If humans have been around for hundreds of thousands of years, why did it take so long for them to develop civilization and modern technology?
This was asked on Yahoo Answers the other day, with a secondary question as well: Is it possible that humans did develop modern technology and civilization sometime during this epoch and we don’t know about it yet? I’ll answer the second question first, because it’s easy. No, there is zero chance that humans developed a technological civilization in the prehistoric past that is now completely unknown to us. That’s because anything resembling a modern industrialized society would have left unmistakable traces in ice cores and sediment layers around the planet. Not to mention basic artifacts … or sunken ships. Thousands of shipwrecks have been found by modern treasure hunters, none of which has a mysterious origin. Yes, Atlantis is a fairy tale.
The first question is a bit trickier though. Anatomically modern humans have been around about 200,000 years, yet they only began to exhibit a suite of “modern” behaviours some 50,000 years ago, and not until about 10,000 years ago did they discover agriculture and start to build cities and civilizations. How is this possible? Granted the person asking the question was likely trying to make some lame point in order to support the young Earth creationist fable, but it is still an interesting question. Why indeed did it take our ancestors so long to invent modern society?
Well, I can make a number of conjectures. The first and most obvious is that while humans appear to be modern some 200,000 years ago, all that means is that their skeletons were the same as modern humans. Maybe there was some crucial but subtle brain change that had to be made before humans became “modern.” Someday we might find a 100,000 year old Otzi, until then we don’t know for sure just how modern these 200,000 year old humans were. Granted we have no real reason to believe this, I merely mention it to point out that we aren’t even sure the premise the question is based on is correct.
A second factor is that human populations was miniscule throughout those tens of thousands of years, tiny bands of hunter-gatherers scattered widely. Small numbers of people means small numbers of geniuses to make discoveries, and even smaller chances that they will be able to get together in numbers to accomplish anything. More importantly, for much of our prehistory, we didn’t even have language. And certainly not writing and the complex modern language required to transmit and compare ideas. Einstein without language might still have had brilliant insights, but it would have been very difficult for him to communicate them effectively.
Lastly, it was suggested by some answers that people were too busy surviving to strive for higher knowledge. This is largely untrue from modern studies of hunter-gatherer cultures, they actually have more free time than their agricultural brethren. Every ancient copper axe head ever discovered was polished to a mirror like sheen. This took huge amounts of labour with the tools they had available, and served no practical purpose. Hardly something done by people who had no time to spare.
This does lead to my last suggested reason why humans took so long to develop civilization. Even as hunter gatherers armed with stone tools, humans were a remarkably successful species. One that spread to every continent on Earth, and adapted to almost every conceivable ecosystem. No other animal has even come close to establishing the range and breadth of human colonization of the planet in what can only be considered an eye blink in geological time. So there was no need or motivation to develop higher civilization, why improve on perfection? Our ancestors had plenty of time for community events, song, sex, and all the rest. And they were good at hunting and gathering, humans could and did utilize a vast array of food sources, again, like no animal has ever been able to do before. Cavemen may not have had all the modern amenities, but they had good lives and couldn’t imagine they needed more.
No, the question isn’t why it took so long for humans to develop civilization. The real question is … why did it happen at all? And like the question “How many men does it take to put a new roll of TP on the dispenser?” the answer is … no one knows.
Have a great weekend everyone!
(The above image is claimed as Fair Use under US copyright law. It is central to illustrating the post, is not being used for profit, and in no way interferes with the copyright holder’s commercial use of the image. The opposite in fact, since I encourage people to visit the fine National Geographic article about Gobleki Tepe. These are the oldest monumental structures built by humans, built by stone age people that didn’t have agriculture. We have no clue why they were built, but they were the beginning of the road that led to the pyramids and Rome and eventually to us.)