People in general are stupid in all domains, even now
January 3, 2018 2:48 PM   Subscribe

Katja Grace asks why, if humans have been "behaviorally modern" for about 50,000 years, did it take so long to invent rope (28,000 years ago), the wheel (at least 4000 BC) and writing (3000 BC)? As it turns out, there are a lot of possible answers.
posted by not_the_water (125 comments total) 93 users marked this as a favorite
 
Julian Jaynes' theory that people had no sense of self in the past is arguably balderdash. People in stone age tribes living now certainly have a sense of self.

Rope is a good example, though, because it's really hard to make good rope, and bad rope may be worse than useless, as it probably breaks at the worst possible moment.
posted by Native in Exile at 2:55 PM on January 3 [7 favorites]


Good list, did not see "trade secret". If you've invented something that makes you a hero, like say rope to strangle your enemy, you don't explain it to anyone not in your family or tribe, and probably many times not even to family as a strong son wants to be the head of the family. There were probably many great inventions that only lasted a generation or less.
posted by sammyo at 3:00 PM on January 3 [32 favorites]


Oh, what a good list.

As a sub-case of a couple of her reasons, I consider "Understanding how to exploit the ecosystem was the best strategy until we had destroyed so much of it that we needed tools." I think we're still there, in fact.
posted by clew at 3:01 PM on January 3 [5 favorites]


The people of the Americas, despite being very sophisticated in a number of ways, seemingly never invented the wheel, or at least never adopted it for use. Isn't that weird?
posted by chrchr at 3:02 PM on January 3 [2 favorites]


"Understanding how to exploit the ecosystem was the best strategy until we had destroyed so much of it that we needed tools."

This is a classic false distinction between "artificial" and "natural". Tool use is not something apart from the environment, it's an aspect of exploiting an ecosystem. Other animals and even birds have been observed using tools in the wild. Humans were just better at it, and better at becoming better at it.
posted by Sangermaine at 3:07 PM on January 3 [16 favorites]


I'm amazed the wheel is so young. You'd imagine that if people figured out how to make rope, they'd have figured out making use of the concept of rolling rocks/log way before that.
posted by farlukar at 3:07 PM on January 3


the list kind of hints at this, but there's a more direct reason -

what is the problem people had to solve?

if ropes, wheels or writing wasn't a solution to that problem, then it's not going to be invented
posted by pyramid termite at 3:11 PM on January 3 [52 favorites]


One of the points, Reality has a surprising amount of detail, goes to an excellent essay in its own right.
posted by Homeboy Trouble at 3:18 PM on January 3 [13 favorites]


If you know to use strands of grass to tie knots, leather thongs and rope seem like straightforward extrapolations for stronger and more durable versions of the grass. Maybe it's actually knots which were invented 28 kya.

It's definitely pretty amazing that people invented dogs and horses before wheels, though.
posted by XMLicious at 3:19 PM on January 3 [2 favorites]


Following through to the Wikipedia page that lists the invention timeframe for rope has a citation to a journal article titled, "String theory: the tradition of spinning raw fibers dates back 28,000 years". So it may be twisting multiple fibers into a stronger and continuous composite piece, like a thread, rather than rope specifically which was invented at that point.
posted by XMLicious at 3:24 PM on January 3 [2 favorites]


The Blombos Cave pigment workshop dates back to 100,000 years ago—72 millennia before the invention of rope. I think we just used to have wildly different priorities.
posted by Iridic at 3:24 PM on January 3 [11 favorites]


I am not making a nature/artifice split; I am hypothesizing that the knowing part of techne is the most efficient way for humans to get food until we've exploited quite a lot of the ecosystem. No reason to develop boats, and then sonar, if all you need to know is which month the salmon will be thick enough in the river to walk across, and how to hang them in the sun.

Which is plenty hard to figure out, I should think.
posted by clew at 3:25 PM on January 3 [1 favorite]


It's definitely pretty amazing that people invented dogs and horses before wheels, though.

Not really. The wheel became important when it enabled pack animals to transport several times more load than they could on their back. Which requires pack animals to start with. This is also part of why you don't see wheels in the Americas - no real pack animals, no need for wheels.
posted by NoxAeternum at 3:27 PM on January 3 [22 favorites]


Watching rocks roll down hills isn't going to spark the idea of a wheel until you also conceive of the idea of an axle etc. The idea of a wheel only seems simple to us because we have a lot of context that helps us understand why it's even useful in the first place. I would imagine the idea of a wheel only has a chance of springing into existence once you have developed the idea of dragging stuff on sleds and the idea of using rotation for work through proto-axle-like mechanisms such as the stone-age spear throwers.

Anyhow, off to read the article...
posted by Hairy Lobster at 3:28 PM on January 3 [2 favorites]


Wheels aren't generally useful without roads. Roads not designed for wheels aren't useful without wheels. You need a lot of other civilization details before wheels are more than children's toy materials.

We probably had things that acted like rope - the notion of "tie these things together" comes pretty much automatically - but early rope is likely "a vine" or "a few vines twisted together." Rope intended to survive the destruction of whatever it was carrying/holding together was a much later idea.

Take a look at Primitive Technology: Sandals - nothing like that would survive a hundred years, let alone thousands. (The whole series is amazing.)
posted by ErisLordFreedom at 3:29 PM on January 3 [24 favorites]


I've always been charmed by the idea that aquaculture predates agriculture. Before there was farming of grains or fruit, there was the farming of oysters and clams.

And what about the alternate to the idea that it's hard to innovate when life is tough. Those middens full of shells - there's examples where thousands of years separate the bottom layer from the top. If your clan is living somewhere where the weather is okay and you've got potable water and a nice little oyster farm and some game and fruit nearby to add to your diet - why innovate? Life is good.
posted by thecjm at 3:34 PM on January 3 [11 favorites]


Pre-Columbian Americans had dogs and travois and minimal belongings. Wheels and roads weren't really necessary.
posted by elsietheeel at 3:37 PM on January 3 [3 favorites]


Backing up ErisLordFreedom's point: World’s oldest string found at French Neanderthal site
Perishable materials usually rot away, so the oldest string on record only dates back 30,000 years. But perforations in small stone and tooth artefacts from Neanderthal sites in France suggest the pieces were threaded on string and worn as pendants. “The wear patterns provide circumstantial evidence of early use of string, but the evidence is not definitive,” says Bruce Hardy at Kenyon College in Gambier, Ohio. Similar circumstantial evidence has been found in perforated shells.

Now, Hardy and his colleagues have found slender, 0.7-millimetre-long plant fibres that are twisted together near some stone artefacts at a site in south-east France that was occupied by Neanderthals 90,000 years ago. Such fibres are not twisted together in nature, says the team, suggesting that the Neanderthals were responsible.
posted by Iridic at 3:37 PM on January 3 [12 favorites]


That whole section about "people weren't as smart back then" is really bothering me. Innovation is a weird thing - Some ideas have been around for centuries or millennia before anyone found a good use for them. Some things are invented almost simultaneously by unconnected people and places. Others came surprisingly late in human history.

Think of how much invention came from the ancient Mesopotamians, Egyptians, Greeks and Romans - and not one of them figured out stirrups? Is Julian Jaynes going to say the peoples who invented chariots, built Pyramids, and created advanced mathematical and engineering concepts "lacked self awareness and the ability to have original thought" when it came to riding and controlling horses?
posted by thecjm at 3:42 PM on January 3 [27 favorites]


If your clan is living somewhere where the weather is okay and you've got potable water and a nice little oyster farm and some game and fruit nearby to add to your diet - why innovate? Life is good.

The people on the rich coast where I live now had so much spare time they innovated intellectual property law. Maybe it's in the water.

(Something that puzzles me about, say, the Emeryville Shellmound midden; it was really tall before it was abandoned, taller AFAICT than is easy to fling a shell. So people were... hauling their shellfish up the tall mound to eat and shuck them? The view is spectacular and it would have been a reasonably dry place to sit and work. Costs some energy, but why worry about that? it is by definition one of the fat seasons.)
posted by clew at 3:43 PM on January 3 [4 favorites]


s/abandoned/colonized
posted by clew at 3:45 PM on January 3 [2 favorites]


I'm noticing that Wikipedia also links to this as the earliest example of beads, sea shells with holes drilled in them in the equivalents of modern-day Algeria and Israel between 100 and 135 kya.

So, I guess they assume those were threaded on non-twisted fibers? Maybe tied on the end of tassles, or something more like a ring or earring rather than a bracelet or necklace? Or maybe longer leather thongs already existed but aren't counted into the thread/string/rope invention spectrum.
posted by XMLicious at 3:50 PM on January 3


Think of how much invention came from the ancient Mesopotamians, Egyptians, Greeks and Romans - and not one of them figured out stirrups? Is Julian Jaynes going to say the peoples who invented chariots, built Pyramids, and created advanced mathematical and engineering concepts "lacked self awareness and the ability to have original thought" when it came to riding and controlling horses?

The key point there is riding horses, which wasn't something you really see in their militaries - if your big use for horses is to pull something, then no, stirrups aren't that important to you. It's only when you actually put your warrior on horseback that they become important.
posted by NoxAeternum at 3:51 PM on January 3 [3 favorites]


A good list in general, but the "People fifty thousand years ago were not really behaviorally modern" section is annoying and borderline racist. It amounts to saying that hunter-gatherers are dumb, or too set in their ways. To put it mildly, this is absolutely not true of modern hunter-gatherers. Jared Diamond likes to talk about having helicopter pilots in New Guinea who grew up in Stone Age villages. There's nothing wrong with their heads.

Something missing from the list: the ideas and technology from 50,000 years ago may be lost. I don't mean that they actually had airships and wheels; I mean that they knew the uses of a thousand plants, they knew animal behavior and climate patterns in great detail; they had clever uses for reeds and stones and animal parts and obsidian that farmers didn't know.

I'd also add: stuff you'd immediately think of doing as a First Worlder nosing around a low-tech environment may be impractical or counter-productive. There's often a logic to details of lifestyle that takes a good deal more investigation to figure out, and which intrusive First Worlders can easily mess up.
posted by zompist at 3:52 PM on January 3 [46 favorites]


(That Primitive Technology YT that ErisLordFreedom linked to is super interesting. I've always had a fascination with older tech and making things myself. I'm currently waiting for half a deer hide to arrive via UPS [I'd have shot the deer and tanned the leather myself, but there's only so many things I can learn at once] so I can make some moccasins. And I'm also not going to make the beads myself.)
posted by elsietheeel at 3:52 PM on January 3 [1 favorite]


Also who needs rope when you have sinew?
posted by elsietheeel at 3:53 PM on January 3 [7 favorites]


like say rope to strangle your enemy

this is an awfully specific example, is there anything you need to get off your chest
posted by poffin boffin at 3:54 PM on January 3 [39 favorites]


1) I think there are some misunderstandings of Julian Jaynes's ideas going on around here... I think he claimed that the "bicameral mind" wasn't so much a property of stone age peoples as the early big agricultural states. That lacking a local presence of an alpha who'd make the decisions for the small tribe, a large state would have symbols like idols and mythical gods that would inspire people to carry out the states' instructions and values... It wouldn't be that individuals had no initiative but they'd often describe their own actions as being inspired by the voice of a god.

