Human Origins–innovation & transmission

Contributed by Ryan Wheeler

As the fall term wraps up this week it’s a great time to reflect on some of the big ideas that we have discussed in the multidisciplinary science course Human Origins, taught here at the Peabody. In many of our extended period labs we have replicated ancient technologies like chipped stone tools, fire making, the atlatl or spear thrower, and more. As we try launching a spear with a simple lever—the atlatl, or use a bow drill to produce heat, smoke, and (hopefully) fire, we wonder about whom first thought of and tried these things. In other words, who was the first innovator who discovered a technique to make fire or launch a dart? Innovation is a popular word today. In fact, it’s easy to find blogs, news stories, and more that suggest this word is a bit overused. Some writers have tracked the history of the term innovation and its divergence from invention, often indicating that innovation has economic and market implications.

Student in Human Origins course tries to make fire with a bow drill.
Human Origins students experimented with fire making two ways–the bow drill and percussion. Notice a few wisps of smoke rising from the fire board.

One piece that seems to be missing from many of these stories about innovation is that it doesn’t amount to much without a means for transmission. The ability to put the innovation into production, to teach and train others, to demonstrate and sell the new idea may, in fact, be even more important than the act of discovery or invention. Now some ideas—like fire—might sell themselves, but there are different methods and techniques. In Human Origins we experimented with two very different approaches: friction—using a bow drill and fire board, and percussion—essentially banging two rocks together. There are, however, lots of opportunities for innovation here, large and small. Which rocks will work best? Which wood makes the best fire board? How does one direct a spark or ember into a nest of kindling?

Student in Human Origins course experiments with the percussion method of fire making by banging two rocks together.
Making fire by percussion–banging two rocks together–isn’t so easy! This Human Origins student uses flint and iron ore. Lots of sparks and smoke, but no fire. The earliest evidence for control of fire comes from a Homo erectus site in Africa and dates to 1 million years ago.

Archaeologists—intent on the exploration of culture change through time—often claim that thinking about innovation and transmission of new ideas falls well within their province. But others have famously weighed in as well. Perhaps best known is evolutionary biologist Richard Dawkins notion of the “meme,” introduced in his 1976 book The Selfish Gene. Dawkins styles the meme—“an idea, behavior, or style that spreads from person to person within a culture,” in evolutionary terms, subject to natural selection, mutation, and the like. This idea has been popular, but has its detractors. One problem in the application of evolution to culture is that there is always an explanation, but sometimes at the benefit of understanding. Stephen J. Gould and Richard Lewontin tackle this in their 1979 article “The Spandrels of San Marco and the Panglossian Paradigm,” another staple of Human Origins. Here Gould and Lewontin argue that some features—both natural and cultural—are merely spandrels, or by-products of other evolutionary processes. The interpretation of these spandrels as adaptive will lead to erroneous conclusions.

Student in Human Origins course throws a spear using an atlatl or spear thrower. The target in the distance has already been hit with other darts.
The earliest atlatls or spear throwers date to around 20,000 years ago in France. The simple lever allowed a hunter to throw a dart with more power and precision. In many places the atlatl was replaced by the bow and arrow, but in some areas both coexist.

So, does archaeology offer another approach to understanding innovation and transmission of ideas in our distant past? Archaeologist Michael Brian Schiffer would answer affirmatively. Schiffer helped define behavioral archaeology, which is predicated on the idea that people in the past made decisions in ways that parallel present-day decision making. This model points out that people often make choices that are seemingly contrary to common sense, but take into account a variety of factors including tradition, peer pressure, social and political alliances, and the like. The atlatl or spear thrower is a good example. As far as we know, the earliest atlatls were made in France some 20,000 years ago. Within a few millennia we find highly decorated examples. It’s unclear if there are separate centers of innovation, but atlatls are known over much of the world, including the Americas and in Australia. In many places the atlatl is replaced by the bow and arrow, which offered several distinct advantages, but in some places both technologies coexist, suggesting that processes of innovation, transmission, adoption, and discontinuation may have varied considerably. Overall, however, our attempts to replicate ancient technology gave us new respect for the first innovators and some insight into the complexities around transmission of new ideas.

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