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Top 10 Inventions in History

Human Creativity at its Best

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Modern human beings are the result of millions of years of evolution. But not just physical evolution: we are also the result of a series of innovations and inventions of technology that make our lives livable today. But I'm not talking about the latest iPhone. My pick for the top ten human inventions begins 1.7 million years ago.

10. Acheulean Handaxe (~1,700,000 Years Ago)

Oldest Acheulean Handaxe from Kokiselei, Kenya
Acheulean Handaxe from Kokiselei, Kenya. P.-J. Texier © MPK/WTAP

Pointy pieces of stone or bone fixed to the end of a long stick to be used by humans to hunt animals or fight ridiculously frequent battles with one another are known to archaeologists as projectile points, the earliest of which are some bone ones dating to ~60,000 years ago in Sibudu Cave, South Africa. But before we could get to projectile points, first we hominids had to invent required a whole range of stone butchering tools.

The Acheulean Handaxe is arguably the first tool we hominids made, a triangular, leaf-shaped rock, probably used for butchering animals. The oldest yet discovered is from the Kokiselei complex of sites in Kenya, about 1.7 million years old. Most embarrassingly for our slow-evolving hominid cousins, the handaxe remained virtually unchanged until ~450,000 years ago. Try that with an iPhone.

9. Control of Fire (800,000-400,000 Years Ago)

Camp Fire
Camp fire. JaseMan

Now fire--that was a good idea. The ability to start a fire, or at least keep it lit, allowed people to stay warm, fend off animals at night, cook food, and eventually bake ceramic pots. Although scholars are pretty well divided on the issues, it is likely that we humans--or at least our ancient human ancestors--figured out how to control fire sometime during the Lower Paleolithic, and to start fires by no later than the beginning of the Middle Paleolithic, ~300,000 years ago.

The earliest possible human-made fires--and there is some debate about what that means--are in evidence some 790,000 years ago, at Gesher Benot Ya'aqov, an open-air site in what is today the Jordan Valley of Israel.

8. Art (~100,000 Years Ago)

Abalone Shell from Toolkit 2 at Blombos Cave
Red ochre paint pot, Blombos Cave. Image © Science/AAAS

What is art? As hard as it is to define art, it's even more difficult to define when it began, but there are several possible avenues of discovery.

The earliest forms of what I'd call art consist of perforated shell beads from several sites in Africa and the Near East such as Skhul Cave in what is today Israel (100,000-135,000 years ago); Grotte des Pigeons in Morocco (82,000 years ago); and Blombos Cave in South Africa (75,000 years ago). In an older context at Blombos was found red ochre paint pots made from seashells and dated to 100,000 years ago: although we don't know what these early modern humans were painting (might have been themselves), we know there was something arty going on!

The first art illustrated in most art history classes, of course, is cave paintings, such as those marvelous images from Lascaux and Chauvet caves. The earliest known cave paintings date to about 40,000 years ago, from Upper Paleolithic Europe. Chauvet cave's gasp-inducing life-like drawing of a pride of lions dates to approximately 32,000 years ago.

7. Textiles (~40,000 Years Ago)

Weaving the Cloud Brocade
Chinese weaver reproducing the Cloud Brocade. China Photos/Getty Images

Clothing, bags, sandals, fishing nets, baskets: the origins of all of these and lots of other useful things require the invention of textiles, the deliberate processing of organic fibers into containers or cloth.

As you might imagine, textiles are difficult to find archaeologically, and sometimes we have to base our suppositions on circumstantial evidence: net impressions in a ceramic pot, net sinkers from a fishing village, loom weights and spindle whorls from a weaver's workshop. The earliest evidence for twisted, cut and dyed fibers are flax fibers from the Georgian site of Dzuduzana cave, between 36,000 and 30,000 years ago.

