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Tuesday, May 21, 2013

Communication in Ancient African Societies Created Innovation


It is hard to imagine that climate change and innovation have something to do with each other.  However, new research into archaeological innovation and climate change indicates that there are important similarities in history between changes in the environment, cultural interaction, and an explosion in societal innovation.  Africa was once a hot bed of human adaptation and change and sets a historical example that modern innovators may find useful.

Africa around 60,000 to 80,000 years ago began to experience higher environmental changes forcing humans to adapt their practices. Martin Ziegler, an earth scientist from Cardiff University in Wales, believes that early humans adapted when parts of Sub-Sahara Africa experienced conditions that were more hospitable for humans.  

As the global temperature shifted cooler, based upon ocean activity, the world found that some areas were more lush while others more dry. In the study environmental activity was compared against archeological findings to determine changes in innovative behavior. Habitable environmental changes produced higher levels of innovation during specific beneficial climatic adjustments.  

As populations became denser they interbreed and changed their cultural perceptions. In Africa, people began to interact more closely with other tribes and learn from each other. It is through this population explosion and interaction that new ways of viewing the world were developed that eventually transformed culture.

The researchers found better jewelry, tools, hunting techniques, and artistic designs associated with this population explosion. Studies have found that once the innovations took place they disappeared a short time later. The scientists further believe that climate may have something to do with this innovation and then stagnation of human development.

As the environment became more habitable birth rates had a corresponding increase. As tribal members swelled their ranks, they were forced to interact with each other in new trading partnerships. There simply was less land mass separating groups. Yet once the climate and habitat changed and the populations separated innovation declined with it.

Previous research on innovation helps shed light on the concept that increased interactivity of human thoughts creates new ways of thinking about such issues. Innovation in society is based upon a small subset of society that develops new products and a larger group of followers that adopt such innovations once they have been developed.

Once these adaptations were integrated into a tribal society they are spread to other tribes through interaction and trading. In essence, the same activity of connecting useful information that occurs in our heads also occurs within the physical environment when people use these thoughts to combine old tools into new tools. Each innovation is a thought about how to use products in new ways. The more we associate and connect them the more innovative we become.

With climate change becoming more important to people today and the Internet spreading information at lightning speed those societies that can adapt new technologies fastest are likely to reap the most awards from innovation. The same process of information sharing, trade, and interaction is important today in the virtual world as it was so many years ago in Sub-Sahara Africa. Many of the same processes are still at play even if the modality is different.

You may want to read the abstract or full report in Nature Communications:

The development of modernity in early human populations has been linked to pulsed phases of technological and behavioural innovation within the Middle Stone Age of South Africa. However, the trigger for these intermittent pulses of technological innovation is an enigma. Here we show that, contrary to some previous studies, the occurrence of innovation was tightly linked to abrupt climate change. Major innovational pulses occurred at times when South African climate changed rapidly towards more humid conditions, while northern sub-Saharan Africa experienced widespread droughts, as the Northern Hemisphere entered phases of extreme cooling. These millennial-scale teleconnections resulted from the bipolar seesaw behaviour of the Atlantic Ocean related to changes in the ocean circulation. These conditions led to humid pulses in South Africa and potentially to the creation of favourable environmental conditions. This strongly implies that innovational pulses of early modern human behaviour were climatically influenced and linked to the adoption of refugia.

Ziegler, et. al. (2013). Development of middle stone age innovation linked to rapid climate change. Nature Communications, 4 (1905). Retrieved May 21, 2013 from http://www.nature.com/ncomms/journal/v4/n5/full/ncomms2897.html

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