Engines of Our Ingenuity

No. 208:
UPPER PALEOLITHIC TECHNOLOGY

by John H. Lienhard

Click here for audio of Episode 208.

Today, we watch art turn to technology. The University of Houston's College of Engineering presents this series about the machines that make our civilization run, and the people whose ingenuity created them.

The Neanderthal people appeared 100 thousand years ago, and they lasted up to the so-called Upper Paleolithic period -- 25 or 30 thousand years ago. The Neanderthals were contradictory folk. They were small and tough, but they had substantial brains. They made stone tools, but they also continued to use their teeth as primary implements. And their toolmaking technology was completely static. It didn't evolve from one millennium to the next.

That's probably because they made their tools from the materials around their campsites and then left them behind when they moved on. Their tools didn't become possessions. They didn't become part of a cultural heritage. The Neanderthals' tools did not appear to be products of their minds and their hearts.

When Neanderthals gave way to the so-called modern humans -- to people like the Cro-Magnons -- technology began to move. But why? It wasn't a matter of brain capacity, so what had changed?

When we look to see what else might have been going on, what we find is cave painting. We find remarkable drawings in 200 western European caves. They date from 35,000 years ago, right down to the dawn of agriculture, less than 10,000 years ago.

Cave paintings were first done by the last Neanderthals. Then they were taken up by the modern humans that followed. And when I look at those pictures, I think I know what happened. Bisons, mammoths, goats, and deer are instantly recognizable as the creatures of a harsh reality -- hunting and being hunted. But we also see them as phantoms of the mind. The lines have grace and motion that sweeps us into the dreams of the artists. This is not documentary reporting of the hunt; it's symbolic self-expression of a very high order.

Cave painting continued right through a huge discontinuity of evolution. Maybe they unleashed that discontinuity. The modern humans who replaced the Neanderthals also replaced their rote use of tools with technologies that grew and evolved. We suddenly see implements made from new materials. Bone and ivory, for example, were being fashioned into delicate human figurines and musical instruments, as well as into slings and arrows.

The Classical Greeks used the wonderful word techni to describe the inseparable functions of art and skill in making things. That idea comes home dramatically when we see the creative, dream-driven, inner man of these early humans, laid out on the walls of caves. Our forbears finally found ways to share the ideas that touched their spirits. The evolving, self-expressive technology we know today followed that, the way day follows night.

I'm John Lienhard, at the University of Houston, where we're interested in the way inventive minds work.

(Theme music)


These ideas are developed by, White, R., The Upper Paleolithic: A Human Revolution. Yearbook of Science and the Future (D. Calhoun, ed.). Chicago: Encyclopaedia Britannica, Inc., 1989.


Facsimile of a palaeolithic painting of a bison in Spain's Altamira Cave
(from the 1911 Enclycopaedia Britannica)


The Engines of Our Ingenuity is Copyright © 1988-1997 by John H. Lienhard.
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