2) We're not giving ancient civilizations nearly enough credit here. All those monuments like the Pyramids are still so impressive that some ignorant people resort to ancient aliens to explain them. Looking all around us at religions and cults and conspiracy theorists we see that the "modern human mind" often really does need myth to tie things together and pays more attention to that than details of engineering. Or how much higher ratings do football games get compared with an engineering how-to show (which as far as I know doesn't exist...)? So not surprising if cavepeople were more concerned with feats of strength and didn't encourage engineering cavenerds.

So building pyramids, or Gobeckli Tepe takes engineering skills and directs them towards problems we might not prioritize today. Now most of us don't think we're going to live forever in the afterlife but only if we stock our tomb with the right stuff...

3) Wheels on luggage. This seems an obvious invention in retrospect but luggage was around for decades until someone did the obvious. So we moderns aren't always so modern ourselves.
posted by Schmucko at 3:59 PM on January 3 [25 favorites]


What did Edison say about invention -- 99% perspiration, 1% inspiration? Invention is the result of investment in observation, specialization and experimentation, and pre-modern humans were very poor. Tribes that lucked into an environment where they consistently needed less than all of their able-bodied members' labor simply to survive the next day would quite reasonably invest their surplus only in the next-farther-out link on the Maslovian hierarchy, and most of the time that surplus would quickly disappear.
posted by MattD at 4:00 PM on January 3




> “The ability of Neanderthals to manufacture string and cordage certainly does make the idea of Neanderthal seafaring more plausible,” he says.

*cue a boatload of Muppet Neanderthals singing ♫♩ In the Navy! ♪♬*
posted by XMLicious at 4:04 PM on January 3 [3 favorites]


Is Julian Jaynes going to say the peoples who invented chariots, built Pyramids, and created advanced mathematical and engineering concepts "lacked self awareness and the ability to have original thought" when it came to riding and controlling horses?

what julian jaynes had to say was much more complex than that - it's not that they lacked self-awareness or the ability to have original thought, it's that their brains were supposedly set up to have them believe that the original thoughts and what we might mediate as self awareness speaking were the voices of gods speaking to them from outside of themselves

the odd and intriguing thing is that hunter gatherers don't seem to actually have that kind of thought structure going on - is it a matter of people like us inventing such things and as part of some kind of cult programming (which there seems to be a lot of evidence for in our history) turning people into bicameral mindful subjects for their state religions? was this only done to some people? could it be done to people right now?

i think it's quite possible, but i also think jaynes mistook a limited phenomenon for something that was all pervasive - but his actual theory is a lot more complex than the blogger seems to be aware of
posted by pyramid termite at 4:09 PM on January 3 [8 favorites]


Something that puzzles me about, say, the Emeryville Shellmound midden; it was really tall before it was abandoned, taller AFAICT than is easy to fling a shell. So people were... hauling their shellfish up the tall mound to eat and shuck them?

A shellmound is significantly more than just a trash dump. From the Sacred Sites entry on the Emeryville shellmound:
The Emeryville Shellmound was a highly remarkable historic, cultural, and sacred site established by Ohlone Indians over centuries of use from 500 B.C. to approximately 1700 A.D. when the Spanish missionaries imprisoned the Ohlone. The Ohlone built their villages on the mound and buried their dead there, creating over the centuries a sixty-foot high mound with a diameter of about 350 feet; it was the largest of nearly 400 mounds ringing what is now called the San Francisco Bay. In addition to its large central cone, the mound had several smaller cones.
posted by Lexica at 4:14 PM on January 3 [5 favorites]


The important thing that Jaynes brought up was the idea that the pivotal invention was language (I.e. spoken language, not written). He says that this was invented about ten thousand years ago. This goes a long way towards explaining why all the other inventions happened so "rapidly" after that.
posted by metasluggo at 4:17 PM on January 3 [4 favorites]


Innovation is risky: if you try a new thing, you might die.

I'm having to nurse a concussion and this line really resonates with me.
posted by polymodus at 4:20 PM on January 3 [5 favorites]


Wheels aren't generally useful without roads. Roads not designed for wheels aren't useful without wheels.
The Maya had excellent roads but still no wheels.
posted by chrchr at 4:21 PM on January 3 [2 favorites]


People in general vastly underestimate how much energy and skill it takes to make many things we take for granted, or how much energy it takes to think.

Rope is actually a really good example of this and a technology level indicator.

To make good rope the old fashioned way it kind of helps to have some good rope to begin with, because you need to be able to tie off the spreader plates at either end of your rope house or rope run, and to help move and control the roving, spinning shuttle. (You're also going to need at least some rudimentary woodworking tools, the concepts of building structures under tension, spinning thread, twisting yarn and so on.

And without generation-spanning stores of knowledge and continuity and language whether written or oral histories and skill sharing, any new inventions are going to be lost and reinvented thousands and thousands of times.

There's no single point when the wheel was invented. It was used thousands and thousands of times before until somewhere it hit a critical mass of common lore and usefulness, sometimes on accident, sometimes on purpose. Is a handful of sand or grit technically a bunch of tiny wheels? What about logs and rollers? What about meat turning on a stick? What about winding string or cloth around a shaft?

I also love the example of boats and seafaring. It isn't as simple as navigation. When you see an old pre-industrial boat capable of even European/Mediterranean coastal trade you're basically looking at the historical equivalent of a very, very expensive spaceship. All of the rope and rigging, any block and tackle and all of that sail cloth was all very time consuming and costly to make, above and beyond the hull, caulking and boatworks. A single large two or three masted boat has to be hundreds of thousands of hours of work for hundreds or thousands of people even before you start counting the knowledge and previous boats.

Today in modern factories you could run enough synthetic rope and sail cloth for a whole lot of boats in a single day with a handful of workers and good machinery. Heck, you could even be laying up fiberglass boat hulls in a day with about 6 people. Some smaller sailboat makers turn out a few hulls a day with really small staffing counts.

It's utterly intense how productive we are today compared even to pre-industrial times 150ish years ago. If you had enough people on hand (and not that many, way less than 100) you could practically go from buckets of resin and spools of fiberglass stranding and polymer resin pellets to a complete Pacific ocean crossing boat hull, brand new rope and finished sails and rigging in something like 24-48 hours.


The Primitive Technology YT channel is also fascinating, and it's really interesting to see how far he's come, because he basically started with sticks and a branches lean-to and has been building up from there, including making coal, firing ceramics and making roof tiles, primitive machinery and work assistance and more.

And what he has that a true primitive wouldn't? Well, for starters, a lot more brain mass and calories, but also a whole lot of history and knowledge. Like everyone else, he's standing on the shoulders of giants.
posted by loquacious at 4:27 PM on January 3 [64 favorites]


Thanks; I'd tripped over my phrasing - I intended something closer to "roads not designed for wheels aren't useful for wheels." Which isn't universally true, but as a standard, roads designed for feet or livestock often don't have the necessary smoothness or compactness for wheels.

There are cases of ancient Peruvians having wheels - on toys for small children. (I don't have links; ran across that ages ago.) Everyone notices that logs roll; figuring out that a piece of log could roll doesn't take much thought; figuring out that it could be hooked to something is also fairly obvious. But applying that as a tool usable to save adult labor takes a lot more complicated arrangements.
posted by ErisLordFreedom at 4:29 PM on January 3 [1 favorite]


I know back before I knew about rope, I used to tie up my sister with dental floss. Before I knew how to construct a wagon, particularly the axel part, I used to drag my stuffed animals around on a blanket, much more like a sled. Before I was allowed to use the pepper grinder, I used to smash open popcorn kernels with heavy rocks and the driveway. I could make very pointy sticks and knew that rocks could be chipped and flaked as well as ground and sharpened. Perfecting snare traps in the woods made of brush in order to trap my sister if she stepped very obviously in a specific spot didn't occur til I was 10 or so, and I had learned a fair number of other simple machines by then - but man... my sister and I spent a lot of time trying to act wild in the woods.

Point being, that figuring out how to do stuff as a little savage was relatively easy when food was provided by my parents, I had access to pocket knives and some general oversight on safety, I had a mental model from a textbook, AND everything wasn't trying to kill me. I think I likely would have starved to death trying to figure out how that stuff was actually done on my own.
posted by Nanukthedog at 4:29 PM on January 3 [5 favorites]


He says that this was invented about ten thousand years ago

wait so what happened before 10,000 years ago, everyone just grunted at one another? gestures?

do NOT fucking tell me it was like those godawful caveman sex books
posted by poffin boffin at 4:30 PM on January 3 [5 favorites]


do NOT fucking tell me it was like those godawful caveman sex books

Venus of Willendorf: paleolithic playboy magazine.
posted by ErisLordFreedom at 4:33 PM on January 3 [1 favorite]


Wheels aren't generally useful without roads. Roads not designed for wheels aren't useful without wheels.

The Maya had excellent roads but still no wheels.


The Mesoamericans had wheeled toys. the answer is simply they had no draft animals, and no real need for wheels. Now, it would be fun to speculate what would have happened if the horse had survived the arrival of humankind, or even giant ground sloths or glyptodonts. Heck, the Santa Barbara Channel Islands had pony-sized mammoths...

But of the first questions to ask about inventions should be "What need would the invention meet, and is that need being met some other way?" If the need is already being met, then there's much less incentive to come up with some other idea that may not work well.


the odd and intriguing thing is that hunter gatherers don't seem to actually have that kind of thought structure going on - is it a matter of people like us inventing such things and as part of some kind of cult programming (which there seems to be a lot of evidence for in our history) turning people into bicameral mindful subjects for their state religions? was this only done to some people? could it be done to people right now?

i think it's quite possible, but i also think jaynes mistook a limited phenomenon for something that was all pervasive - but his actual theory is a lot more complex than the blogger seems to be aware of


Or you know, he simply concocted a mass of bullshit that doesn't correspond at all to reality. Which is a definite failure mode for imagination and invention.
posted by happyroach at 4:40 PM on January 3 [11 favorites]


on page 133 of his book, jaynes says that he thinks that nouns with modifiers probably came along from 25k bc to 15k bc, so that's a lot longer than 10k years

of course, i've been reading things that tell me that crows have 200 - 300 vocalizations they use with one another so this may be another case of guessing poorly ...
posted by pyramid termite at 4:46 PM on January 3 [2 favorites]


We can verify writing for about 10k years. Language is older - how much older is pretty damned hard to verify, without writing.
posted by ErisLordFreedom at 4:49 PM on January 3 [4 favorites]


People in stone age tribes living now certainly have a sense of self.

