The Very First Tech?

“Technology” is a pretty broad category. It encompasses the practical application of knowledge to the fabrication of tools or methods for solving a problem. Picking up a rock and hammering a nail with it is not technology, because the rock has not been modified for a particlar purpose. If we had to guess, the first tech was probably a rock attached to a stick to create a hammer, or perhaps a flint shaped into an spearhead.

But these are very simple technical applications with only one or two steps in their production. How quickly did our ancient ancestors move into more complex tech?

It’s hard to say. We may have been using rudimentary tools a couple million years ago,  but we don’t appear to have been synthesizing other tools from those tools (hammers to make spear points) until maybe 300,000 years ago. These “complimentary tool sets” (needle and thread, hammer and flint, etc) are mostly binary: one item used on another. Even this was still a fairly simple application of tool-to-task. It wasn’t until the dawn of the bow and and arrow, no later than 64,000 years ago, that things got interesting.

A new study in the Cambridge Archaeological Journal is shedding some light on that process.  Miriam Haidle and Marlize Lombard identified the components and stages of fabrication of the early bow-and-arrow. By reconstructing the techniques, they learned that it took at least 10 different tools, 22 raw materials, 5 phases of production, and several semi-finished goods (adhesives and binding materials) to make a bow, and more steps to make the arrow. That’s really quite amazing when you think about it, because it indicates a very high level of planning and thought, and an ability to think ahead and think abstractly.

The point of the study was to determine the level of cognitive evolution of humans who were crafting projectile weapons, and the answer was: pretty dang high, actually. Oddly, in the abstract, the authors of the study make a distinction between the cognitive development required for a bow or an arrow, and the cognitive development needed for a bow-and-arrow. This seems to be a distinction without meaning, because you can’t have one without the other, but perhaps the full paper explains that. In any case, they see the development of this interdependent set of tools as a technological advance in human thought which indicates “cognitive and behavioural complexity and flexibility that is basic to human behaviour today.”

In short, the cognitive advances which allowed primitive man to make a bow and arrow are the same which allows modern man to make an iPod.

About Thomas L. McDonald

Thomas L. McDonald writes about technology, theology, history, games, and shiny things. Details of his rather uneventful life as a professional writer and magazine editor can be found in the About tab.

  • victor

    It’s really good to have this confirmed again. It always irks me when folks say that people today are smarter than we were 2,000, 4,000 — or even 64,000! — years ago. We’re no smarter today than we were back then, we’re just more efficient.

  • Thomas L. McDonald

    Agreed. The theory of the researchers is that the cognitive processes are the same, which means everything else is just elaboration.