6. Shoes (~40,000 Years Ago)

5500-year-old Leather Shoe from Areni-1
Leather shoe from Areni-1, from Pinhasi et al 2010

Let's face it: having something protect your bare feet from sharp rocks and biting animals and stinging plants is of vital importance to day-to-day living. The earliest actual shoes we have come from American caves dated to about 12,000 years ago: but scholars believe that wearing shoes changes the morphology of your feet and toes: and evidence for that is first apparent some 40,000 years ago, from Tianyuan I Cave in what is today China.

The photo illustrating this invention is a shoe from the Areni-1 Cave in Armenia, dated about 5500 years ago, one of the best preserved shoes of that age.

5. Ceramic Containers (~20,000 Years Ago)

Pottery Fragment from Xianrendong
Pottery fragment from Xianrendong. Image courtesy of Science/AAAS

The invention of ceramic containers, also called pottery vessels, involves the collecting of clay and a tempering agent (sand, quartz, fiber, shell fragments), mixing the material together and forming a bowl or jar. The vessel is then placed into a fire or other heat source for a period of time, to produce a long-lived, stable container for carrying water or cooking stews.

Although fired clay figurines are known from several Upper Paleolithic contexts, the earliest evidence for clay vessels is from the Chinese site of Xianrendong, where coarse pasted red wares with streaky patterns on their exteriors appear in levels dated to 20,000 years ago.

4. Agriculture (~11,000 Years Ago)

Zagros Mountains of Iraq
Zagros Mountains of Iraq. dynamosquito

Agriculture is the human control of plants and animals: well, to be completely scientific, the going theory is that the plants and animals also control us, but nevertheless, the partnership between plants and humans began about 11,000 years ago in what is today southwest Asia, with the fig tree, and about 500 years later, in the same general location, with barley and wheat.

Animal domestication is much earlier--our partnership with the dog began perhaps 30,000 years ago. That's clearly a hunting relationship, not agriculture, and the earliest farm animal domestication is the sheep, about 11,000 years ago, in southwest Asia, and about the same place and time as plants.

3. Wine (~9,000 Years Ago)

Chateau Jiahu
Chateau Jiahu. Edwin Bautista

Some scholars suggest we human types have been consuming some sort of fermented fruit for at least 100,000 years: but the earliest clear evidence of alcohol production is that of the grape. The fermentation of the fruit of grapes producing wine is yet another important invention arising from what is today China. The earliest evidence for wine production comes from the Jiahu site, where a concoction of rice, honey and fruit was made in a ceramic jar some 9,000 years ago.

Some clever entrepreneur created a recipe for wine based on the evidence from Jiahu, and is selling it as Chateau Jiahu.

2. Wheeled Vehicles (~5,500 Years Ago)

Assyrian King Hunting Lions
Assyrian King Hunting Lions. Reproduced from Morey's 1908 Outlines of Greek History

The invention of the wheel is often cited as one of the top ten inventions in history: but I think it should be the invention of the wheeled vehicle, assisted by draft animals. The ability to move abundant goods across a landscape quickly permits widespread trade. A more accessible market promotes craft specialization, so artisans could find and connect with customers over a broader area, swap technologies with their distant competitors and concentrate on improving their craft.

News travels faster on wheels, and ideas associated with new technologies could be moved more quickly. So could diseases, and let's not forget imperialistic kings and rulers who could use wheeled vehicles to spread their notions of war and control more efficiently over a wider area.

I didn't say all these inventions necessarily always brought good things!

1. Chocolate (~4,000 Years Ago)

Cacao Tree (Theobroma spp), Brazil
Cacao tree in Brazil. Photo by Matti Blomqvist

Oh, come on--how could human history be what it is today, if we did not have easy access to the delectable luxury item distilled from the cacao bean? Chocolate was an invention of the Americas, originating in the Amazon basin at least 4,000 years ago, and brought to the Mexican sites of Paso de la Amada in what is today Chiapas and El Manati in Veracruz by 3600 years ago.

This peculiar looking tree with green footballs is a cacao tree, the raw source material for chocolate.

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