Today, we visit a home that hardly changed in a
quarter-million years. 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.
I've said a lot about the
way we're driven by our technologies. I've talked
about the symbiotic way we live with the fruits of
our minds -- the way we interact with our tools.
I've said that our machines are extensions of our
minds -- that they teach us, form us, and make us
what we were not.
But it was not always so. While human creatures
have been on this earth a long time, the
man-machine interaction has gone on only in the
last one percent of human existence.
Author Jean Kerisel writes about soil mechanics and
foundations. He begins by showing us how early
humans understood and controlled their soil. He
takes us into Choukoutien Cave -- 25 miles outside
Early Peking Man settled the cave 560,000 years
ago. It was then a large limestone karst formation.
It had stalactites and stalagmites and a sloping
floor that ended in water catch-basins. The cave
was occupied for 230,000 years. The bottom
gradually filled in with layer after layer of
detritus, and the floor gradually rose. The
occupants broke away the stalactites and extended
the ceiling and walls. At one point the central
chamber was 450 feet wide.
Archaeologists have been sifting downward through
the millennia. The earliest tools they find are
crude sandstone implements. Later, they were
sharper and smaller and made of harder stone. The
later tools reflect some knowledge of splitting and
shaping stone. Those later occupants also showed an
elementary sense of structural form -- of arches
and rounded vaults.
Yet that seems like little gain in a
quarter-million years. We wonder how far ahead of
dam-building beavers or hive-making honey-bees
these people were. We seem to be watching instinct
at work more than human creativity.
We ask so much more of our technology. We expect it
to change, and we let it change us. That didn't
happen in the quarter-million years our ancestors
occupied that cave. Their technology was too
sparse. Its critical mass was not enough to make
them see its creative possibilities.
So their bones and ashes and castoff tools filled
up the floor and eventually drove them out the top.
They moved on to some other cave and continued
their almost static lives for hundreds of millennia
more. Only the other day -- only 30,000 years ago
-- did something change. Suddenly our tools opened
our eyes to a stunning range of possibility.
Suddenly, in a blink, they changed us into a
radically different species.
I'm John Lienhard, at the University of Houston,
where we're interested in the way inventive minds