What Is the Greatest Innovation in History?
You might answer that it's the 20th century leap into space. Or the 21st century cyber-net
that links the world to the palm of our hand. Perhaps you'd choose another inventive feat that changed the entire world. Whatever your answer, a fundamental question remains: What prior innovation allowed such novel ideas and the means for making them real?
The answer is surprising and lies in our evolutionary history. Anthropologists have searched human pre-history, before recorded language, for the kinds of innovations needed before contemporary feats were even a glimmer on humanity's distant horizon. What great innovation enabled our species' huge leap from abilities shared by other sentient animals to our present capacity for inventiveness?
Let's consider some highly valued evolutionary contenders for the honour. Some have suggested it was the invention of the first tools by paleolithic people. Tool use is highlighted as one of earliest accomplishments that distinguished humans from animals. Yet we've learned that other primates use tools as well, and perhaps even animals other than primates. So, scratch that one off the list.
Was it the harnessing of fire for warmth and cooking? Yes, these skills significantly altered human ways of living and affected subsequent evolution. But this is not the main innovation highlighted by most evolutionary scientists. So, scratch that one off too.
In fact, evolution is marked by a number of ground-breaking and mind-blowing discoveries that have set our species apart, for better or worse. Among them all, however, there is one that stands out as the "greatest" innovation of all, the one that enabled every great human accomplishment subsequent to it. Drumroll please.
The Answer Revealed in Art
The answer is: the invention of symbolic expression. The use of symbols is the root of representation, language and thought. It altered or accelerated our species' ability to think, use language, and invent other complex systems (writing, math, etc.). The use of symbols is considered the greatest single leap humans achieved in evolutionary history. And the innovators responsible for it are considered to have been humanity's first artists!
We don't know who these first artists were, but their work is evident deep in caves and in ancient carvings, figurines, and artifacts. Pigments have been found in sites dating back 300 millenia. The earliest prehistoric handprints ("selfies?") occur in cave art in Europe and Indonesia about 40,000 years ago.
Archaeological Evidence of Symbolic Thought
Archaeologists have found human and animal figurines dating back 265,000 years. Ornaments of personal expression (adornments, etched beads) date back at least 75,000 years. At Blombos Cave at the southern tip of Africa, shells and pattern-engraved pieces of ocher were found that are 100, 000 years old. Natural ocher in this region is still used for body ornament by today's inhabitants. Although an artistic sensibility seems present, this evidence isn't yet sufficient to claim symbolic thinking. Such evidence appears most clearly many millennia afterward.
The process of mentally representing objects (animals) or experience through the use of signs or symbols is the definition of symbolic thinking. Remarkable cave paintings are among the earliest clear uses of symbolic expression. They appear to combine representations of both reality and imaginings. These ancient depictions of animals and humans remain stunning today as both art and as testimony for the symbolic thinking ability of our Paleolithic ancestors.
bison /Altamira Cave, Spain (~19,000 years ago); lions,f Chauvet Cave, France (~30,000)
As well, apparent symbols found etched in rocks and caves (dots, lines, geometric forms whose
meaning is unknown) may have served as the earliest known graphic communication. Such markings may have evolved over millenia into writing systems, with one of the earliest systems shown below in the cuneiform tablet.
prehistoric symbols from El Castillo Cave, Spain (~ 40,000 years), Cuneiform Tablet (~5,000 years)
Other representations of symbolic thought include sculpted objects that may have served as fertility, worship, or shamanistic amulets, are also fascinating precursors to art today. The earliest undisputed image of a human form (shown below) is of a female torso (with emphasis on reproductive and nurturant function) about 35,000 years old. Such figures continued to be made for millennia.
The process of mentally representing objects (animals) or experience through the use of signs or symbols is the definition of symbolic thinking. The Willendorf Venus (dated ~ 24,000 years) serves as one of the major icons of art history. Another figure that seems part-human/part lion figure (dated 40,000 B.C.E.) may represent a shamanistic power merger. Such figures are small enough (the Willendorf is only 2.5 inches) for Paleolithic nomads to have carried them easily as worship or fertility icons. By 26,000 B.C.E we see a subtle modeling of facial features in the first known human portrait. Much modern art has been influenced by these prehistoric treasures. Given this archaeological panorama, humanity's first artists have been heralded as our world's greatest innovators.
Our Prehistoric Connection
Seeing such ancient treasures up close and personal is an incredible experience. I've seen the actual caves (then still open) in Spain and France as well as sites in Turkey that display some of the world's oldest art treasures. They are unforgettable and undiminished in their impact. It's an awesome experience, even if done via illustrated books or cinema. Werner Herzog's 3D documentary film, Cave of Forgotten Dreams, (2011), is worth a visit. It walks us down through the magnificent Chauvet cave in southern France. We proceed slowly through the cave chambers, with limited battery lighting, as a spelunker might, surprised by the incredible sights of painted horses, lions and rhinoceroses that surge upon thE changing rock formations... and that have been there at least 30,000 years.
It's exciting to be in the presence of prehistoric art, however one can get to see and experience it. It suggests, for me, a human connection to what feels like an eternal present. It's a humbling and very visceral experience that links us to our human past and perhaps also to our future. It's an awesome thought that art can both represent our world and may help create new ones
Oldest undisputed image of a human, 35,000 years old, Willendorf Venus, Part-Human, Part-Lion (~ 40,000 years)