How Prehistoric Geniuses Launched Humanity’s Technological Revolution

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

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. But the simplest explanation for the archaeological data we have is that instead of reinventing technologies, many advances were made just once, then spread widely. After all, assuming fewer innovations requires fewer assumptions.

But how did technology spread? It’s unlikely individual prehistoric people travelled long distances through lands held by hostile tribes (although there were obviously major migrations over generations), so African humans probably didn’t meet Neanderthals in Europe, or vice versa. Instead, technology and ideas diffused – transferred from one band and tribe to the next, and the next, in a vast chain linking modern Homo sapiens in southern Africa to archaic humans in North and East Africa, and Neanderthals in Europe.

Conflict could have driven exchange, with people stealing or capturing tools and weapons. Native Americans, for example, got horses by capturing them from the Spanish. But it’s likely that people often just traded technologies, simply because it was safer and easier. Even today, modern hunter-gatherers, who lack money, still trade – Hadzabe hunters exchange honey for iron arrowheads made by neighbouring tribes, for example.

Archaeology shows such trade is ancient. Ostrich eggshell beads from South Africa, up to 30,000 years old, have been found over 300 kilometres from where they were made. 200,000—300,000 years ago, archaic Homo sapiens in East Africa used tools from obsidian sourced from 50-150 kilometres away, further than modern hunter-gatherers typically travel.

Last, we shouldn’t overlook human generosity – some exchanges may simply have been gifts. Human history and prehistory were doubtless full of conflict, but then as now, tribes may have had peaceful interactions – treaties, marriages, friendships – and may simply have gifted technology to their neighbours.

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