How a handful of prehistoric geniuses started mankind’s technological revolution



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Clovis spearheads. Credit: wikimedia, CC BY-SA

During the first millions of years of human evolution, technologies evolved slowly. About three million years ago, our ancestors made chippings of dressed stone and rough choppers. Axes two million years ago. A million years ago, primitive humans sometimes used fire, but with difficulty. Then, 500,000 years ago, technological change accelerated, with the appearance of spearheads, fire-making, axes, pearls and bows.

This technological revolution was not the work of a single people. Innovations appeared in different groups – modern Homo sapiens, primitive sapiens, perhaps even Neanderthals – and then spread. Many key inventions were unique: unique. Instead of being invented by different people independently, they were discovered once and then shared. It implies that a few smart people have created many of the great inventions in history.

And not all of them were modern humans.

The tip of the spear

500,000 years ago in southern Africa, primitive Homo sapiens first tied stone blades to wooden spears, creating the point of the spear. Spearheads were revolutionary as weapons and as the first “composite tools” —combining components.

The spear tip spread, appearing 300,000 years ago in East Africa and the Middle East, then 250,000 years ago in Europe, wielded by the Neanderthals. This model suggests that the spearhead was gradually passed from one people to another, from Africa to Europe.

Catch fire

400,000 years ago, traces of fire, including charcoal and burnt bones, became common in Europe, the Middle East and Africa. It happened around the same time everywhere – rather than haphazardly in disconnected places – suggesting invention and then spreading rapidly. The utility of fire is obvious, and maintaining a fire is easy. However, starting a fire is more difficult and was probably the main obstacle. If so, the widespread use of fire likely marked the invention of the fire drill – a stick turned against another piece of wood to create friction, a tool still used by hunter-gatherers today. .

Oddly enough, the oldest evidence of regular use of fire comes from Europe, then inhabited by Neanderthals. Did the Neanderthals first master fire? Why not? Their brains were as big as ours; they used them for something, and living through the glacial winters of Europe, Neanderthals needed fire more than African Homo sapiens.

How a handful of prehistoric geniuses started mankind's technological revolution

Spearhead of the Serengeti. Credit: Nick Longrich, author provided

The axe

270,000 years ago in Central Africa, hand axes began to disappear, replaced by a new technology, the stone ax. The central axes looked like small and large hand axes, but were radically different tools. Microscopic scratches show that the axes were tied to wooden handles, making them a true ax with a handle. Axes quickly spread across Africa and then were carried by modern humans to the Arabian Peninsula, Australia, and ultimately Europe.


The oldest pearls are 140,000 years old and come from Morocco. They were made by piercing snail shells and then threading them onto a rope. At the time, archaic Homo sapiens inhabited North Africa, so their creators were not modern humans.

Pearls then appeared in Europe 115,000 to 120,000 years ago, worn by Neanderthals, and were eventually adopted by modern humans in southern Africa 70,000 years ago.

How a handful of prehistoric geniuses started mankind's technological revolution

Hadzabe fire drill. Credit: Nick Longrich, author provided

Bow and arrows

The oldest arrowheads appeared in southern Africa over 70,000 years ago, probably made by the ancestors of the Bushmen, who have lived there for 200,000 years. The arcs then spread to modern humans in East Africa, South Asia 48,000 years ago, Europe 40,000 years ago, and finally Alaska and the Americas 12,000 years ago. .

Neanderthals never adopted bows, but the timing of the bow’s spread means that it was likely used by Homo sapiens against them.

Trading technology

It’s not impossible that people invented similar technologies in different parts of the world at around the same time, and in some cases it must have happened. But the simplest explanation for the archaeological data we have is that instead of reinventing technologies, a lot of advancements were made just once and then spread widely. After all, assuming fewer innovations requires fewer assumptions.

But how did the technology spread? It is unlikely that prehistoric individuals walked long distances through lands held by hostile tribes (although there has clearly been major migrations over generations), so African humans probably did not encounter Neanderthals in Europe, or vice versa. Instead, technology and ideas spread – transferred from one band and tribe to another, and to another, in a vast chain connecting modern Homo sapiens in southern Africa to humans. archaic in North and East Africa and Neanderthals in Europe.

How a handful of prehistoric geniuses started mankind's technological revolution

Kondoa pearls. Credit: Nick Longrich, author provided

The conflicts could have led to exchanges, with people stealing or capturing tools and weapons. The Native Americans, for example, obtained horses by capturing them from the Spaniards. But it’s likely that people are often content to trade tech just because it was safer and easier. Even today, modern, cash-strapped hunter-gatherers continue to trade: Hadzabe hunters exchange honey for iron arrowheads made by neighboring tribes, for example.

Archeology shows that this trade is ancient. 30,000-year-old South African ostrich eggshell beads have been found more than 300 kilometers from where they were made. 200,000 to 300,000 years ago, archaic East African Homo sapiens used obsidian tools from 50 to 150 kilometers away, farther than modern hunter-gatherers usually travel.

Finally, we must not neglect human generosity, some exchanges perhaps only being gifts. Human history and prehistory were undoubtedly fraught with conflict, but then as now, tribes may have had peaceful interactions – treaties, marriages, friendships – and may simply have offered technology to their neighbors. .

Geniuses of the Stone Age

The pattern observed here – single origin, then diffusion of innovations – has another remarkable implication. Progress may have been heavily dependent on isolated individuals, rather than being the inevitable result of larger cultural forces.

Consider the arch. He is so useful that his invention seems both obvious and inevitable. But if it was really obvious, we would see arcs invented over and over in different parts of the world. But the Amerindians did not invent the bow, nor the Australian Aborigines, nor the peoples of Europe and Asia.

  • How a handful of prehistoric geniuses started mankind's technological revolution

    Archer Hadzabe. Credit: Nick Longrich, author provided

  • How a handful of prehistoric geniuses started mankind's technological revolution

    Diffusion of the bow and arrow outside Africa. Credit: Wikipedia (map) & Nick Longrich

Instead, it looks like a smart Bushman invented the bow, and then everyone embraces it. The invention of this hunter would change the course of human history for thousands of years to come, determining the fate of peoples and empires.

The prehistoric model resembles what we have seen in historical times. Some innovations have been developed repeatedly – agriculture, civilization, calendars, pyramids, mathematics, writing and beer were independently invented in the world, for example. Some inventions may be obvious enough to emerge predictably in response to people’s needs.

But many key innovations – the wheel, the gunpowder, the printing press, the calipers, the compass – seem to have been invented only once, before becoming widespread.

Likewise, a handful of individuals – Steve Jobs, Thomas Edison, Nikola Tesla, the Wright brothers, James Watt, Archimedes – have played a disproportionate role in driving our technological evolution, implying that highly creative individuals have had a huge impact.

This suggests that the chances of finding a major technological innovation are low. Perhaps it was not inevitable that fire, spear points, axes, pearls or bows would be discovered when they were.

Then, like today, one person could literally change the course of history with nothing more than an idea.

Outside Africa: the path of Homo sapiens

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