Engines of Our Ingenuity

No. 1526:

by John H. Lienhard

Click here for audio of Episode 1526.

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 created them.

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 time.

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 technique.

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 work.

(Theme music)

Science, 20 Nov. 1988, articles on pp. 1441-1459.

(from the 1897 Encyclopaedia Britannica)

A glance into the human pharynx where sound is shaped

The Engines of Our Ingenuity is Copyright © 1988-2000 by John H. Lienhard.