The story of early human innovation

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Once upon a time, around 50,000 to 40,000 years ago, our ancestors, known as Homo sapiens, began a great journey across the vast lands of Eurasia.

This period is a fascinating chapter in the story of human history, as it marks a time when our ancestors spread far and wide, encountering different environments and other types of humans, like the Neanderthals.

Researchers from the Nagoya University Museum in Japan have been looking into this era, and what they found might change the way we think about our ancient relatives and their cleverness.

For a long time, people thought that our ancestors suddenly became very smart and inventive, which helped them to thrive and spread across the world.

This idea suggested that a sudden leap in brain power led to better tools and ways of living, which unfortunately led to the Neanderthals and other ancient humans disappearing.

But, the Japanese researchers have discovered that the truth might be more complex and gradual than a sudden leap.

They were curious about the tools our ancestors made and used during their travels and how these tools evolved over time.

They looked at how these tools were made and improved across a span of 50,000 years, covering six different phases of human history from the time when both Homo sapiens and Neanderthals were living, all the way to a period after our ancestors had spread widely.

During the early days, around 250,000 to 40,000 years ago, our ancestors and the Neanderthals were not so different in the way they made their tools.

They both used a method called the ‘Levallois technique,’ which involved shaping stones with another tool to make sharp edges. These tools were crucial for survival, used in hunting, cutting, and scraping.

As time went on, especially from 50,000 to 12,000 years ago, something interesting happened. Our ancestors started to explore new places, and as they moved, they began to invent new things.

They made better tools, found new ways to get food, traveled over seas, and even created art, like ornaments and cave paintings.

People used to think that these advancements happened all at once, in a big burst of creativity. Some even thought it was because of a sudden change in our brains that made Homo sapiens smarter than other humans, like the Neanderthals.

However, the study from Japan tells a different story. It shows that the big jump in tool-making skills didn’t happen right before or when our ancestors started to move across Eurasia.

Instead, the big improvements came later, after they had already spread out. One of the key advancements was in making smaller, more efficient tools called bladelets.

What this means is that the journey of innovation was not a single, sudden moment of brilliance. It was a slow, step-by-step process that happened over thousands of years.

Our ancestors kept learning and adapting, making small changes and improvements along the way.

Professor Seiji Kadowaki, the lead researcher, explains that this process was not about one big revolution in how tools were made. Instead, it was a series of small changes and innovations that happened over time.

The real leap in making tools more efficiently came with the development of these smaller, more precise tools, which happened after Homo sapiens had already started their journey across the globe.

This study helps us understand that our ancient relatives were not so different from us. Their path to becoming innovative and adaptable was gradual, involving trial and error, just like how we learn and improve today.

It shows that the story of human progress is complex, filled with many small steps that together lead to the remarkable journey of human evolution.

The research findings can be found in Nature Communications.

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