One absolutely cannot infer from modern people[1] living in stone age–like conditions to stone age people, in general. There are no stone-age people alive now, and there are no stone age tribes in existence now. People who live in such conditions now do so in circumstances and surrounding contexts vastly different from those in which people lived in the distant past.
posted by kenko at 4:50 PM on January 3 [10 favorites]


i honestly never gave the idea of the development of actual first time human speech a single moment of thought and now i am reading the origin of speech wiki article and i am, predictably, furious
posted by poffin boffin at 4:52 PM on January 3 [11 favorites]


I think it is important point is that he backpedaled on the genetic or physiological angle later. His valuable idea was the very late invention of speech. I think most anthropologists just vomit when they hear the words Julian Jaynes, but it sounds about right to me. Why else would the human world have stood still for literally millions of years before about 1200BC?
posted by metasluggo at 4:59 PM on January 3


it was the invention of agriculture - which was helped by the more stable climate of 9000 or 8000 bc up to now

i don't think humans had enough stability or predictability in their environment to make much progress before that time - as things got better, they started to innovate
posted by pyramid termite at 5:07 PM on January 3 [4 favorites]


Speaking of weirdly late inventions (like wheeled luggage), one example that's always stuck with me was the brace and bit drill. Prehistoric cultures had bow drills and by the time of the Romans, T-shaped hand augers were the state of the art. But, as far as anyone can tell, the brace and bit style drill wasn't invented until the 1400s.
posted by mhum at 5:08 PM on January 3 [6 favorites]


Why else would the human world have stood still for literally millions of years before about 1200BC?

The human world didn't have "millions" of years before then, unless you're stretching to two million. But it did have hundreds of thousands, and it wasn't all frozen in scavenger/hunter/gatherer tiny tribes.

It wasn't standing still. The remains of a 200,000 year old advanced civilization found in Africa ("ruins mostly consist of stone circles, most have been buried in the sand and are only observable by plane or satellites") - Start date for human civilization moved back 20,000 years or so ("the residents were carving bone tools, using pigments, making beads and even using poison 44,000 years ago") - First evidence of farming in Mideast 23,000 years ago.

White people's civilization may have started about 12k BC; we're latecomers.
posted by ErisLordFreedom at 5:09 PM on January 3 [3 favorites]


https://www.livescience.com/15688-man-cooking-homo-erectus.html

Man Entered the Kitchen 1.9 Million Years Ago
By Jennifer Welsh | August 22, 2011 03:00pm ET





MORE

Man Entered the Kitchen 1.9 Million Years Ago
Homo erectus, H. neaderthalensis and H. sapiens all had qualities suggesting they ate cooked food, and only spent about 5 to 6 percent of their time eating. Cooked food and less time spent eating directly influenced the evolution of man.
Credit: Wikimedia commons user Steveoc 86

Our ancient human ancestors may have put us on track toward meals a la Julia Child as long ago as 1.9 million years, according to new evidence that extinct hominids were cooking and processing their food. The finding may also explain modern humans' small teeth and guts (for some of us).
posted by metasluggo at 5:11 PM on January 3 [1 favorite]


The remains of a 200,000 year old advanced civilization found in Africa

Man, I want to believe, but that article devolves pretty quickly into an explanation of how aliens arrived from the planet Nibiru 450,000 y.a. looking for gold nanoparticles to repair their atmosphere.
posted by Iridic at 5:22 PM on January 3 [21 favorites]


Human brains have apparently been shrinking for the last 20,000 years.
He rattles off some dismaying numbers: Over the past 20,000 years, the average volume of the human male brain has decreased from 1,500 cubic centimeters to 1,350 cc, losing a chunk the size of a tennis ball. The female brain has shrunk by about the same proportion. “I’d call that major downsizing in an evolutionary eyeblink,” he says. “This happened in China, Europe, Africa—everywhere we look.” If our brain keeps dwindling at that rate over the next 20,000 years, it will start to approach the size of that found in Homo erectus, a relative that lived half a million years ago and had a brain volume of only 1,100 cc. Possibly owing to said shrinkage, it takes me a while to catch on. “Are you saying we’re getting dumber?” I ask.
posted by jamjam at 5:29 PM on January 3 [1 favorite]


...why did it take so long to invent rope?

One (from the more modern era) that always gets me is that it took about 50 years after the can was invented for somebody to invent the can opener. [Previously.]
posted by LeLiLo at 5:30 PM on January 3 [5 favorites]


Yeah, I'm not buying the alien gods civilization theory - but "we found 200k-year-old deliberate construction features" is notable on its own, even without any particular theory attached.
posted by ErisLordFreedom at 5:35 PM on January 3


Why do we assume we know all of humankind's history? Knowledge can die out and be re-discovered, so why can't inventions? In addition, we have to find evidence of the invention. So how can we say that the wheel didn't exist before then? Isn't it just that that's the first evidence we've found?

And I thought one of the arguments for the peoples of S America to not use wheel was how mountainous the area largely is, which - like not having "beasts of burden" - diminishes the use of the wheel.
posted by evening at 5:39 PM on January 3 [1 favorite]


The "social cost" category reads like geek projection.
5. Cool awesome smart people were too busy trying to invent the wedgie-proof loincloth.

It seems likely the organization of your society and surrounding stuff is probably going to play a huge part. If you are a relatively small group that's not super specialized, and you move around to exploit seasonal resources and do a lot of different tasks, then inventing something to make one single task in one specific place more efficient is probably not going to seem like a good use of your time.

Even in a more 'civilized' society, even if you are specialized, the efficiency of your work might not matter too much to you personally, or to the nature of the work. You do as much work as there is. If you make sandals today you will make sandals tomorrow, and it doesn't matter too much to you whether you make 10 or 12 sandals during that time. Maybe you trade the extra, but the world has to provide you with trading partners. If you think of a way to make 300 sandals in a day, great, now you just crashed the sandal market and your family is dying. So maybe you're better off making fewer, higher quality sandals instead and point your innovation that way.

I feel like it'd only be a giant mystery to people who think kind of oddly about things... And I swear I was thinking that before I googled Katja Grace and found out she's kinda in the LessWrong-osphere lol.
posted by fleacircus at 5:40 PM on January 3 [6 favorites]


As an example of how our "modern" thinking makes it hard for us to understand the past, consider that until about the time of Thomas Edison, it was thought that invention was a random and uncontrolled phenomenon. No one understood that it could work for a bunch of smart people to get together with the idea of inventing stuff and make it work. Edison's greatest invention was the research and development laboratory.
posted by SemiSalt at 5:44 PM on January 3 [8 favorites]


Language must have developed, whenever it did, gradually — with vocabularies like names of things growing slowly over the course of generations, but language complexity — like if/then statements that permitted more complex reasoning — would have to be a prerequisite for accelerating the pace of invention. In other words I'm adding a hypothesis that lack of complexity in language was a deterrent to more sophisticated inventions.
posted by beagle at 5:47 PM on January 3 [1 favorite]


Exactly. The hardware hasn't changed much in 50,000 years. What's changed is the software--e.g., language and conceptual knowledge. Language is crucial for ideas to spread, obviously, but it goes deeper than that. Language provides a organizational framework for thought and memory. That's why you use language (internal monologue, verbal, or written) constantly even when you're alone. It makes thought more structured and efficient. The catch is that, in order for your brain to run the software effectively, it has to be installed during childhood. Hence version upgrades take at least a generation to become standard, and often quite a bit longer than that.

Early humans were running BASIC on a Core i7. Only so much you can do with that.
posted by dephlogisticated at 5:53 PM on January 3 [6 favorites]


It's definitely pretty amazing that people invented dogs and horses before wheels, though.

You've got that kind of backwards, humans didn't invent dogs exactly, proto-dogs invented humans.

The theory goes that some wolves had a genetic condition that caused them to by hyper-social making them not good company for other "normal" wolves. Eventually some of these hyper-social wolves find some early humans and, because they're kind of useful, we let them hang around. These super social wolves eventually made those early humans develop empathy. Since our brains were more advanced than a dogs we got better at it. That ability to place yourself in the shoes of another non-human being and think about what it's like to be that other being is the key to be able to have abstract thoughts which is then the key to everything else humans can do so much better than any other species.

Pretty much every animal will look at and take special interest in other of it's own species, especially their face. Humans and dogs are about the only ones that take an interest in the faces of other species or even inanimate objects. Some proto-wolf/dog ancestors invented humans so that we could invent dogs and be their humans. There are other explanations but this one fits the evidence and I like it so that's the story I'm going with until someone disproves it.

I just recently read this book: Inside of a Dog: What Dogs See, Smell, and Know

One of the really interesting things is that non-human animals don't really have a narrative memory. Dogs remember stuff. They anticipate their human's return home, remember that bush where there was a rabbit that ONE time, but they don't really remember being younger and growing up or the events in their life as a story they can tell themselves. They carry their experience with them but basically only live in the present moment.

Humans don't typically have any memories until about three years of age. That's when most children develop speech and it's believed that that is the reason. Language is the reason we're able to remember our past and that, I think, forms the basis of our ability to look towards the future and be proactive about improving that future.
posted by VTX at 5:57 PM on January 3 [18 favorites]


As an engineer, the one that always blows my mind is the ancient Greeks inventing the steam engine 2,000 years ago.
posted by ZenMasterThis at 6:03 PM on January 3 [8 favorites]


fleacircus: Social cost could be less about "avoiding wedgies" and more about "what you are doing is a very real threat to the social and economic welfare of society, and you will suffer for it". There's a probably apocryphal story about the Emperor Tiberius to that effect.

More well documented, when a factory using the first automatic sewing machines was set up in Paris, a mob of angry tailors marched in and smashed them to pieces. That was 1830 or so, and their inventor was ruined. So if your hypothetical ancient sandalmaker had figured out how to make 300 sandals a day, the local cobbler's guild may very well have just turned up and beat him half to death.
posted by Grimgrin at 6:03 PM on January 3 [2 favorites]


Early humans were running BASIC on a Core i7.

