Did our creativity explode because we lived in large groups?

Did our creativity explode because we lived in large groups?

Portrait of Olivier Hillegers

what’s the idea?

Hand axes. Spearheads. the hook. And then: cave paintings, beaded necklaces, and lightweight arrows. Mankind has existed for hundreds of thousands of years, but more complex inventions have only been in the past ten thousand years.

According to a host of theories, this was not because creative currency finally landed in our brain, but because of something much simpler: we’re starting to live in larger groups. Because only then, with enough people together, does innovation really gain momentum, says Joseph Heinrich, a biologist in Harvard Cultural Evolution. Computational Biology PLoS. The wheel doesn’t need to be reinvented every time.

What’s the wild thing about that?

The idea of ​​large groups – enabling – more innovation – will solve many mysteries about humanity. For example, ancient anthropologists are excavating more and more prehistoric human skulls that provided a space in the skull almost the same as modern humans. The most important of them is 300 thousand years and it fell in a cave in Morocco. This makes it possible for our brains not to go through a sudden growth spurt until 50,000 years in order to make special inventions. Mark Thomas writes in Science.

Thomas also suspects that the group’s size explains how people could differ from Neanderthals, who are now also clear that they had a culture and made inventions, but which are nonetheless extinct. He wrote that Neanderthals lived in groups of tens of people, not hundreds, and this may have cut off this important amount of ingenuity.

Why could it be true?

There is no doubt that a minimum group size is required for people to learn from one another, says Professor Emeritus of Biological Anthropology Karel van Scheck at the University of Zurich. “This assumption must be correct, unless there are social processes that oppose innovation when there are more people.” Van Scheik himself researched how groups of chimpanzees and orangutans learn tool tricks in zoos.

And yes, there are initial indications that a larger group is encouraging more trick. And therefore Australian researchers believe that the language regenerates faster In large populations. And when Heinrich and Thomas rewrote the Stone Age in computer simulations, they saw that with larger groups, the chance for people to acquire more skills and, above all, to retain them, increases.

What conflicts with this theory?

However, the story is also not clear. Philosopher of science Christ Weissen of the Eindhoven University of Technology, also affiliated with the branch of Archeology at Leiden University, It indicates some uncomfortable discoveries. Cave drawings in the cradle of an explosion of creativity? People stopped doing that, too. “Twelve thousand years ago, we found nothing but stones with a few circles on them,” he says. Inventions came and disappeared and we don’t see a clear relationship with the size of the group in the fossils.

Perhaps there wasn’t even a sudden acceleration of stone age innovation that needs explanation, Van Schaik and Vaesen say. This idea is mainly based on how private archaeologists found some of the finds. Weissen: ‘But maybe the things we find interesting aren’t interesting at all. Everything could have been so gradual. Neanderthals were probably innovative and vanished by pure chance. We do not know.’

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