We moderns are immersed in social technologies – that is, we’re surrounded by technologies used for social purposes.
Facebook, Twitter, Instagram, iPhones, etc are the most obvious current examples. Social technologies play a huge part in many of our lives — perhaps unsurprising for the most social animal on the planet.
Social technologies probably seem to you like a fairly recent innovation, maybe beginning with the radio or telegraph. But what was the very first social technology? And when did it come into existence? The answer will surprise you.
Garden Variety History
Books are an example of a social technology that appeared fairly recently — in the 1500’s. Papyrus is far older, but this social technology only gets us to about 2500 BCE (4500 years ago).
What about writing itself? It’s a social technology. But it only began in about 3200 BC (i.e., 5200 years ago) in Mesopotamia. While 5200 years ago may seem like a long time ago, it’s not. Social technologies can be traced much deeper into our human past. So deep in fact, that we weren’t even properly human yet when they first emerged; we’re talking about timescales so big, they are tough to conceptualize.
To better approach these timescales, let’s take a series of incremental steps backwards into the remote past… into deep history… to fully appreciate the very first properly social technology.
12,000 – 8000 years ago
This is the period where settled farming slowly started to supplant hunting and gathering as the primary mode of getting food. This “agricultural revolution” allowed population sizes to skyrocket within just a few hundred generations.
There were likely many types of social technologies during this period, most obviously buildings built for social gatherings.
But there was also alcohol; fermentation can be thought of as a social technology, since chemistry was being harnessed for social purposes aka neolithic partying.
But were alcohol or permanent buildings the oldest social technology? Nerp.
20,000 years ago
By this time, modern humans finally occupied all the Americas, from Alaska all the way down to the southern tip of Patagonia. Creating baskets and bead necklaces as they went (both social technologies).
Every single human in the world was a hunter-gatherer at this time. And a fun fact about hunter-gatherers at this time: their brains were 10% larger than ours today. Might need to rethink the dumb caveman trope.
40,000 years ago
At this point, there is irrefutable archaeological evidence of a worldwide proliferation of symbolic artifacts like cave paintings, and necklaces (though these things were already being produced in Africa 60,000 years prior to this point).
Cave paintings can be seen as social technologies in the sense that the preparation of pigments was used to create symbolic visuals for social groups to experience. But are they the oldest social technology? Not even close.
60,000 years ago
Modern humans, homo sapiens, had most definitely begun to spread out of Africa by 60,000 years ago. But probably it started happening by 100,000 years ago (especially around what is now Israel).
**An interesting side note about this story is that as they left Africa, they would have encountered other hominim species!
For example, Homo erectus, the pre-cursor of modern humans, was still alive and kicking in many parts of the world. And in Israel, modern humans would have encountered neanderthals, who operated from the Levant all the way into Northern Europe.
Imagine what THAT encounter would have been like!
Needless to say, there was probably a lot of killing and interbreeding that took place as modern humans muscled into neanderthal and homo erectus territory, which is part of the story of why people NOW look different in different parts of the world (Europeans have 5-10% neanderthal DNA, whereas Africans have none). Homo Sapiens is fundamentally an immigrant species.**
200,000 years ago
In Africa, anatomically modern humans begin appearing in the fossil record in Africa for the first time (e.g., Ethiopia, South Africa). No idea what they were doing at the time, but archaeologists know they were there and that they were shaped like us.
600,000 years ago
At this point, modern humans did not exist yet. We’re in deep time, folks. What did exist was our ancestor species Homo Hiedelbergensis, sporting a freshly evolved brain size increase, which supported a more advanced use of oral communication and social complexity.
But brains gobble calories 20 times faster than muscle, so increasing brain size by 20% would require a huge increase in nutrition consumed. How’d Heidelbergensis get all those extra calories?
Yup – you guessed it – the controlled use of fire aka cooking aka pre-chewing with heat. Fire basically pre-digests tough foods making more of the calories and nutrients available for hungry brains. But fire is also a social technology insofar as humans were using it to create communal fires; fires that acted as focal points around which social life could operate (especially important at night!).
So was fire than oldest social technology? No sir.
1.7 – 2 million years ago
Remember Homo Erectus? That cousin species modern humans would have encountered when they left Africa 100,000 years ago? Well, Homo Erectus itself migrated out of Africa 2 million years ago (!!!), and went on to populate a huge portion of the world, from China in the east, to Georgia (Damansi) in the north.
A Homo Erectus fossil found in China is 1.85 million years old! Let that sink in for a minute.
What technology would Homo Erectus have brought with them, out of Africa, that would have allowed them to survive and thrive in environments radically different from where they evolved?
A New Tool Under the Sun
The archaeological record shows that a new, complex type of stone hand axe was starting to emerge around 1.75 million years ago, one which caused stone tool technology to become increasingly important moving forward.
It is called an acheulean hand axe – and at the time, it was a major technological breakthrough, because it required Homo Erectus to make a series of 8 very precise strikes to chip it off of a much larger rock. It requires a great deal of concentration to perform, and it is certainly one of the earliest instances of what we can properly describe as a technology. It was such a breakthrough at the time, that the general design of the acheulean hand axe remained stable for the next 1 million years!
But are acheulean hand axes a social technology? And are they the first social technology? There’s some reasons to think that it is.
Transport of Stone
There is archaeological evidence that around 1.75 million years ago, stone was being quarried and chipped into stone tools in one location and then transported up to 50 miles to other locations. This may not sound like a lot to our car-dependant ears, but for our ancestors, travelling across 50 miles of paleolithic African woodland would have been prohibitively fucked: bare feet, naked, in the baking African sun, no vessels to carry food or water in, huge ferocious predators everywhere, and possibly hostile rival groups. Travel was “expensive”; there were severe limits to how far one Homo Erectus could travel in one trip, especially while carrying rocks.
More likely is that stone tools traversed these distances by being passed along in tiny, germinal, proto exchange networks — a process that would have connected otherwise unconnected individuals and groups over larger geographical regions. In other words, trade facilitated relationships and relationships facilitated trade. And what’s remarkable is that this was happening 1.75 million years ago! 1.5 million years before modern humans appeared. A stunning achievement in the deep history of humanity.
So, Acheulean hand axes were a technology – and a technology that happened to be used for social purposes.
Acheulean Hand Axes: The First Social Technology
In addition to the archaeological evidence suggesting trade networks, there are other reasons to regard acheulean stone handaxes as the first social technology.
- The highly refined, nuanced skill needed to create, and use, handaxes would need to have been taught socially. Creating handaxes required a “precisely directed application of 8 carefully weighted blows”, a complicated technique that one wouldn’t just stumble on.
- The handaxes themselves contained and transmitted information (i.e., in the form of the strike marks and flaking pattern, which is basically data on how the maker made the tool).
- The hand axes contained socially agreed upon value, which would have been necessary for exchanging them with others. Homo Erectus had no language or writing, so fine-grained negotiations would have been difficult.
As Clive Gamble, John Gowlett, and Robin Dunbar conclude in their excellent book ‘Thinking Big: How the Evolution of Social Life Shaped the Human Mind’, “great skill in (making) implements such as handaxes, was a skill inseparable from the social lives of hominims.” (127)
Clive Gamble, John Gowlett, and Robin Dunbar ‘Thinking Big: How the Evolution of Social Life Shaped the Human Mind’