All the technology we have today is built upon technology that came before it. Some branches of technological evolution stretch back just a few decades, while others stretch back hundreds and even thousands of years. Certain technologies stretch back to before the invention of writing. The inventions that came before the advent of recorded history are plentiful and very useful. Some inventions go back even further, before the advent of farming and even before human beings were fully evolved.
These six prehistoric inventions shaped our evolution and defined who we became as a species.
1. An Understated Prehistoric Invention: The Sewing Needle
Today, clothes are made in factories on an industrial level, with sewing machines having many complex moving parts. However, the concept behind them is tens of thousands of years old and was made possible by a simple tool: a pin-shaped piece of bone with an eye drilled into one end and a point at the other. It may seem like a simple thing, but for the Stone Age, this prehistoric invention was a game changer of massive proportions.
The oldest possible sewing needle came from 61,000 years ago and was found in South Africa. The artifact is just the tip, so no eyelet remains to confirm that it is indeed a sewing needle. The oldest confirmed sewing needle in the archeological record is 50,000 years old and was created by Denisovans (a close relative of the Neanderthals). The oldest sewing needle created by Homo sapiens (us) dates to around 47,000 to 41,000 years ago and was created by early European modern humans (Cro-Magnons). Bone and ivory were the material of choice up until human beings were able to work copper. The oldest copper needles date to around 4000 BCE and were found in Egypt. As civilization moved into the Bronze Age and the Iron Age, sewing needles followed suit.
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Sewing needles allowed us to fashion garments that fit us properly, which were far more efficient in protecting us from the elements. Were it not for the prehistoric invention of the sewing needle, our clothes would consist of pieces of cloth (or leather) with holes cut into them, tied to our bodies with straps.
It cannot be argued that shoes have become an important part of human society and civilization. They allow us to traverse the world on foot without the risk of injuring the soles of our feet.
Due to the perishable nature of materials used, it’s extremely difficult to find physical evidence of shoes in prehistory, but the lack of shoes doesn’t mean we don’t know they were used. By examining the smaller toe bones of human remains (i.e., not the big toe), archeologists found that between 40,0000 and 26,000 years ago, our species underwent a change where the smaller toe bones reduced in length and width. This is assumed to be a result of wearing shoes.
However, it’s very possible that shoes were used long before that. It is a certainty that Neanderthals wore shoes as well. Early shoes would have been simple leather bags tied to the leg with string (another important prehistoric invention) to protect the feet from abrasions and, in the case of the northern climes, the bitter cold. For Homo sapiens venturing into Europe out of Africa, this would have been a necessity, as their bodies were not adapted to the extreme cold like Neanderthal bodies were.
Simple sacks tied on with string would evolve. The oldest shoe ever found is only 5,500 years old. Shoes would have evolved long before this, however. As noted, the perishable materials used mean their physical existence is likely gone forever. Nevertheless, these shoes had laces.
In warmer climates, flip-flops were invented, which gave rise to sandals.
One of the most successful and useful prehistoric inventions that still find use today is the spear. Many forms of spears existed in prehistoric times. Two of the most common were spears used for hunting big game. Homo sapiens used long spears designed for throwing, while Neanderthals generally used shorter, sturdier spears designed for stabbing up close.
In addition to the throwing spears, H. sapiens also invented the spear thrower, also called an “atlatl.” The concept behind the spear thrower relies on physics to make the spear travel further and faster. The concept is still used today and can be found in ball throwers for dogs. Recently, a spear thrower and other hunting tools were found in a 9000-year-old grave of a woman in the Andean highlands, challenging the notion that only men hunted.
Harpoons were also invented, specifically for hunting fish. The addition of multiple prongs (usually three) at the tip widened the area of impact, making the tool more efficient in catching smaller prey that was able to dart away in the water.
Later, bows and arrows were invented and played a crucial role in hunting. They are still used, along with the spear, by hunter-gatherer people today. Without these prehistoric inventions, it is very likely our species would have gone extinct. In fact, it is even more likely that H. sapiens wouldn’t have even evolved at all were it not for the spears of our ancestors.
One of the greatest prehistoric inventions was art, which can’t exist without the tools and materials to make it. Prehistoric man was adept at finding pigments and perfecting techniques to apply their imaginative skills.
The earliest possible art that we know of comes from the Neanderthals. Around 176,500 years ago, these archaic humans arranged stalagmites and stalactites in circular formations deep in the bowels of Bruniquel Cave in France. They did so with purpose and intent. Nobody is sure why they did this, but it was certainly a form of artistic expression that evolved considerably as the years passed.
Of all the artistic endeavors of prehistoric human beings, cave paintings are perhaps the most widespread and well-known. In our minds today, they form a basis of the stereotypical idea of prehistoric human beings. Prehistoric cave paintings exist all over the world, from Lascaux in France to Kakadu in Australia to the Cueva de Las Manos in Argentina.
Apart from stylized and remarkably detailed hunting scenes, a popular form of painting was stenciling the hand. Pigment made from ochre or charcoal was mixed in the mouth. The hand was placed on the cave wall, and the paint mixture was spat out in small puffs, like a prehistoric airbrush. The result was a painting leaving negative space where the hand was. Some cave walls were covered in hand signatures like this.
Apart from art in caves, jewelry was also created, at least as far back as 115,000 years ago. The oldest find was perforated beads made from seashells and is again attributed to our older cousins, the Neanderthals. There are also many Neanderthal sites with evidence to suggest eagle talons were sought after in making jewelry.
Later, Homo sapiens created intricate works of art in their creation of jewelry, from shells to bone and eventually to copper and other metals.
The prehistoric invention of pottery greatly affected the day-to-day lifestyles of ancient human beings. The oldest pottery discovered dates to around 20,000 years ago and was found in China.
The pragmatic use of clay pots can’t be denied. It opened up cooking options to our ancestors and allowed us to boil water. Pots could also be used to store things. Research from Japan points to the fact that the usage of pottery became incredibly important in creating cultural traditions. They fostered a tradition in art and design, as well as a culinary tradition. Dishes, along with their ingredients, became solidified in different cultures, and different regions with access to different ingredients would have created diversity in prehistoric cultures.
In modern archeology, pottery design is used to identify different cultures from different regions as well on a chronological level.
Clay was also used not just in making pots but for a variety of other purposes, including the construction of idols in the form of statuettes. Clay thus formed an important part in the symbolic representation of belief.
6. The Prehistoric Invention of the Boat
Being able to traverse the rivers and coastal waters of the prehistoric world opened up a huge realm of opportunities for people living in the stone age. Of primary importance in this area was the prehistoric invention of the boat. Early boats were usually canoes, dugout logs, or even just wood planks, but they did their job.
The oldest physical piece of a boat we have is dated to around 8000 BCE, but this is by no means the oldest boat. A rock carving in Azerbaijan from 10,000 BCE depicts people in a boat.
Earlier evidence of Homo erectus on Crete suggests that this early human would have used boats too. This puts the prehistoric invention of the boat back by hundreds of thousands of years!
Many of the inventions we have today are virtually unrecognizable as having their roots in prehistoric inventions, yet some are virtually unchanged. If one were to find a 10,000-year-old sewing needle, one would immediately recognize it as such.
We owe much of our modern life to prehistoric human beings and their prehistoric inventions. These early inventions were the foundations and catalysts for paths of evolution that would shape the story of humankind forever.