I'm not so sure about that. I think it's possible that as language made inroads on our brains it crowded out other modes of cognition with their own subtleties and delights.
posted by Iridic at 6:04 PM on January 3 [4 favorites]


Çatalhöyük is a cool example of how people prioritized and/or thought very differently about things than we do now.

It's an ancient city in Turkey, inhabited for nearly 2000 years from about 7500 BC to about 5700 BC. At its height it had about 10,000 residents. It had art and agriculture -- but no streets. Everybody lived in basically a single giant apartment building, and got in and out of each other's places via roofs and ladders.
posted by mrmurbles at 6:05 PM on January 3 [14 favorites]


As an engineer, the one that always blows my mind is the ancient Greeks inventing the steam engine 2,000 years ago.

I was just going to bring that up myself, especially since it's relevant to the broader discussion here. They had this thing, but it never got used because, at the time, they didn't have any problems that it solved better than human and animal labor and it was going to be more expensive and cumbersome than slavery. Not that they would have conceptualized it in that way, but just the invention by itself wasn't that big a deal until the invention had specific uses that significantly outperformed whatever the status quo was.

What were hominids doing 50,000 years ago that rope would have made easier than existing solutions to those problems? What were they doing 10,000 years ago that the wheel would have immediately improved?
posted by Copronymus at 6:11 PM on January 3 [7 favorites]


I'm happy to eat and mate and dance while others invent.
posted by grumpybear69 at 6:12 PM on January 3 [3 favorites]


Early humans were running BASIC on a Core i7.

No ... Pretty sure it was a 6502.
posted by ZenMasterThis at 6:19 PM on January 3 [1 favorite]


Wheels aren't generally useful without roads. Roads not designed for wheels aren't useful without wheels. You need a lot of other civilization details before wheels are more than children's toy materials.

I used to make this point, including how medieval era Japan actually banned wheeled travel on roads, so maybe cultures that only used them in toys weren't that surprising.

Then someone pointed out to me that wheelbarrows are pretty damn useful so I'm back to thinking somehow people didn't make the leap.

[As an aside, apparently the traditional Chinese wheelbarrow has the wheel close to the center of mass, making it easier to use when full. I don't know if there's a trade off involved in putting it there but damn if it's something I thought of at any point despite knowing all about balance and weight distribution concepts and hating lifting things.]
posted by mark k at 6:37 PM on January 3 [1 favorite]


It looks like there weren't that many of us 50,000 years ago. This article covers some of Craig Venter's work on the human genome.

Then The Venus of Willendorf, I think, was a child's doll. A mommie to hold on to while mommie was working on things. It is as good a theory as the playboy theory.
posted by Oyéah at 6:41 PM on January 3 [6 favorites]


Speaking of weirdly late inventions (like wheeled luggage), one example that's always stuck with me was the brace and bit drill.

I dunno, I've invented a few small things over the years that have made me feel somewhat smug about my own cleverness at times, and the brace and bit drill to me seems like an invention of sheer genius, one I don't think I would have come up with in a lifetime of using other (inferior) drills. Sure, once you've seen it, it's utterly obvious how and why it works, but if I only had a T-auger, I don't think I'd ever make the leap to a brace. (Incidentally, if any of you have never used a brace and bit, you owe it to yourself to do so. Boring has never been so much fun.)
posted by biogeo at 6:57 PM on January 3 [4 favorites]


MetaFilter: Boring has never been so much fun.
posted by loquacious at 6:59 PM on January 3 [18 favorites]


A good list in general, but the "People fifty thousand years ago were not really behaviorally modern" section is annoying and borderline racist.

I think the ideas in this section are good evidence that some people today are not really behaviorally modern.
posted by biogeo at 7:02 PM on January 3


I don't know if there's a trade off involved in putting it there

Less mechanical advantage picking up the handles
posted by GCU Sweet and Full of Grace at 7:20 PM on January 3


To bring this back full circle, and more relevant to MetaFilter - let's forget about this whole 'wheel' concept. 'Wheels' are for jocks. Isn't this crowd more interested in when the first bookcase was brought into use?
posted by Nanukthedog at 7:21 PM on January 3 [1 favorite]


Google Patents search
US 2,472,491A Mobile Luggage (PDF)
June 7, 1949
Filed: July 1, 1947
Inventor: Bernard Quinton
posted by cenoxo at 7:23 PM on January 3 [2 favorites]


loquacious: People in general vastly underestimate how much energy and skill it takes to make many things we take for granted, or how much energy it takes to think.

Spot on! Too often we think of "inventions" as static things like "the rope" or "the wheel". But the truth is inventions are more like cities: They take time to develop, and succeed only after a lot of things come together in the right place in the right time. The first time something is "invented" doesn't matter. What matters is when it becomes wide spread.

Imagine if you had to make a wheelbarrow wheel right now. Unless you're an engineer or fabricator by trade, I bet you wouldn't get very far even though you already know what you're going for. You need to figure out what materials are strong enough to use, how to shape them, how to fix them so they move in the way you want, and not in the way you don't. And even if you take the time to figure all of that out, your knowledge might not get passed on to the next person across the hall or across the world who needs it. *But*, as soon as you have a good, cheap, easy to teach solution that benefits lots of people, it will spread quickly and become the next plank in the technology ladder. Standing on your plank, the next schmuck(s) will have an easier time of solving other technical problems.

Case in point: I'm a design engineer, and although I "invent" complicated, million dollar robotic machines, *my* unique contribution is realistically only a few percent of the embodied knowledge in those machines. I specify fasteners that cost pennies, but are the culmination of 200 years of experimentation. I look up formulas that took generations to understand. I source materials that took humanity thousands of years to learn how to produce. If I was suddenly transported to stone-age planet, I would be completely unproductive. I don't even think I could make sandwiches from scratch.

This is why the pace of change is so fast today compared to 50 years ago, and the pace was so fast compared to 100 years before that, and so on back through the millenia. We aren't any smarter, we just have more tools to work with!
posted by Popular Ethics at 8:17 PM on January 3 [12 favorites]


Less mechanical advantage picking up the handles

Yeah, you're not lifting and supporting a load with your arms, just steering it.

What surprises me is that it was invented after the cart.
posted by sebastienbailard at 8:20 PM on January 3


These are really good, and even really liking stories about human limitations and biases there's a lot I didn't realize . . . will definitely browse her blog more as I have time. I am now more curious about which were the dominant factors and if we can sort that out somehow.

One thing I've observed at work with "slow adoption of technology" is that uncertainty is big thing. I see scientists doing things more manually than they need to, even the ones who like "tech." But a big issue is that new tools don't work for every problem, so if you have an important problem, two hours to solve it, and a path that you are 100% sure will get it done in under two hours, you have a big incentive not to try something new that is 70% likely to be faster, 20% likely to be slower, and 10% likely to be an embarrassing failure. You need to carve out time that is not devoted to critical tasks, which I imagine is hard to find in a subsistence society (or apparently certain biotech companies.)

Whether this (which is covered by a couple items on the list) was relatively more or less important in fact I have no idea.



It looks like there weren't that many of us 50,000 years ago. This article covers some of Craig Venter's work on the human genome.

Since I have a pet peeve about celebrity multi-millionaires sucking up too much attention and credit in popular discourse, I'd like to point out that the article is about other scientists doing work on Venter's human genome, not work by Venter himself. He the petri dish sample here, not the guy the in the white coat.

posted by mark k at 8:26 PM on January 3


I'm still a fan of the general "stoned ape" theory as part of the spark of self-awareness language, symbology and more sophisticated tool use, but over a very long period of time and in gentle concert with the generally accepted concept of brain mass evolution through hunting and cooking and so on.

This is one of my favorite braids or strands of archeology or human history - essentially the origin story of awareness and consciousness - and for me it goes something like this:

All evidence of written language and representational symbology is rooted in pictographs, and almost every primitive culture we have evidence of in the world has a lot of very complicated geometric pictographs and symbology that goes hand in hand with this and suggests the fractal-like visions of phosphenes and entoptics.

And there are a lot of different kinds of natural plants, foods, spices and experiences throughout history found all over that can cause these kinds of altered states at varying levels. I'm not only alluding to, say, psychedelic mushrooms, which have also definitely been a thing in various parts of human history. But "stoned apes" can include eating fermented fruit or too much nutmeg or other psychoactive foods and plants. There are many, many ways that perceptual states can be altered by diet, environment or even practice or ritual.

But I think part of this is also the fractal-like nature of our own bodies, brains and sensory organs. There's a mediation and texture to any given human/hominid's perceptual awareness of the world around them and an inherent limit to the resolution of that experience. You can become deeply and inherently aware of this perceptual mediation and its flaws in a wide variety of ways, and it can even sometimes be disconcerting and, well, trippy in itself. Fainting, for example, or getting very ill. Near death experiences, too. I bet an out of body experience to a primitive human or even hominid - especially if it was due to something like eating the wrong kind of mushrooms or spoiled rye or something - would be profoundly terrifying and life changing without any way to explain what happened to you.

If you could talk, you would talk about it. Stories may even be told.

And most primitive cultures I've ever read about have some sort of altered state ritual, though, whether it's an extreme coming of age experience or medicinal/plant based experience or meditation or other methods.

And, well, some or many of these kinds of profound or altered experiences would likely lend themselves to, say, developing a sense of self awareness. Or having the idea of one's internal thoughts or awareness be those of an external god or gods, before or alongside developing a fuller personal or even cultural sense of self.

As well as a sense of representational symbology and being able to visualize things.

And my intuitions strongly says you can't have one without the other. That being able to hold one or more representational symbols in your mind is essentially the same as being able to be aware of self by inferring the self exists through the same mental modelling required to visualize or perceive a symbol.

And then I could see early hominids totally not knowing what to do with this, either self awarness or symbology or being able to, say, visualize or even start thinking things. That this would be difficult to navigate and negotiate as a hominid or even as a more modern primitive homo sapiens, like a psychological fire. Useful, but also dangerous.

And that this could slowly go from tribalism to more advanced cultures and give rise to, well, god kings, and religion and the many other weird ways culture has formed organizations around what is essentially the long standing philosophical problem of coping with awareness.

And that very early representational symbology was at the time, definitely a very real kind of magic. An early pictograph of a successful hunt with a mark of where the shadow is on a certain day is an astronomical tool. And. later, we can see all kinds of religions and cultures throughout human history based essentially around controlling the technology of language and data storage and record keeping - whether keeping seasons, stores, taxes and so on.

