The Evolution of Human Culture

30.06.2021 |

Episode #4 of the course The evolution of life in the universe by Silvano P. Colombano Ph.D.


For the sake of a starting point let’s take the first drawings found on cave walls in South Africa, dating about 73,000 ya. As we noted in the previous lesson, hominids separated from other primates long before (5-7 Million years ago). There were several species in the genus “homo”. Among these homo abilis, dating back 2M years, homo erectus and homo neanderthalensis. These species migrated throughout the world. Our species migrated from Africa and competed with the Neanderthals eventually causing their extinction and becoming the only extant homo species. The competition for resources among them followed the same rules that guided the Darwinian evolution of all other species. At our “starting point” primitive tools of bone and stones, and control of fire had already been “technologies” in use. Note that the presence of “homo sapiens” has been traced back to about 200,000 years ago. They were anatomically like us and we can assume that they had the same intelligence, yet for all that time not much happened from one generation to the next, in terms of what we would recognize as cultural evolution


The Emergence of Primitive “Technologies”

In the context of our thinking about evolution, again we have these relatively long periods when a “substrate” of elements is created, from which fundamentally new features can emerge. We saw that phenomenon in the evolution of life, where, after millions of years of unicellular organism development, multicellular structures emerged that paved the way for our own existence.

For the evolution of human culture, we see several important technologies emerge over thousands of years, such as the ability to create fire on demand (with flints), fishing hooks, strings, and “needles” with an eye that allowed for creating garments. All these were developments that enhanced survival and the ability to migrate, but probably the most important development began to be evidenced around 40,000 ya and that is the emergence of language, thus the ability to deal with concepts and objects not immediately experienced, the ability to create stories and, most importantly, the ability to maintain and propagate knowledge. The development of language was connected with the evolution of gene structures that coded for the brain areas that are responsible for this very special ability of our species.

The next 40,000 years see a continuous slow process of improvements in the ability of our species to control its environment for survival and migration. Here are some highlights, together with approximate timing (how many years ago):


Important Milestones (In Years Ago)

32,000: Earliest migration to the Americas (Mexico). Probably coastal migration from Asia.

29,000: Earliest fishing nets in South Korea.

20,000: Pottery and cooking in pots (China).

15,000: Colonization of North and South America from Asia across the Bering land bridge.

11,700: Start of the current geological epoch (Holocene) with warm and stable climate.

11,500: Start of agriculture.

11,000: Earliest walled city Jericho (southern Levant), (up to 3,000 people).

10,500: Beginning of domestication of farm animals starting with goats and sheep and continuing with cattle, pigs, and chickens over the next 2 thousands years.

10,000: The world population of humans reaches 5 million.

7,900: Viniculture and wine as humanity’s “social lubricant”!

7,900: Start of the Age of Copper and new metal tool development.

7,200: Seaborne trading networks with mast and sail technology. The earliest use of “natural forces” to replace human labor.

5,500: Domestication of horses, soon followed by the wheel and carriages. This revolutionized transportation and the economy, with the new ease of moving goods.

5,300: Start of the Bronze Age, replacing copper for tools and weapons. Also, numerical systems in Mesopotamia and Egypt, followed a century later by full writing (cuneiform in Mesopotamia, hieroglyphics in Egypt).

4,550: Earliest writing on papyrus.


The Importance of Writing As Cultural “Memory”

One of the key drivers of evolution is the ability of systems to retain a memory of any “progress” made. In biological systems, any advantageous changes will favor reproduction and will be coded in the DNA, which in turn will ensure that future systems will maintain the favorable change. This property is valid at different systems levels and certainly in cultural evolution. Note again that the presence of language started to speed up the evolution of technologies that facilitated the survival and thriving of our species. Ideas could be explained and transmitted from generation to generation. This process was further enhanced by the development of writing, as mentioned above, and means, such as the papyrus, to spread the ideas more easily.

Not coincidentally this is also a point in history where large empires begin to emerge, starting around 3,800 ya we have empires in Mesopotamia, China, Egypt, Greece, Persia and Central America (Mayas) together with continuing advances in literature, philosophy, mathematics, geometry, astronomical observations, politics, engineering.


More Milestones: From the Iron Age to the Printing Press

3,050: Start of the Iron Age. Iron replaces bronze for tools and weapons.

2650: Earliest collection of texts, on 32,000 cuneiform tablet in Iraq (Library of Ashurbanipal).

2000: Emergence of the Roman empire. Rome is a thriving city with about 1 million inhabitants (according to some historical estimates), with aqueducts that brought water into the city, buildings that endure to this day, transportation infrastructure, and a political system that allowed it to endure as an empire for another 500 years. This was also the start of Christianity and the modern calendar, which we will adopt as we list more important dates (AD = “Anno Domini”).

550 AD: Earliest block printing on paper (China).

650 AD: Rules for using “0” in mathematics (India).

900 AD: Earliest use of windmills (land power from non-animal and non-human resources – water mills already in use for about 1000 years).

1044 AD: Use of gunpowder (China).

1286 AD: Making eyeglasses (Italy).

1347 AD: Black Death bacillus kills about half of the population of Europe. A reminder that human progress is not immune from challenging catastrophes.

1400 AD: Birth of the Renaissance in Italy (individuality, critical thinking, innovation).

1440 AD: Mechanical printing press with movable type (Germany).

This is a good place to stop. This was just a subjective tip of the iceberg of important events, but we have laid the basic groundwork for the next even faster stage of human evolution. The next stage was fueled by science and by a technological revolution made possible by a deeper understanding of nature and by further harnessing of power.

What is important to note is how similar, in principle, human cultures are to different species. For both types of systems, evolution was based on the ability to make use of resources and store and transmit the information gained to following generations. The DNA and genetic processes that created species, have a counterpart in language, writing, and transportation that allowed different cultures to ultimately exchange and share the important innovations that brought us to where we are now. The next 1500 years will be truly astounding.


Recommended book

Sapiens: A Brief History of Humankind by Yuval Noah Harari


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