When thinking about human history, it’s tempting to see some developments as inevitable. Some certainly were, but the sheer amount of time before some of them took place seem to make them remarkable.
The human species, narrowly defined as Homo sapiens, is about 200,000 years old. Some argue that it’s older, around 300,000 years, others that full anatomical modernity didn’t arrive in total until 100,000 years ago. Whichever definition and time frame we go with, the human species has been around far longer than civilization, spending well more than 90% of its existence in small hunter-gatherer tribes. (If we broaden the definition of “humanity” to the overall Homo genus, then we’ve spent well over 99% of our history in that mode.)
For tens of thousands of years, no one really seemed to imagine the idea of a settled, sedentary lifestyle, until around 10,000-12,000 years ago in the Middle East. I’ve often wondered what those first settlers were thinking. Did they have any idea of the world changing significance of what they were doing? More than likely, they were solving their own immediate problems and judged the solutions by the immediate payoff.
The earliest sedentary, or semi-sedentary culture appears to have been a group we now call the Natufians. Living on the east coast of the Mediterranean in what is now Israel, Lebanon, and Syria, they were in a nexus of animal migrations and, in their time, a lush environment. Life for them was relatively good. They appear to have gotten a sedentary lifestyle effectively for free, in other words, without having to farm for it.
Then the climate started to change, an event called the Younger Dryas cooled the world for a brief period (brief in geological time, over a millenia in human time), but it was long enough to endanger the easy lifestyles the Natufians had probably become used to. After centuries or millenia of living in a sedentary environment, they likely had little or no knowledge of how to live the way their ancestors had.
Victims of circumstance, they were forced to innovate, and agriculture emerged. Maybe. This is only one possible scenario, but it strikes me as a very plausible one. The earliest evidence of nascent agriculture reportedly appears in that region in that period.
Another development that took a long time was writing. The oldest settlements arose several thousand years before writing developed.
The traditional view of the development of writing was that it evolved from pictures. But as Mark Seidenberg points out in his book, Language at the Speed of Sight, picture drawing is far more ancient than writing. The oldest cave art goes back 40,000 years, but what we call writing only arose about 5000 years ago, in Mesopotamia according to most experts (although some Egyptologists insist the Egyptian system came first).
It appears that the mental jump from pictures to symbols representing concepts was not an easy transition. What caused it? Seidenberg presents an interesting theory developed by archaeologist Denise Schmandt-Besserat.
Starting around 8000 BC, people in the Middle East started using small clay figures, called “tokens” today, as an accounting tool. The tokens were simple shapes such as cones, disks, or shell like forms. A token of a particular shape represented something like a sheep, or an amount of oil, or some other trade commodity. Pragmatic limitations in producing the tokens kept their shapes simple, instead of being accurate detailed depictions of what they represented.
A number of tokens were placed in sealed clay containers, presumably one for each actual item. The container was sent along with a trade shipment so the recipient would know they were receiving the correct items in the correct amounts. In time, in order to know what kinds of tokens were in a particular container, a 2D impression, a picture of the token, was often made on the container, in essence a label indicating which tokens it contained.
It then gradually dawned on people that they could get by with just the labels, with the token shape and some indicator of quantity. No container or actual physical tokens required. According to the theory, written symbolic representation of concepts had arrived.
The earliest proto-writing systems were a mixture of symbols and pictures. Over time, the picture portions did evolve into symbols, but only after the conceptual breakthrough of the symbols had already happened.
The early Bronze Age writing systems were difficult, requiring considerable skill to write or read. Reading and writing was effectively a specialty skill, requiring a class of scribes to do the writing and later reading of messages and accounts. It took additional millenia for the idea of an alphabet, with a symbol for each language sound, to take hold.
The earliest known alphabet was the Proto-Sinaitic script found in the Sinai peninsula dating to sometime around 1800-1500 BC. It appears to have been the precursor to the later Canaanite script, which itself was a precursor to the Phoenician and Hebrew alphabets that arose around 1100-1000 BC. The Phoenicians were sea traders and spread their alphabet around the Mediterranean. The Greeks would adapt the Phoenician alphabet, add vowels to it (a necessity driven by the fact that Greek was a multi-syllable language, as opposed to the Semitic languages, which were dominated by monosyllable words), and then use it to produce classical Greek civilization.
The development of these alphabets would lead to a relative explosion in ancient literature. This is why studying Bronze Age societies (3300-1200 BC) is primarily an exercise in archaeology, but studying the later classical ages of Greece and Rome is primarily about studying historical narratives, supplemented by archaeology.
Why did so much of this take place in the Middle East? Probably because, for thousands of years, the Middle East lay at the center of the world, a nexus of trading paths and ideas. It seems entirely possible to me that some of these breakthroughs happened in other lands, but that we first find archaeological evidence for them in the Middle East because they were imported there. The Middle East only lost this central role in the last 500 or so years, a result of the European Age of Exploration and the moving of world trade to the seas.
So, are there any new ideas, any new basic breakthroughs on the scale of agriculture or writing that are waiting for us, that we simply haven’t conceived of yet? On the one hand, you could argue that the invention of the printing press in the 15th century, along with the rise of the internet in the last couple of decades, and the dramatically increased collaboration they bring in, have ensured that the low hanging fruit has been picked.
On the other hand, you could also argue that all of these systems are built using our existing paradigms, paradigms that are so ingrained in our cognition that they simply may not point to breakthroughs waiting to happen. We don’t know what we don’t know.
It’s worth noting that the execution of agriculture and writing are not simple things. Most of us, if dropped unto an ancient farm, despite the techniques being much simpler than modern farming, would have no idea where to even begin. Or know how to construct an appropriate alphabet for whatever language was in use at the time. (Seidenberg points out that not all alphabets are useful for all languages. The Latin alphabet this post is written may be awkward for ancient Sumerian or Egyptian.)
It may be that the idea of farming or writing did occur to people in the paleolithic, but they simply had no conception of how to make it happen. In this view, these seeming breakthroughs are really the result of incremental improvements, none of which individually were that profound, that eventually added up to something that was profound. Consider again the two theories above on how farming and writing came about. Both seem more plausible than one lone genius developing them out of nothing, primarily because they describe incremental improvements that eventually add up to a major development.
Ideas are important. They are crucial. But alone, without competence, without the underlying pragmatic knowledge, they are impotent. On the other hand, steady improvements in competence often cause us to stumble on profound ideas. I think that’s an important idea.
Unless of course, I’m missing something?