A tribe or citadel that has a religion based around a successful seasonal hunt or storing food for the winter or whatever has a technological tool and advantage. Organizing people into focused work is a tool for better or worse.

I can armchair posit about this for hours in even wilder ways, but the strongest evidence I probably have is all the "stoned apes" running around today doing essentially the same thing, whether it's Steve Jobs dropping acid or modern techbros at Burning Man or whatever. It's not just artists, musicians and weirdos getting bent. There's been a really pervasive culture in tech and tech engineering in particular specifically using altered states in brainstorming, problem solving and searching for new ideas - and same as before, for better and worse.

It's not even just a tech culture thing. It's sometimes a thing in pure science and research, too. Erdos and amphetamines, for example.

And, well, how many leaps of human consciousness, inventions or new ways of thinking about things have come from weird dreams or visions? From working or thinking too hard? From drinking too much beer or mead? From being too hungry or too cold? Or even eating too much or something too spicy? Too much cloves and nutmeg will definitely make someone hallucinate or have very weird dreams. There's a lot of known food and spice combinations that are essentially psychoactive drugs, too. How many times has someone been stuck with a problem and found the solution through some totally other inspiration?

Less positively, history is utterly thick with (often horrifying) stories of visions and whole city states or nations acting on them, whether in religious or quasi-religious ways or even sheer madness or, cripes, lead poisoning.

And to reiterate, I think if this kind of a thing happened, we are talking about hundreds of thousands and millions of years, and cumulative cultural effects that go far beyond simply "stoned apes", that it wasn't some kind of instantaneous discovery of language or the fire of awareness.

I'm also not advocating some kind of weird magic mushrooms are some kind of otherwise significant thing, cosmic consciousness, panspermia, and a lot of other zanier ideas that are often found on the same bookshelf as the "stoned ape" theory.

And I think this concept is too quickly discredited for a number of reasons. Western exceptionalism and moralism, for starters, and discounting previous advanced cultures and even primitive religions - and their symbols, and misinterpreting them or inherently reframing them in Western thought. I think it's also discounted because of the current culture and moralism regarding drugs and the drug war, for another. As well as the understandably off putting excessive dogma and zaniness and lack of rigor from 60s counterculture and the likes of Timothy Leary and Terrence McKenna.

But the whole concept of language and representational symbology is a big one.

And the idea of primitive hominids eating something mind-altering enough to give them visions of what is essentially some pretty fundamental geometric shapes and - if interpreted correctly - mathematical concepts that can be derived from those shapes, even as simple as counting, or a circle, or the stability of a triangle. As well as novel neurochemical ways to connect whatever spare neurons and blood sugar they were working with...

In my opinion this has a ring of truth to it, and I think that this is likely one part of the much larger origin story of consciousness, awareness and language.
posted by loquacious at 8:55 PM on January 3 [6 favorites]


I get sort of frustrated by this sort of list. Asking "why did it take so long to invent X?" presumes that it was inevitable X would be invented once a given society reached a sufficient level of sophistication.

Really, there is no reason to ever assume any given society would invent, say, the wheel given enough time and resources. An innovation only needs to be efficient enough to solve a problem. If it's effective enough, it'll appear from the outside to be the obvious solution, but it just happens that that's the solution that worked. And, more importantly, X may have worked and caught on because of a whole bunch of other factors totally unrelated to science or technology; the reputations of the people behind X, the resources available to them, the ability to try out an idea, etc.

It's definitely interesting and important to consider human evolution and how things came to be, but there's a real danger of having a teleological view of things. People are incredibly complex as individuals and as groups, and a whole lot of our history as a species has been defined by how quirky and idiosyncratic we can be. You could have the same people in the exact same environment, and there's no guarantee they'd ever come up with the same inventions. It's part of what makes people so interesting, and recognizing that aspect of our humanity also acknowledges the intentionality behind the accomplishments of people in the past (I'd say agency, but people seem to hate that word). Inventions like the wheel weren't simply waiting to be discovered, they were actively constructed by members of a society. Conversely, the absence of something like the wheel is far from evidence that people simply weren't capable of inventing it.
posted by shapes that haunt the dusk at 9:08 PM on January 3 [7 favorites]


ErisLordFreedom: "There are cases of ancient Peruvians having wheels - on toys for small children. (I don't have links; ran across that ages ago.) Everyone notices that logs roll; figuring out that a piece of log could roll doesn't take much thought; figuring out that it could be hooked to something is also fairly obvious. But applying that as a tool usable to save adult labor takes a lot more complicated arrangements."

The wheel, in its basic form, is a pretty obvious invention (IE:log rollers, round rocks). It's also pretty useless without an axle and the bearing surface for the axle. The axle is the really wizard invention in wheeled transport and it pretty much couldn't be invented until material science and trade knowledge made it possible. Og the caveman could chip out a stone wheel given the inclination; he's going to have a lot more difficulty making a reliable bushing and axle from scratch. Which is why you see wheels in trivial examples like toys even when not used for transport.
posted by Mitheral at 10:25 PM on January 3 [2 favorites]


How many things have I invented in my life?

I mean, I've built a lot of things out of tools that I already know how to use. But invented? Out of whole cloth? Nothing. I have invented nothing. I think people overestimate how often you're actually going to invent rope even if you know how knots work and have at least a decent baseline understanding of how fibers work, because you've never used rope to solve problems before so you don't instantly identify all the things that would be easier with rope. I can absolutely believe that many, many generations passed at that stage with people who were just doing the best they could solving problems with the set of more obvious possible solutions, or kind of toying with the idea but not getting anywhere with it. It's one thing to notice a log rolls, it's another thing to work out that the ability to move very heavy things from point A to point B will allow you to build more sound shelters which will allow your family to be more comfortable and healthier and so on and so forth, before you even get to "how do you make a rolling log into a thing that can roll something very heavy reliably".

Lots of things are easy once you already know that they're a solution to a particular sort of problem.
posted by Sequence at 10:34 PM on January 3 [1 favorite]


And does not population have something to do with innovation? The more people you have, the more innovators there are. As the population increases exponentially, shouldn't innovation increase exponentially as well?
posted by ShooBoo at 10:37 PM on January 3 [1 favorite]


The early humans did have those things, we just don’t have good records. Which is not surprising, because our records of those times are clearly very lacking.

I think she stumbles on the truth here, like the proverbial blind squirrel finding an acorn. And yet she throws that out as one of about 50 equally weighted suggestions when in reality survivorship bias is at the absolute core of what we know and don't know about the past.

For example, the earliest direct evidence of watercraft in the entire world is only 9,700 years old (Plesse dugout, Holland).

However there is indirect evidence for useful watercraft much earlier. For example, people were on Flores Island by 800,000 years ago. Sulawesi by 125,000. Australia by 60,000. Crete probably by 125,000. Offshore islands used 50km off Japan by 33,000. Okinawa by 35,000. 50% pelagic fish use on Timor by 42,000. New Britain by 40,000. Over the horizon access to the Solomon Islands by 33,000. The oldest known fish hooks and harpoons in the world are 22,000 years old, from Timor.

Anyone who thinks all that was accomplished without rope understands nothing about the ocean, or harpoons, and anyone who thinks absence of evidence is evidence of absence knows nothing about archaeology.

There were very few people in the past, so the total thinking occurring between 50k and 28k years ago was less than in the last hundred years.

The Thule archaeological culture which pioneered full time life in the very high Arctic was one of the most dispersed, lowest population density groups ever. Yet somehow they managed to create over 500 distinct, highly specialized, artifact types - they are the most gadget-oriented archaeological culture I know of.

We lacked a small number of unimaginably basic concepts that it is hard to even imagine not having now. For instance ‘abstraction’, or ‘changing the world around you to make it better’.

Someone mentioned the implicit racism in this blog post and I have to agree. For example, there is strong evidence in SE New Guinea for extensive environmental modification between 43,000 and 49,000 years ago. One of the reasons archaeologists might have a less than thorough suite of evidence about past inventiveness is because they haven't always looked, or recognized, innovation in places outside of Europe. 50,000 years ago the epicentres of world innovation were Southernmost Africa and SE Asia - Wallacea - Australia - New Guinea. The oldest representational rock known in the world is on Sulawesi - almost literally the "uttermost ends of the earth".

Fabian and others have documented how Europeans have tended to equate/conflate distance from the English Channel with backwardness in time, creating "living fossils" out of some of the most inventive and accomplished people on Earth. While I think there are some good ideas in the blog post, there are also some mediocre ones, and some terrible ones as well which feed a metanarrative of colonialism, stagnation and dispossession.

Having said all that, yeah, it's odd the Romans didn't invent the wheelbarrow.
posted by Rumple at 10:49 PM on January 3 [25 favorites]


Much as the rhinoceros cannot abide a fire, the ice age woolly rhinoceros was known to stamp on wheels wherever they were found. This explains the late development of the wheel, and also the extinction of the woolly rhinoceros.
posted by BeeDo at 11:10 PM on January 3 [8 favorites]


Why do we assume we know all of humankind's history? Knowledge can die out and be re-discovered, so why can't inventions? In addition, we have to find evidence of the invention. So how can we say that the wheel didn't exist before then? Isn't it just that that's the first evidence we've found?

I think she stumbles on the truth here, like the proverbial blind squirrel finding an acorn. And yet she throws that out as one of about 50 equally weighted suggestions when in reality survivorship bias is at the absolute core of what we know and don't know about the past.


I've never quite felt these observations made sense, that things only came to be in the time we find the first evidence of them. There weren't as many people, they weren't as connected. "Hey Jane, did you hear about that guy who invented the wheel? I'm going to order one."

Someone invents a wheelbarrow, and they used it for even generations, then their people move somewhere where they don't really need one. Over and over. People discovered that citrus prevents Scurvy over and over and then forgot, just in the last few hundred years.
posted by bongo_x at 11:59 PM on January 3 [5 favorites]


As regards language, if you believe the consensus shared by linguists (people who spend a lot of time thinking about this sort of thing) language wasn't invented in the way the wheel was, but is rather a biological inheritance (like the mental hardware that processes the information received by the eyes)--and thus it makes no sense to talk about modern humans that don't already have language. If language is as fundamental to the modern human brain as any other biologically programmed bit of human cognition, then it has been with us for at least 50,000 years. Likely longer, depending on how far back the modern brain in h. sapiens goes.
posted by os tuberoes at 1:44 AM on January 4 [5 favorites]


Regarding knowledge as iffy if not written is another Western point of view – why is writing automatically trusted when there is a history of the written word being used to obfuscate? Why do we assume that something written is true and thus that the spoken word is not to be trusted?

