Today, we learn to talk. The University of
Houston's College of Engineering presents this
series about the machines that make our
civilization run, and the people whose ingenuity
I teach a course in the
history of technology and culture. Human
communication becomes a key issue in such a course.
How old is it? How did it take shape?
The word technology (techni+ology) means the lore of
technique. It literally means the act of
communicating the knowledge of how to make things.
To say that we're a technological species means
that we tell one another about what we make. And,
at some point in human history, that communication
took a huge leap forward.
For years, anthropologists dated that leap from
about 30,000 years ago. After that, we see cave
painting, bone sculpture, barbed spear points,
specialized bone scrapers, and rudimentary musical
instruments -- drums and whistles.
That was also about the time the Neanderthals
disappeared and modern humans appeared. During the
1980s and '90s, anthropologists looked closely at
the arrangement of the larynx and mouth of
Neanderthals and modern humans. The idea, hotly
debated, was that Neanderthals couldn't articulate
well enough to speak fluently.
A year or so ago, Science magazine
summarized the question in a series of editorial
articles. They conclude that the ability to
articulate words might well be as much as 150,000
years old. But what's missing is any strong
evidence of the use of symbols or complex social
organizations that depend upon communication. The
ability seems not to've been put to use for a long
As archaeologists dig deeper, they find tantalizing
clues. They find evidence that modern humans lived,
not just thirty or forty thousand years ago, but as
much as 130,000 years back. They find highly
articulated bone harpoon points from ninety
thousand years ago. It becomes clear that
Neanderthals coexisted with modern humans for a
long time. We might even have intermarried.
We crave to set tidy boundaries. "The renaissance began in 1453." "Fulton invented the steamboat."
"Newton brought in the age of enlightenment." Never
mind that steamboats were around for thirty years
before Fulton and that Newton was a crypto-alchemist. Never mind that
the renaissance was a shift
in human viewpoint that grew up in different
places, different ways, and different times.
Yet an explosion of human creativity did occur
thirty thousand years ago. Once we can put away our
need to be tidy, it's clear enough that the
Paleolithic revolution could occur only after the
communication of technique had gained momentum for
a hundred thousand years and finally gone critical.
Our species became homo technologicus when, in the
words of Robert Browning, we let the rank tongue
blossom into speech. We became sharers of
Look at the exquisite carvings of twenty thousand
years ago, and you see something more: Through the
new agency of speech, technology reached beyond a
mere sharing of technique. Once fueled by speech,
it became the manipulation of metaphor and the
spilling out of our subconscious. And so it has
been ever since.
I'm John Lienhard, at the University of Houston,
where we're interested in the way inventive minds