Today, we learn from the late stone age. 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 term stone age is a
mantle loosely thrown over a range of human history
from two million years ago right up to the first
dynasty of Egypt. It includes all but the last 5000
years. The stone age was the slow, sprawling
gestation period of modern technology, which then
uncoiled with blinding speed.
We break the stone age into three parts. The
Paleolithic era was the long, almost static, age of
hunting and gathering. It lasted until only 15,000
years ago. Stone-working technology began to move
forward in the Mesolithic period. Mesolithic
artisans used a much wider range of materials and
techniques. Their most recent Paleolithic ancestors
had just begun a new order of art with cave
painting. Now they took art out of the caves and
began carving figurines from stone and bone.
The third stage of the stone age was the Neolithic
era -- literally the age of new stone. It was the
fairly short agricultural stone age. It began 8000
years ago, and it ended as the copper alloy we call
bronze came into use.
Neolithic artisans brought the use of stone, wood,
and bone to a complexity that we still don't
understand. The great pyramids were built when
bronze was still very new. Those dazzling
expressions of human will and energy were, in fact,
almost a pure stone-age accomplishment. Yet they
are the stone age functioning on the scale of the
As we assemble archaeological pieces, we're
startled by the range of techniques we see.
Neolithic engineers had mastered means for drilling
rock and sawing monoliths from mountainsides.
They'd magnified human and animal force with
virtuoso use of levers and pulleys.
Instrumentation is an easily overlooked part of
Neolithic engineering. We find every variation of
the balance, the plumb bob, and the square. The
high level of late-stone-age planning and technique
is evident in Stonehenge, in the fertile crescent
-- even in the Ahu statues of latter-day Easter
Island. Those accomplishments remind us that the
inventive mind will go as far as it can, with the
means at hand, and then start over.
The early Bronze age gave nothing as grand as the
pyramids. Metal-working meant another new start.
When the Dorians replaced bronze with iron in 1000
BC, they created a new dark age.
And so history humbles us. It limits our inflated
ideas about human progress. The Neolithic engineers
remind us how the human spirit will fill the room
to its boundaries in every age.
I'm John Lienhard, at the University of Houston,
where we're interested in the way inventive minds