The Roots of Progress

The beginning

June 25, 2017

One thing I realized reading a book on the Industrial Revolution is that to understand what happened in it, I really need to understand the state of technology just before.

As primitive as the world of 1700 was by modern standards, humans had come a long way from the caves and had figured a lot of things out. At the dawn of the Industrial Revolution, we already had metalworking, pottery and glassblowing; coal mining and charcoal production; crop rotation; wind and water mills; paved roads; large ships and global navigation; wool, cotton and silk; intricate machinery and many kinds of tools—to name a few.

But if I’m going to understand those technological advances, then I’m going to need to learn what came before them—and the logical conclusion is that I need to go all the way back to prehistoric times.

So that’s what I’m doing. I’m going to begin at the beginning.

I started by reading Wikipedia (e.g., Prehistoric technology), and then a book on the subject, Before the Dawn. I have learned a few things.

First, human-like species—who used stone tools and so seem to have had some level of conceptual consciousness; colloquially, “cavemen”—have existed for about 2.5 million years. This is the Homo genus, although they were not all Homo sapiens (who didn’t appear until about 200,000 or maybe 300,000 years ago); it includes our ancestors and cousins, such as Homo erectus and the Neanderthals.

Stone tools were the first invention, dating back to the beginning of that 2.5-million year period, eventually including simple hand tools such as axes and spears. Maybe a million years later or more, other cavemen learned to control fire, and at some point began cooking their food. They lived in tribes, hunting and foraging together, possibly caring for their weak and infirm, and burying their dead. But other than stone tools, fire, and simple tribal behavior, they had almost nothing else, for most of that 2.5 million years—including at least 100,000 years or more of Homo sapiens existing.

Then, around 50,000 years ago (give or take), sapiens seems to have made a conceptual leap. Tool-making became more advanced, with more sophisticated and specialized stone tools, as well as tools made out of new materials, such as bone. They made boats and learned to fish. They established long-distance trade networks. And they developed art and religion.

This period, awkwardly known as the Upper Paleolithic, may have begun with the invention of language. The people of this era are known as “behaviorally modern humans”, in contrast with the “anatomically modern humans” that existed for 100,000+ years before.

It is unclear to me whether Homo sapiens were biologically capable of higher abstractions the whole time, and only actually developed them 50,000 years ago, or whether something changed biologically to make them capable of more abstract thought. It seems a good hypothesis, at least, that the other human species had some intermediate level of conceptual functioning, higher perhaps than any animal but maybe stuck at the level of development of a small child.

Behaviorally modern humans soon left Africa, where they evolved, conquering the world and wiping out the Neanderthals and other human species. They migrated (over thousands of years) throughout Europe and Asia, sailed on boats down to Australia, and crossed the Bering land bridge to the Americas (this was during an ice age, and sea levels were hundreds of feet lower than today, turning islands into continents and straits into isthmuses).

Civilization as we know it, however, was still tens of thousands of years coming. That would need to wait for settled societies, and agriculture—which didn’t happen until 10,000 to 15,000 years ago.

Just look at this (incredibly simplified) timeline:

What is striking to me is the exponential pace of progress. The gap from each milestone to the next is far greater than the time from that milestone until now.

Books in this post

Before the Dawn: Recovering the Lost History of Our Ancestors