500,000 Years of Technological Evolution: A Deep Dive

Evolution of Technology

Humanity’s leap in stone tool complexity around 600,000 years ago marks a pivotal moment in our ancestors’ ability to adapt to new environments. 

This significant advancement suggests a sudden increase in hominin knowledge, potentially predating the split between Neanderthals and modern humans

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This shared trait could be a key feature in both lineages, according to anthropologists Jonathan Paige from the University of Missouri and Charles Perreault from Arizona State University.

In their new study, Paige and Perreault examined stone tool manufacturing techniques spanning 3.3 million years. 

They ranked 62 different tool-making sequences based on their complexity, analyzing tools from 57 sites across Africa, Eurasia, Greenland, Sahul, Oceania, and the Americas.

Their findings show that, up until 1.8 million years ago, stone tools were made using sequences of two to four procedural steps. 

Over the next 1.2 million years, the complexity increased to seven steps. However, around 600,000 years ago, tool-making techniques dramatically advanced, requiring up to 18 procedural steps. 

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This technological leap is attributed to the cumulative culture—knowledge and skills passed down through generations. Paige and Perreault suggest that cumulative culture is critical for technological advancement, allowing innovations and improvements to build over time. 

They define it as the process where each generation builds upon the knowledge and errors of previous ones, resulting in technologies far beyond what any individual could develop in their lifetime.

Cumulative culture enhances problem-solving abilities and allows individuals to utilize and improve technologies without understanding every detail of their development. 

This ever-growing knowledge pool may have influenced the selection of genes related to learning, leading to increased brain size and other traits unique to humans.

While Paige and Perreault’s findings provide strong evidence for cumulative culture’s presence around the Middle Pleistocene, they also suggest that this cultural intelligence could have emerged even earlier in ways that aren’t easily detected in the archaeological record. 

Early hominins might have used cumulative culture to develop complex behaviors that are not visible in the fossil record.

This research highlighted the importance of cumulative culture in shaping human evolution and was published in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences (PNAS).

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