals, for instance, received horses by capturing them from the Spanish. But it surely’s doubtless that individuals typically simply traded applied sciences, just because it was safer and simpler. Even at this time, trendy hunter-gatherers, who lack cash, nonetheless commerce – Hadzabe hunters alternate honey for iron arrowheads made by neighbouring tribes, for instance.

Archaeology exhibits such commerce is historical. Ostrich eggshell beads from South Africa, as much as 30,000 years previous, have been discovered over 300 kilometres from the place they had been made. 200,000300,000 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 shouldn’t overlook human generosity – some exchanges could merely have been presents. Human historical past and prehistory had been likely stuffed with battle, however then as now, tribes could have had peaceable interactions – treaties, marriages, friendships – and will 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 could have been extremely depending on single people, fairly than being the inevitable end result of bigger cultural forces.

Contemplate the bow. It’s so helpful that its invention appears each apparent and inevitable. But when it actually was apparent, we’d see bows invented repeatedly in numerous components of the world. However Native Individuals didn’t invent the bow – neither did Australian Aborigines, nor folks in Europe and Asia.

As a substitute, 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’ve seen in historic instances. Some improvements had been developed repeatedly – farming, civilisation, calendars, pyramids, arithmetic, writing, and beer had been invented independently all over the world, for instance. Sure innovations could also be apparent sufficient to emerge in a predictable vogue in response to folks’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.

Image of the first flight of the Wright Brothers.
Wright Brothers’ first flight.
wikipedia, CC BY-SA

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 means the chances of hitting on a serious technological innovation are low. Maybe it wasn’t inevitable that fireside, spearpoints, axes, beads or bows could be found once they had been.

Then, as now, one particular person may actually change the course of historical past, with nothing greater than an thought.

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