"Did you get it in writing?" What happens when the writing is destroyed? This is what colonists did to any number of native/aboriginal tribes around the world. "Look, we trust writing, and when something is written, it's contractual, so we're putting in writing that we're giving you X." Then as soon as it no longer served the colonists: "what treaty? what contract?"

Trust of writing is so ingrained in our Western thinking, that to say writing can't be trusted is like cutting our feet out from under us. It is part and parcel of our philosophy – and yet it is fundamentally true that writing has never actually been used as permanent and binding, even in its most optimistic and constructive views. It is constantly evolving, constantly amended, reviewed, interpreted...

Just like our speech. Oral literature. Viewing history as unverifiable if it's not written down is yet another colonialist mindset we've inherited. ("But it could mean anything!" Doesn't the written word mean anything? Aren't we still projecting modern patriarchal views onto cave drawings? People assumed it was obvious they'd been made by men. Looking at them more closely showed that many, if not most, were likely made by women. The written word is not set in stone, even when it literally is.)

That lacking a local presence of an alpha who'd make the decisions for the small tribe, a large state would have symbols like idols and mythical gods that would inspire people to carry out the states' instructions and values... It wouldn't be that individuals had no initiative but they'd often describe their own actions as being inspired by the voice of a god.

*looks at the US president and vice-president*
This still exists.

Orally-transmitted ancient knowledge is still around, as anyone who learned fiber arts from their grandma can tell you.

Then we get into sexism. It's pretty recent that fiber arts have regained some respectability. But as so many old myths and stories still echo in spite of our eye-rolling at goddesses, weaving was a highly honored activity.
Who was this woman? Giresz’s team carefully examined the skeleton and found that like many of the site’s noblewomen, the Huarmey Queen spent most of her time sitting, though she used her upper body extensively—the skeletal calling cards of a life spent weaving.

Her expertise likely explains her elite status. Among the Wari and other Andean cultures of the time, textiles were considered more valuable than gold or silver, reflective of the immense time they took to make. Giersz says that ancient textiles found elsewhere in Peru may have taken two to three generations to weave.

The Huarmey Queen, in particular, must have been revered for her weaving; she was buried with weaving tools fashioned from precious gold.
Not too mysterious when you realize that the very foundation of what we're typing and reading here is based on weaving.

But hey, it's all stories, right, unlike all the other stories whose authority depends entirely on how we decide to view someone/their group. "But science!" Again I point you towards the alpha males currently running what our planetary group of humans (with notable exceptions) tends to see as the most powerful and advanced group of humans on the planet. Do they believe in science? (I'm not making value judgements, but pointing out that things we see as inviolably true, some of which are in fact concrete reality, are also manipulated in the service of narratives.)
posted by fraula at 1:54 AM on January 4 [12 favorites]


As always with any conversation on metafilter about human evolution and culture, remember that there are no "modern Stone Age" people and cultures don't evolve in some sort of linear fashion from primitive to advanced.

Also, there was an awful lot going on for Homo sapiens and our ancestors before agriculture was developed, and the biased archaeological and fossil record certainly means that what we know about human evolution and early history is contingent knowledge making the best interpretation of the evidence currently available.
posted by ChuraChura at 2:46 AM on January 4 [4 favorites]


the biased ...fossil record

Do you mean that it's biased toward things that left fossils, and which have been found? That doesn't seem like a very surprising thing, to me.
posted by thelonius at 3:12 AM on January 4 [1 favorite]


How many things have I invented in my life?

I mean, I've built a lot of things out of tools that I already know how to use. But invented? Out of whole cloth? Nothing. I have invented nothing.
“Sir Isaac Newton, renowned inventor of the milled-edge coin and the catflap!”

“The what?” said Richard.

“The catflap! A device of the utmost cunning, perspicuity and invention. It is a door within a door, you see, a ...”

“Yes,” said Richard, “there was also the small matter of gravity.”

“Gravity,” said Dirk with a slightly dismissed shrug, “yes, there was that as well, I suppose. Though that, of course, was merely a discovery. It was there to be discovered.” ... “You see?” he said dropping his cigarette butt, “They even keep it on at weekends. Someone was bound to notice sooner or later. But the catflap ... ah, there is a very different matter. Invention, pure creative invention. It is a door within a door, you see.”
People discovered that citrus prevents Scurvy over and over and then forgot, just in the last few hundred years.

Worth reading the amazing post by [Mefi’s own!] Maciej Ceglowski / idlewords / pinboard on this very topic.
posted by chappell, ambrose at 4:02 AM on January 4 [7 favorites]


Humans don't typically have any memories until about three years of age.

Speech is evidence. Thought is not. You can measure the one scientifically while the other one means a threat to how you perceive the world. So go with the science. Run the maze and don't get shocked. What do you want out of this? When do you think about what is tangible? Are your kids rewarded when they challenge you?

So three year olds don't remember being two? Two year olds have suppositions based on nothing? And once they acquire the basic skills to attempt the conversation and get told they can't remember that? This is the very beginning of wrong. Not being heard. Being told it never happened.

The grim fact is we get ruined in the first three years.
posted by Mr. Yuck at 4:36 AM on January 4 [1 favorite]


Humans don't typically have any memories until about three years of age. That's when most children develop speech and it's believed that that is the reason

I don't doubt the link between language and memory, but language starts a lot earlier than three years old. Some parents teach their pre-verbal kids to communicate in sign language. The only milestone I associate with three years of age is toilet training (something I believe the westerners do later than the rest-erners.) Is there any empirical research (or psychoanalytic theory) connecting memory retention and toilet training?
posted by Morpeth at 4:46 AM on January 4 [3 favorites]


Maybe they just did not have enough stuff that needed rope to hold it. If a majority of your existence is on your being and food is generally eaten on the spot then what’s a rope or a wheel needed for?

I can imagine looking at a horse and thinking “that horse needs to get me to food better than my feet can” and I imagine looking at someone hauling stuff with their horse and thinking “why aren’t they hauling a person instead?”

Kinda like how I feel about Elon Musk shooting his damn Tesla to space. (I know I know, it was gimmicky yet rational but still, my cave lady mind just boggles.)
posted by Annika Cicada at 4:51 AM on January 4


3) Wheels on luggage. This seems an obvious invention in retrospect but luggage was around for decades until someone did the obvious. So we moderns aren't always so modern ourselves.
posted by Schmucko


Wheels-on-luggage only work in a specific cultural situation. If you want to figure out why wheels on luggage is recent you need to look at what they used before wheels-on-luggage and figure out why they used that instead.

I have in the house a couple of steamer trunks. When my great grandmother went into service at the age of twelve, her father stayed up overnight to build her a trunk. They could afford wood, but not a pre-build steamer trunk which would have metal corner reinforcers and leather straps to hold it together. He build a box that was about two and three quarter feet wide, and two feet deep and tall. We call it the black box because it is painted black. When I was a child our out of season clothes were stored in it. I couldn't lift it then and I can't lift it now unless it is practically empty. So why did twelve-year old Amelia Lydia Goldfinch use a box that was too heavy for her to lift?

First of all, labour was cheap and working men who worked as carriers could potentially have lifted the box. You can see pictures of men with a steamer trunk on their back. It could easily be carried by two men, one at each handle. There was in the old days at hotels and railway stations a specific occupation, called a porter - it was so common that there are still a lot of people who use the name porter as their last name. If you have porters in your culture you don't need to haul your own luggage. In fact, if you are middle class or higher there is a cultural restriction on your hauling anything. Gentlemen and ladies were never expected to carry anything that could be delegated to a member of the servile class to carry for them. If they went shopping for example, whatever it was that they bought would be delivered by the shop for them. They would go home and wait for the delivery.

What goes into a piece of luggage-on-wheels will help to explain why Amelia Lydia traveled with so much more than you do. Her clothing was made out of cotton, or wool or linen. Your clothing is made from perma-press polyester. You can scrunch it all into a little case. The family that Amelia Lydia went to work for would have put tissue paper between their layers of clothing to help reduce the wrinkling. They also might have changed their clothes for dinner, depending on how high in the social strata they were, so they likely would need to pack a minimum of two sets. Consider also that they also wore many more clothes that were substantial. If you pack a skirt it is unlikely that it will be a floor length skirt and have a floor length petticoat or shift to go under it. Amelia Lydia would have had aprons as well as a floor length dress and petticoat. Back then you didn't travel light.

Those steamer trunks came in two varieties; those with a flat top that could be stacked and those with a domed top that was specifically built that shape to prevent them from being stacked. The dome top meant that the box could be build much lightly than the flat top. Anne of Green Gables was sitting on her trunk on the platform when Matthew first saw her. Amelia too probably sat on her trunk at times while she traveled. I am pretty sure that you do not often sit on your luggage-on-wheels.

If I absolutely had to today, I could arrange to be in Paris before tomorrow morning. I'd have to get to an airport and transfer planes before I could get there. But if Amelia Lydia wanted to get to Paris the fastest she could go on land was the rate that the horse trotted. It would take Amelia Lydia weeks to get to Paris. No wonder that the trunks that got loaded onto the steamer were massive compared to your luggage. You only need to pack for overnight. She would need to pack for over a month. Inquiring minds want to know: Was there a laundry on the Cunard liners? I need to research that! I'm going to make a guess that if there was it was only available for people who traveled with a servant, and not for Amelia Lydia, who would have traveled in steerage.

When you boarded the ship all your luggage would be labeled. "Not wanted on voyage" meant that the trunks could go into the hold. The domed top trunk would go to your cabin. It would contain clothes you would wear on shipboard. The flat topped trunk that was not wanted on voyage would hold clothes to wear for when you got there. Very likely you would be wearing a different set of clothing in Paris than the location you set off from. After a twelve week journey - not impossible if our traveler sets out from an inland location and chooses to stop over in Ireland or England - the season will have changed. It would be spring in Paris before you got there!

If we stick to land and short trips that last less than a day, like Amelia Lydia's trip when she left home, there's another thing to consider. Until the good roads movement and the bicycle fad, you did not necessarily want the road in front of your house to be paved. Yes, it reduced mud and dust, but paved roads were so noisy when a shod horse went over them. Yet they were probably pretty dusty even if they were paved, from the mud and dust that was tracked onto them from the nearby unpaved roads. It made much more sense to send a water cart down the road when it dried out enough to make using it a problem than it did to pave it. So municipalities had water carts that dampened the road as often as necessary to prevent the clouds of dust. They also had street sweepers. That was a man with a broom if the municipality did it, or else the street sweeper was possibly a child who had staked a claim on a specific intersection, and stood there all day long making sure that you, in your floor length skirt could go through the intersection without trailing your hems into mud, horse manure, dust or water. In return you were expected to tip the child. That's how different streets were back in the day.

