We humans like to pride ourselves in being the most intelligent species on the planet, “doomed” to rapid technological evolution and ever-increasing mastery of our environments. This unceasing innovation, however, might not be driven by the “lightbulb” moments many popular accounts of cultural advancement are so fond of – at least not to the degree we might like to think it is.
Researchers at the University of Reading had recently published a new paper, detailing their attempts in studying the speed at which Bantu-speaking farmers in Africa migrated across the continent 5,000 years ago, which suggests innovation usually takes place through trial-and-error, rather than game-changing flashes of genius.
“Sweeping out of West Central Africa more than 5,000 years ago the Bantu migration was one of the most influential cultural events of its kind. Disease, changes in climate and an increase in population meant it spread over a vast geographical area, eventually moving all the way down to the southern tip of the African continent,” said study lead author Mark Pagel who’s a Professor of Evolutionary Biology at Reading.
Using information on current communities and a sophisticated language family tree, Pagel’s team reconstructed the probable migration routes of over 400 Bantu language groups and found that these early farmers, who swept out of West Central Africa around five millennia ago, preferred to stick to what they already knew and mostly wandered round the savannah environment, avoiding the unfamiliar Congo rainforest.
Surprisingly, when they did move into the forest, rates of migration were slowed by as much as 300 years, reflecting the time it took to develop the skills and technologies necessary for mastering these alien lands.
According to Professor Pagel, these findings are in line with archaeological data, which shows that despite our superior intelligence and cultural potential for innovation, developing life-changing new technologies is a slow and difficult process.
“From Watt’s steam engine design to Edison’s lightbulb, history is replete with the “genius” inventor. But those amazing feats were not developed in a “Eureka moment”. Watt’s engine was more a redesign more than an invention. Edison’s notebook reveals that he tried thousands of filament materials before alighting by chance on his favoured material,” explained Pagel.
Even today, science and business are often forced to rely on groups pooling their knowledge together, yet many of these still remain uncompetitive. This shows that significant cultural progress is a tall order even for the most advanced on this Earth.
The study has been published in the journal Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences.