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
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
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
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.