If you did bring your luggage-on-wheels trundling down a street in the 1800's anywhere, or somewhere rural (where the majority of the population lived) before the 1940's it would soon turn into a dusty mess. Those cute little wheels would get clogged with dirt. The whole suitcase would need to be cleaned before it went into the house. Someone would be poking hardening lumps of horse manure out of those little wheels, if they had actually survived all the jolting travel over exposed bits of rock and cobblestones.

How long did it take before some one put a patent on luggage-on-wheels?

Google Patents search
US 2,472,491A Mobile Luggage (PDF)
June 7, 1949
Filed: July 1, 1947
Inventor: Bernard Quinton
posted by cenoxo


I think luggage-on-wheels was invented precisely when it would be useful.
posted by Jane the Brown at 5:45 AM on January 4 [48 favorites]


If you have porters in your culture you don't need to haul your own luggage.

...and porters would typically/often pile a bunch of luggage onto a hand cart. That had wheels. Or, for a smaller load, might use a hand truck. With wheels.
posted by GCU Sweet and Full of Grace at 6:08 AM on January 4


That nachos weren't invented until 1943 still gives me pause though.
posted by GCU Sweet and Full of Grace at 6:12 AM on January 4 [1 favorite]


You can estimate the age of a language by looking at the number of words there are for colors. So if you look at the earliest written version of a language and have a good sampling of the number of words for colors, you can get a decent enough estimate of the language's age. Brand spanking new languages typically have 3 colors for light, dark, and blood. (from Talking Hands, Margalit Fox, not a direct quote)
posted by plinth at 7:44 AM on January 4


I'm not shocked that luggage on wheels wasn't in use in the 1800s... It wasn't in use in the mid 1980s when I was taking 747 airplanes between Cleveland and Newark to go home for breaks from college.

I was a little surprised by that 1949 patent, because the CNN article I linked to reported on a 1970 patent. But the story there was that even in 1970, people didn't understand the utility of wheels on luggage, just out of mental habit. And then 1980ish, better designs for wheels on luggage came out. I don't think one can argue that in the 1970s and 1980s luggage was expected to be handled only by porters.

I think this came to mind because there must have been a standup comedian in the 1990s when, influenced by Seinfeld, comedians kept going on and on about trivia of everyday life... And the comedian marveled that in our lifetimes we'd all been lugging around luggage and now... luggage has convenient wheels, which seem the most obvious thing...
posted by Schmucko at 7:48 AM on January 4


Wheels especially are definitely useful only in a specific context. I work every year at Glastonbury festival. You have to walk and carry your stuff a long way - often several miles - from the car parks/bus drop-offs. Every year, you witness the sad sight of first-timers trying to drag their wheeled cases through long grass, over rocks and across tiny plank bridges on the way in, and through eight inches of sucking mud on the way out. What's useful in this situation is a backpack or a sledge that's light enough to lift over obstacles.
Good inventions are about what's useful in the environment you're in.
(The day someone invents hover luggage everything will change, is what I'm saying).
posted by BlueNorther at 7:49 AM on January 4 [3 favorites]


According to The Babysitters Club wheels on luggage was extremely uncool in the 1980s, so it also might have taken a few years for people not to feel silly buying it. (Stacey almost died when Claudia showed up in NYC with a wheeled suitcase! Or something like that.)
posted by frobozz at 8:35 AM on January 4 [5 favorites]


...so aside from serious stuff like risk of death or anger from those whose tasks you might be usurping, just being different can be embarrassing which might also put a damper on the adoption of new technologies. I imagine such embarrassment is a pretty universal human quality, particularly among young humans and maybe more particularly in small societies.
posted by frobozz at 8:41 AM on January 4 [2 favorites]


Trust of writing is so ingrained in our Western thinking, that to say writing can't be trusted is like cutting our feet out from under us.

This also ties into trust of vision over any other senses, and especially, of recorded vision. "Pics or it didn't happen" is a mainstay of Western science; testimony that someone heard or felt something is considered irrelevant. Even for things which our eyes cannot see - diseases and toxins - "proof" is considered a picture run through a set of filters (microscope) and photographed; "it tastes rotten" is not considered accurate verification.

We are so conditioned to think of text and pictures as "the truth" that it's hard to even imagine a culture where that's not accepted. And while there's a lot of value in the scientific approach to problems (germ theory ftw), believing that writing is the only valid approach - to life-threatening problems, to human psychology, to developing technology - is sharply limiting our ability to understand cultures that didn't rest on that foundation.

In some spiritual communities, it's called "the idolotry of text" - the belief that's what's written is more important than what people experience; that words on paper are more important than how the community acts. In cultures that don't revere writing, and that don't carry the Western myth of progress ("everything is supposed to be higher-tech and therefore better in the future"), the whole approach to life is so different that we're often baffled in trying to understand even the basics of everyday life.
posted by ErisLordFreedom at 10:17 AM on January 4 [2 favorites]


I can remember an era when only stewardess (as we called them then) had wheeled luggage. Even seeing them in use didn't cause the average traveler to demand them.
posted by SemiSalt at 10:38 AM on January 4 [2 favorites]


Two thoughts after mulling all this another day:

1. The framing of the original question is a bit deceptive ("rope (28,000 years ago), the wheel (at least 4000 BC)") — it's not like nothing happened between those, or before rope. There have been stone tools for millions of years, even before the genus Homo came along. Variations among stone tools used as spear heads, arrow heads, axe heads, knives, scrapers, grinders, etc. are infinite, and there was a continuous process of inventing new stone tools, new ways of making stone tools, new materials to use, new ways of using stone tools, and new products made using stone tools, such as clothing, shelter and cooking implements. All of it long before rope supposedly was invented. We were not there, all we have is the dregs, but as hunter-gatherers moved around and spread over the globe, there had to be a robust culture of invention. That it didn't develop to the wheel or gunpowder is, as noted above, because there was no need to go beyond hunting-gathering tools until somebody decided to settle down and be a farmer.

2. The question ignores the prior sequential steps necessary for many inventions to happen. If you were part of a small band of people plunked down naked on a pristine, uninhabited planet just like earth, and you were given the challenge to build an iPhone X full loaded with apps and connected to a working wireless network, how many generations would it take you to get there? Even if you were provided with the entire history of humankind along with complete plans for building the phone, plus complete instructions for every necessary intermediate innovation from stone tools, rope and wheels to transistors and batteries, it might well take tens of thousands of years, even if you didn't get slowed down by wars, natural disasters and disease.
posted by beagle at 11:52 AM on January 4 [3 favorites]


Just to reinforce the thoughts about wheeled luggage being slow to catch on, and tying into the "Social Costs" section of the article, I was really impressed by Malcolm Gladwell's piece in this episode of This American Life, about how basketball players have for decades had excellent evidence that shooting free throws underhand would be much much better, and yet almost nobody will do it.
posted by polecat at 11:52 AM on January 4 [1 favorite]


frobozz: " just being different can be embarrassing which might also put a damper on the adoption of new technologies. "

Something that certainly spiked Segway's cannon. Those things should be every where in niche markets and you just don't see them IMO because they are just so desperately uncool.
posted by Mitheral at 12:46 PM on January 4 [2 favorites]


beagle: "how many generations would it take you to get there?"

I figure it takes at least 100 million people to crank out iPhoneXs. If you start with a 1000 people and each couple has 10 kids (letting them all live to also have 10 kids) you have a five fold growth every year so you are looking at 5 generations to blow past a 100 million. At 30 years per say 150 years to reach critical population mass and then I'd say no more than 100 years after that for the first iPhoneX clone. Call it 250-300 years if the society was focused on returning to that sort of industrial base.
posted by Mitheral at 12:57 PM on January 4


Call it 250-300 years if the society was focused on returning to that sort of industrial base.

Sure, if nothing went wrong. I'm going to stick with 10K plus years, with all the blueprints in hand. Without the blueprints, 50K years.
posted by beagle at 1:43 PM on January 4 [1 favorite]


If you start with a 1000 people and each couple has 10 kids (letting them all live to also have 10 kids) you have a five fold growth every year so you are looking at 5 generations to blow past a 100 million.

So at which point in there are you planning on having that tiny initial group create all the infrastructure that's actually necessary to allow families of that size to raise that many children to healthy adulthood on a regular basis? The infrastructure to actually supply food and sanitation to a population that's growing at that size? It's not just that you have to assume no outside interference, here. The population growth itself IS an interference, both in terms of everything that's required to make it happen and all the consequences of it occurring.
posted by Sequence at 2:36 PM on January 4 [2 favorites]


There's a fantastic novel called Reindeer Moon by Elizabeth Marshall Thomas. It's still the best novel of prehistoric life that I have ever read. At one point, the girl heroine, Yanan, receives a poorly made pair of leather pants. It ends up dominating her life, because those are her pants. It was so hard to make them, and they can't be remade, and she can't get another. Yanan has to live with the results of the learning process of invention in the form of terrible clothing.

I have been thinking of manioc root, or cassava. The stuff is full of cyanide unless it is properly prepared. It is not the only food that is poisonous without special preparation, but it is the only such staple food that I know of. Imagine the terrible starving time in which a band of people had nothing else to do but to gradually figure out how to prepare manioc root without killing themselves.
posted by Countess Elena at 2:43 PM on January 4 [3 favorites]


I don't doubt the link between language and memory, but language starts a lot earlier than three years old. Some parents teach their pre-verbal kids to communicate in sign language.

In that scenario, I imagine that kids who learn sign language at that very early age may well have more memories earlier than the typical kid. I don't think it's that we can't remember things at all, just that we better able to form those kinds of episodic memories better as we start to get better with language.
posted by VTX at 8:01 PM on January 4


gradually figure out how to prepare manioc root without killing themselves

a difficult process, trial and error, and that's why we invented children
posted by fredludd at 8:25 PM on January 4 [2 favorites]


There is lots of stuff like that. Like who was the first person/group to figure out one can tan leather using the brain of the animal? Really, what were the steps that led to that discovery?

chappell, ambrose: "Worth reading the amazing post by [Mefi’s own!] Maciej Ceglowski / idlewords / pinboard on this very topic."

Wow. If you didn't see this when it made the front page 7 years ago read it now. It's an amazing bit of best intentions coupled with in hind sight sloppy science that led to disaster.
posted by Mitheral at 8:47 PM on January 4 [1 favorite]


I figure it takes at least 100 million people to crank out iPhoneXs. If you start with a 1000 people and each couple has 10 kids (letting them all live to also have 10 kids) you have a five fold growth every year so you are looking at 5 generations to blow past a 100 million

I think you're mistaking humans for bacteria.

