Creativity is a uniquely human trait.
Many animals have evolved the ability to use tools, but this is usually the result of of them discovering this use by accident and then passing the knowledge on to other members of the group. Even our closest living animal relatives (like chimpanzees and orang-utans) are natually risk averse in the wild and will avoid new discoveries as they are seen as risky.
So then, how long ago did creativity evolve in humans?
Check out my video above for insights from the latest research.
When did creativity evolve?
Our human lineage is estimated to have split from our great ape cousins approximately 6 million years ago. However, for several million years, even as our brains evolved to become larger and more complex, there is no archeological evidence of them developing anything creative for several million years. There are examples of our ancestors using flaked stone tools as far back as 2.6 million years ago, but this was likely a slow learning process following a period where our ancestors used existing sharp stones to cut at meat. This long stretch of time where only primitive tools were used indicates our ancestors had not yet developed the capability to solve new, complex problems requiring creative thought.
Up until recently, the scientific consensus on the earliest known examples of creativity in humans seemed to come from approximately 40,000 year ago, when objects such as flutes, jewelery made from shells, cave art and figurines (such as the Lion Man) came from caves in Europe, left by early settlers there during the last ice age.
However, according to new research from the past few decades summarised by Heather Pringle in Scientific American, it may have happened much earlier than we originally believed.
Examples of creativity in our ancestors
Scientists have found the following examples of creations by our recent ancestors which would have required complex reasoning, the ability to analyse and plan, and curiosity to try new abstract and potentially risky ideas:
- 1 million years ago: Wonderwerk Cave, South Africa – Control of fire, shown by burnt bones and plant material
- 500k years ago: Kathu Pan 1 in South Africa – Spear tips, where stone tips would have been fastened to wood
- 200k years ago: Northern Italy – NEANDERTHALS made a glue by mixing birch bark and tar to fasten stone tools to wood handles
- 200k year ago: Appearance of Homo Sapiens, our modern human species
- 164k years ago: Pinnacle Point in South Africa – heated local silcrete rock to make it more knappable and improve tools
- 100k – 75k years ago: Blombos cave in South Africa
- engraved patterns on rock
- shell necklaces
- Ground red pigment and stored it in abalone shell (container)
- 77,000 years ago: Sibudu Cave in Saouth Africa
- residents of the cave used / selected a specific leaf from the Cryptocarya woodii as bedding because it provided insecticide repellant properties again mosquitos
- animal snares
- glue made of mixing several components
- 71k years ago: Pinnacle Point in South Africa – engineered stone projectile points
- 43k – 35k years ago: Caves in Germany, Spain, Europe – musical instruments (flutes), figurines, cave art
This new research shows evidence that creativity existed from approximately the time our lineage of Homo Sapiens approximately 200,000 years ago, nearly 160,000 years earlier than originally thought.
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