Altamira Bison

How Human Ingenuity Arose

Fascinating articles by Heather Pringle in Scientific American Magazine, on the origins of creativity:

Scientists long thought that early humans were stuck in a creative rut until some 40,000 years ago, when their powers of innovation seemed to explode. But archaeological discoveries made in recent years have shown that our ancestors had flashes of brilliance far earlier than that. These findings indicate that the human capacity for innovation emerged over hundreds of thousands of years, driven by both biological and social factors.

Most researchers have pointed to the Upper Paleolithic, around 40,000 years ago, when Homo sapiens started adorning cave walls with images of Ice Age animals and forging inventive beaded designs and other innovations, as when the early spark of creativity finally caught fire—yielding the kind of rapid-fire innovative thought that characterizes our species today.

Over the past decade archaeologists have uncovered far older evidence of art and advanced technology, suggesting that the human capacity to cook up new ideas evolved much earlier than previously thought—even before the emergence of H. sapiens 200,000 years ago. Yet although our capacity for creativity sparked early on, it then smoldered for millennia before finally catching fire in our species in Africa and Europe. The evidence seems to indicate that our power of innovation did not burst into existence fully formed late in our evolutionary history but rather gained steam over hundreds of thousands of years, fueled by a complex mix of biological and social factors.