Even leaving out resource limitations, you're neglecting the 30%-50% child mortality rate. And with that many births, you're going to have a high mortality rate for mothers. At best in this grotesque scenario you'll get up to a 1% growth rate until you hit carrying capacity, at which point you'll be seesaw between famines and population booms, with the occasional bout of plague or climate change to halve the population and maybe make them abandon your cities.

Maybe you'll eventually get some agriculture advances, and some industrialization. But before you get to iPhones, you can get the tech for birth control, and Bam! Your population growth goes to zero as women say fuck you no, we don't want to spend our lives pushing football sized objects out of our bodies until we die.

So to put it mildly, I don't think you've considered all the factors involved.
posted by happyroach at 9:16 PM on January 4 [4 favorites]


"He rattles off some dismaying numbers: Over the past 20,000 years, the average volume of the human male brain has decreased from 1,500 cubic centimeters to 1,350 cc, losing a chunk the size of a tennis ball. The female brain has shrunk by about the same proportion. "

Uh, doesn't this coincide with us domesticating the dog and the dog domesticating us and like all domesticated animals, our brain shrinks somewhat as we offload certain tasks on to our domesticator? Like how we let dogs take over our sense of smell?

Also, brains are ridiculously calorically expensive and you wouldn't maintain excess brain you weren't using just because it's fun to be smart (evolution gives zero shits that it's fun to be smart, evolution wants to hack together the minimum necessary for survival -- and that's assuming a larger brain makes you smarter, which is a big assumption); large heads kill humans giving birth because of their small upright-walking pelvises so there is a constraint on head size and thus on brain size and a likely benefit to a smaller brain (and thus a smaller head) that can achieve basic human goals/maintain efficiency; and of course size doesn't directly correlate with intelligence, elephant brains are four times the size of ours.

(Which is to say I'm with the paleontologists who were pretty shruggo about it. Certainly interesting to know why it's happening, but hardly seems like cause for alarm absent some evidence it's a cause for alarm.)

---

Regarding wheels and the Americas, the Incans built extremely sophisticated rope suspension bridges that could carry humans and animals, whose strength wasn't matched again until steel cables were used for bridges in the very late 1800s. A big technology difference is that building stone bridges is all about compressive strength while building suspension bridges is all about tensile strength. Wheels were pretty useless in the Incan empire not so much because llamas are bad at pulling carts but because so much of the empire was straight up and down. Bridges, otoh, that could span massive gorges that Europeans could only dream of bridging? VERY IMPORTANT. But it also helps explain why the Incans never developed the arch -- who needed it? -- or the wheel, which was useless on their transport network. (They built boats of fiber, weapons of fiber (slings powerful enough they could split a steel sword), armor of fiber that was as strong as the fragile steel of the conquistadors, etc.) You might as well ask, "Why didn't the Romans develop long-span suspension bridges?" because of course the Romans had plenty of Alpine gorges to cross, and it's a pretty foundational technology for Incan architecture and transport. Well, they already had arches, and arches solved 90% of the problems. So each culture's highly-sophisticated technological solution to crossing gorges solved enough of the problem that the other solution didn't get invented.

And speaking of rope-making, we're increasingly aware that the Incans -- among others -- did some super-sophisticated stuff with fiber that we DON'T know about, because fiber doesn't preserve very often, and that any archaeological record of stone and shells and bones and wood is woefully incomplete because of the importance of fiber technology to both very primitive societies (stitching together hides, making net bags to carry things) and to hugely sophisticated ones (Incans) who did (and do!) things with organic fiber ropes that "technological" culture couldn't replicate until we had steel cables. Never discount the fiber technology! Probably prehistoric humans solved a shit-ton of problems with clever fiber inventions that we just don't know about because they wore out or rotted away.
posted by Eyebrows McGee at 6:45 AM on January 5 [15 favorites]


All this "cultures develop the immediate technologies they need, and miss out on anything derived from ideas that never seemed sensible" stuff puts me in mind of two things.

First, that a lot has to do with labor: who provides it, how expensive it is, and thus how motivated anyone is to reduce it. As mentioned upthread, the ancient Greeks had the steam engine and thought of it as a toy because any practical use they col imagine for it was cheaper and easier to do with slaves and/or livestock. Likewise, I recall reading somewhere (alas, can't find the link now), in a rumination on "Just how rich was Mr. Darcy supposed to be anyways?" that, no, even a very comfortable Regency home wouldn't have had indoor plumbing, but it didn't need it, because there were as manyy servants as you might want to draw and heat water for your bath, and that the relative prices of labor and infrastructural improvements at the time made this a sensible way to do things.

Second, I recall a particularly intriguing line of thought stimulated by a friend who, armed with some knowledge of physics, was irritated by the lore associated with some fantasy world technologically capping its development by declaring by fiat that electricity "didn't work" in this world, so that modern technology was impossible and magic the only way to do things (said friend being upset about how much of the basic way the world functions is based on electromagnetism, even without artificial electrical devices). My own suggested alternative worldbuilding was more or less in line with the ideas explored here: if magic is sufficiently useful, alternative technologies never develop to the point where they supplant magic. If any half-decent thaumaturgical engineer can imbue things with enchanted motion or light, why would anyone except for dilettantes muck around with dangerous forces like steam-under-pressure or electric charges? And then society gets locked into the technological tree developed off of that original trunk: if there's no magical equivalent of, say, the relay, triode, transistor, or other sort of automatic switch, that really limits what the technology is capable of. But you have to get really into electrical mechanisms, their uses not only as a means of delivering power, but also of transmitting information, before switches even become useful, so it seems unlikely that a putative society which had developed a viable alternative for the simple early uses of electricity would ever retrogress to the seemingly more primitive technology which has different capabilities. Obviously, this is a fantasy scenario, set up to answer the question "why would a society not inevitably develop computers", but it's entirely viable that technological roads-not-taken can do things we don't even realize we need.
posted by jackbishop at 7:07 AM on January 5 [2 favorites]


"It wasn't standing still. The remains of a 200,000 year old advanced civilization found in Africa ("ruins mostly consist of stone circles, most have been buried in the sand and are only observable by plane or satellites")"

Not to rain on your parade, but those are pretty normal ruins dating from within the last thousand years or so. They're notable because they're really sophisticated and indicative of very intensive farming techniques (and notable in particular in South Africa because they date from before European colonization and rebut the "primitive black savages brought technology by cultured white Europeans" narrative), but they're not from 200,000 years old. Here's the lead researcher's google scholar site, you can find several of his papers about it there.
posted by Eyebrows McGee at 7:12 AM on January 5 [5 favorites]


Not to rain on your parade, but those are pretty normal ruins dating from within the last thousand years or so.

Are you saying that information I got off a randomly-googled website that talks about alien invaders/mentors might be wrong? Might even be less than honest? Look, it was on the internet; you know it must be true!

Er, umm... yeah. The other links looked much more promising; this was more, "hey, someone thinks human society was active a LOT earlier than otherwise expected." And I did notice that they didn't provide anything like carbon dating data, or mumbles about shifting geography, that would indicate they had a solid reason for the time placement. But I was ... being hopeful?
posted by ErisLordFreedom at 9:18 AM on January 5 [2 favorites]


Oh, wow, that scurvy article:
Scurvy had been the leading killer of sailors on long ocean voyages; some ships experienced losses as high as 90% of their men. With the introduction of lemon juice, the British suddenly held a massive strategic advantage over their rivals, one they put to good use in the Napoleonic wars. British ships could now stay out on blockade duty for two years at a time, strangling French ports even as the merchantmen who ferried citrus to the blockading ships continued to die of scurvy....
Yeah, we've definitely been skipping over discussion of "trade secret" as a reason tech doesn't get developed and stick around. (sammyo mentioned it right away, but the conversation hasn't been focused on it.)

(Spoiler for how the scurvy cure was lost: lemon & lime were nearly interchangeable terms, and they swapped out lemons for a cheaper, sharper-flavored lime that didn't have nearly the same health value, and then they processed them in a way that killed the vitamin C. But shipping tech had changed, and trips were shorter, so it took a long time for anyone to notice that sailors were no longer protected from scurvy.)
It makes you wonder how many incurable ailments of the modern world—depression, autism, hypertension, obesity—will turn out to have equally simple solutions, once we are able to see them in the correct light. What will we be slapping our foreheads about sixty years from now, wondering how we missed something so obvious?
posted by ErisLordFreedom at 10:01 AM on January 5 [1 favorite]


Ulcers being caused by bacteria ranks up there.
posted by Mitheral at 12:33 PM on January 5 [1 favorite]


Late to the party, but the "200,000 year old ruins" are the Bakoni Ruins, and a fascinating pre-colonial artifact of advanced communal agriculture that dates to the seventeenth century AD - mostly for penning and pasturing livestock amid diverse gardens and grain fields. It's sort of like the Old Stone Mill in Newport, there's very little solid archaeology and less actual history, so people come up with odd notions and lots of tourists stop by to gawk. Typical of non-European ruins that are ill studied, they are blamed on space aliens and advanced lost civilizations the modern inhabitants couldn't possibly have had a hand in. Sorry.
posted by Slap*Happy at 12:44 PM on January 5 [1 favorite]




Humans don't typically have any memories until about three years of age. That's when most children develop speech and it's believed that that is the reason. Language is the reason we're able to remember our past and that, I think, forms the basis of our ability to look towards the future and be proactive about improving that future.

I'm fairly certain many of us have memories from before we learned to talk. I don't have many, but I have..gaps..in my early memory. (I remember not remembering, let's say) Lots of stuff that was once there that now is not. For me, the full narrative starts long after I was talking and even reading. Interestingly, it was literally years later when I finally developed an internal monologue. I remember it well because it launched quite the curiousity about what was going on in everybody else's head. You'd think knowing the dictionary definition of consciousness and hearing about the little angel and little devil on your shoulder telling you what to do would have kicked that process off sooner, but no.

Thinking back, I'd have to say that before then I didn't really have a concept of the mind and body being separable things, but neither did I hear voices in my head and ascribe them to God. I always wondered as a little kid, both before and after, if I was doing it wrong because I never heard God talk to me when I prayed.

That said, I have little doubt that being reared in a radically different environment could well produce radically different modes of cognition. After all, some of us tend to be visual thinkers, while others think primarily in language despite being raised for the most part in similar ways with similar cultural influences. That's a pretty damn big difference to my mind.
posted by wierdo at 2:59 AM on January 6


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