Doug's Darkworld

War, Science, and Philosophy in a Fractured World.

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?

with 9 comments

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.)

Written by unitedcats

July 20, 2012 at 6:30 am

9 Responses

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  1. I kinda disagree that axes “polished to a mirror like sheen” would serve no practical purpose, the smother the surface of an axe is the easier it is to use, but I get your point ;)

    Pyrodin

    July 20, 2012 at 7:53 am

    • A copper axe head heats up, deforms, and becomes useless in about 15 minutes of chopping. We don’t even know what they used these axe heads for, they don’t appear to have a practical use, copper is just too soft. And yet great amounts of labour was spent making and polishing them. I should have expanded my remark in the post. —Doug

      unitedcats

      July 20, 2012 at 7:57 am

      • Oops, I stand corrected. The documentary I saw on the copper axe heads is contradicted by other stuff I have now researched on line. Stand by, lol —Doug

        unitedcats

        July 20, 2012 at 3:05 pm

  2. I think you are missing the obvious answer Doug; the aliens didn’t arrive on earth to bestow their mystical knowledge until roughly 10-15,000 years ago. Sheesh, you’d think an educated guy like yourself would have caught that one right away.

    Andrew

    July 20, 2012 at 8:19 am

  3. Doug
    I know this comment is three years late but I cant help but wonder why on one hand you make your argument or explanation in a very scientific approach and at the same time you resort to old world presumptions about how all legends are fairy tales? One of the characteristics of all modern scientists is to be dismissive of all knowledge that man has had since prehistory without any sense of realising those very myths they believed in is what gave birth to the world we live in today. You just go on with a stroke and say yes ” Atlantis was a fairy tale” . What is interesting to me is not the existence of Atlantis but the predisposition in you to dismiss the writings of ancient academics (Plato) ? I don’t know if you have ever spent time to wonder about the brain that is capable of organising the construction of a structure such as Gobekli tepe, Stone henge , Pyramids of Giza, etc? In your view how different is the way that brain would have operated to todays mans brain when carrying out tasks of similar proportion? Can you not see that this dismissiveness of peoples intelligence and abilities in the past is misplaced?
    I believe its a vestige of 18th century enlightened explorers and scientists who went out and came back and basically said we now know the truth everyone else knew fables. This way of viewing antiquity has to be revised.

    Ronny

    May 23, 2015 at 12:08 pm

  4. 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.

    On this question , I would ask you to look at some areas of the world. Today in Amazon forest and in the papua New guinea area you can see human populations that haven’t had much if any interactions with modern civilisation. And one thing that will become apparent on observation is that their lives are no diferent to man who lived 20 to 30 thousand years ago. Even when the invasion of Africa began up to 18th century Africans lived their lives almost as they would have done for the last 30/40/60 thousand years. This should point to something. That should point to the fact that humans can exist and live for millennia just like Dinosaurs did with nothing that shows their superior brain power apart from building shelter and using tools and speaking. One characteristic of these remote peoples is the absence of myths of the type where you hear about Gods descending or ascending. All theses remote peoples are characterised by a typical veneration for the dead/ ancestral worship. But when you focus the spotlight into the middle east region where earliest civilsations are thought to have started you find a lot of myths and legends around gods and the like.
    Surely one doesn’t have to be so dismissive of these legends.

    Ronny

    May 23, 2015 at 12:49 pm

  5. The mysteries of life. Those tribes have been relatively untouched, while the Middle East constantly had foreign traders from all over the world, which would have fuelled a lot of the myths and stories and unleashed the imagination. Eventually those tribes will cross over to the dark side.

    daveSmith

    June 30, 2016 at 6:18 am

  6. I would like to respectfully disagree with this theory as there are evidences of intelligent civilisation before 6000 years. Would it be possible that man had created civilisations several times in the past and the early was destroyed several times to restart everything again. Is it possible that the shipwrecks or buildings actually decomposed or disintegrated under layers and layers of earth or ocean. Is it also possible that our civilisation is not that intelligent get to find ways to discover the lost civilisations. Possibly after a few thousand years we will also be destroyed for another new human life to try their existence on earth.

    Doreena Mascarenhas

    August 12, 2016 at 9:04 am

  7. Humanity is an extra terrestrial experiment between many humanoid species Neanderthals being one and I believe there are at least three or four others then there’s us humans ! So what happened to these other humanoids thay were intelligent enough to of survived earths climate? Thay seemed to of just vanished of the surface of planet earth,perhaps thay were relocated? When Easter island was discovered there were reports of 8,10 and even 12 ft tall humans inhabited the island ,80 years later thay were all gone,only the regular humans were left ? The pyramids I believe we’re not built by humans or if they were they had help for sure.Thats my opinion anyhow OK back to the experiment looks like humans won the prize, planet earth all to themselves however I think the experiment is about finished as humans have figured all this out!!!

    Darren kay

    September 18, 2016 at 9:46 am


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