Ancient gadgets and the myth of ever-increasing progress

31 Aug 2011

Early humans in Africa developed hand axes much earlier than had been thought, a new study has found—but the conclusions the researchers draw are a bit dubious.

Since humans left Africa after the development of relatively sophisticated Acheulian hand axes—and yet these hand axes haven’t been found along with the earliest humans in Europe or the near East—then the researchers argue it’s a mystery why they would have left behind some of the best tools available at the time. The headline on Science’s coverage asks “Why Did Early Humans Leave Africa Without the Latest Gadgets?

But this seems to assume that culture only develops in one direction: Things always get better and more complex. As time goes on, we have more and better stuff.

As Jared Diamond points out, though, in his book Collapse, many societies have fallen apart, losing technologies and social complexity they once had. One of his prime examples is the island of Tasmania, which people reached when the oceans were lower, and then became stranded when the waters rose. As he wrote on The Edge: “When [Tasmania] was first visited by Europeans in 1642, Tasmania was occupied by 4,000 hunter/gatherers related to mainland Australians, but with the simplest technology of any recent people on Earth.”

Did the Tasmanians’ ancestors leave home without the latest gadgets? Nope. It appears that the isolation of Tasmania and the small population there meant that the technologies the initial settlers had were gradually lost. By the time Europeans arrived, they had little left.

So what about the early humans who left Africa? It seems to me another way of explaining why these axes weren’t found with the earliest humans to make it out of Africa is that they lost the technologies they brought with them. I can imagine that traveling to a new continent and colonizing it may have been a tough job. Even if a large group set out to do this, perhaps only a small set of people survived.

There’s evidence that people who left Africa went through a “bottleneck”—in which a large group got whittled down to a small number before recovering and then spreading outward.

If so, then it seems to me that, at some point, the first people in the near East and Europe may have wound up like Tasmanians circa 1642: A small, bedraggled band that was squeaking by with tools that their ancestors back in Africa would have laughed at.

I’m sure the archaeologists who made the new findings on African axes would admit that another possible explanation of their findings would be that some of the first humans out of Africa did take these tools with them, but then lost the knowledge of how to make them, before those technologies were re-invented or re-introduced from later settlers from Africa.

But the fact that neither the researchers nor media coverage highlighted this possibility (although some coverage does mention this possibility, very briefly) seems indicative of how we usually think of development as being one way, with things always progressing, and how we don’t give much thought to the possibility of collapse.

I don’t mean to stretch the lesson too far, but it seems we suffer from the same problem when we think about our own situation today. We’ve gotten used to continual growth—of populations, of energy consumption, of raw material use—and it’s hard to conceive of it all falling apart. Or, rather, it’s easy—there are all sorts of apocalyptic novels out there—but most of us find it hard to take these scenarios seriously.


books I've read on failure & grace

The World Without Us
The Last Oil Shock: A Survival Guide to the Imminent Extinction of Petroleum Man
A Paradise Built in Hell: The Extraordinary Communities That Arise in Disaster
Hell and High Water: Global Warming--the Solution and the Politics--and What We Should Do
The Worst Hard Time: The Untold Story of Those Who Survived the Great American Dust Bowl
The Tipping Point
Three Cups of Tea: One Man's Mission to Promote Peace... One School at a Time
The Upside of Down: Catastrophe, Creativity and the Renewal of Civilization
Out of Poverty: What Works When Traditional Approaches Fail
The Little Ice Age: How Climate Made History, 1300-1850
Confessions of an Eco-Sinner: Tracking Down the Sources of My Stuff
Deep Economy: The Wealth of Communities and the Durable Future
The Geography of Bliss: One Grump's Search for the Happiest Places in the World

Mason's favorite books »