A VERY OLD HOUSE
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
in only 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 Beijing, China.
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
honeybees 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 thirty thousand
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 work.
Kerisel, J., Down to Earth. Boston: A.A. Balkema, 1987, Chapter 1.
The Engines of Our Ingenuity is Copyright © 1988-1997 by John H. Lienhard.
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