(Originally appeared in Gog's Blog, February, 2006)
Genius is more often found in a cracked pot than in a whole one. ~E.B. White
When people talk about great ideas, inventions, and insights, they tend to focus on great minds like Einstein, Newton, or Hawking if dwelling on science, and Edison, Watt, and Philo T. Farnsworth when thinking of inventions. And surely, these are important people, but I watch a lot of history programs, and the ones that deal in prehistory often set me to thinking about some great unknown geniuses who laid the foundations upon which today's world is really built.
I'd like to put forth some examples. I've avoided the kinds of things that would have come from common observation, like medicinal plants. Even the dullest mind could see that sick animals tended to eat certain kids of herbs to get better. While important and impressive in their own right, observational discoveries aren't as remarkable as some of these incredible leaps of imagination.
The lever - Certainly the wheel was important, but whatever ancient thought up the concept of using a stout stick to move a big rock really set construction in motion. Consider this: The pyramids were built without the use of the wheel. Instead they used sledges and levered the stones into position. That's what makes this such an important discovery.
Spoken language - Anthropologists have no real idea of when human ancestors became capable of speech. But whenever that was, someone had to start actually naming things and communicating those names to his or her fellow grunters. This prehistoric Webster not only had to convince the tribe that the thing with the big saber teeth was, say, a glork, but if they met another tribe, someone had to figure out that their glork was the other tribe's bleek. No small undertaking.
Stone tools - One night the boys were banging rocks together when one cracked apart. When one of them got his fingers cut, someone saw the possibilities. But the amazing individual is the one that figured out a) certain rocks were better than others for creating durable sharp tools, b) if you took precise chips instead of just whacking away, you got more efficient tools, and c) specialized shapes could do specialized jobs. Edison would have had a team of dozens working for years to come up with the concept.
Metallurgy - Think about this for a moment. There may have been a really big fire. Going through the area, someone looks down and sees a melted glob of something that happened to be some lumps of copper ore or iron ore that had gotten really hot. Or maybe he sees some stuff that's come out of volcano. Either way he's looking at lumps. This guy manages to look at this lump and sees that a tool can be made from it. Now that's a leap that almost beggars the imagination, but the next leap is phenomenal. He figures out that if he builds a really hot fire, he can through some dirt in it and end up with a workable lump of the same stuff. Ultimately, he takes two different kinds of dirt and ends up with a glob of stuff (bronze) that makes a sturdier tool. He works out proportions, experiments with other kinds of dirt (gee, a little of this stuff that poisoned the goats makes the metal harder), and creates formulas for smelting. Now this didn't happen overnight, but that it happened at all is remarkable. I mean, you probably have a general knowledge of metals and wouldn't have a clue, in all likelihood about how to produce bronze. But some guy wearing a grass cape and using flint arrowheads knew someone who could fashion him a very serviceable ax.
Creating fire - Almost surely, the first use of fire came about after someone gathered up burning branches from a tree hit by lightning or from a forest fire. But, it gets pretty old having to wait for a propitious thunderstorm or conflagration. So did the cave dudes figure out that friction got things warm? Or, when they were making those nice flint tools, did they set the old saber-tooth skin on fire with sparks? Personally, I opt for the latter. It still took a lot of work to get the right methodology to do it predictably.
Farming - Here are all these nomadic tribes, living from day to day, when someone figures out that a) the seeds they've been eating actually have something to do with producing new plants, b) chopping up the ground makes the plants grow better, c) animal (and human) waste makes plants grow better, and d) growing your own plants means you can quit wandering all over the landscape looking for food. Include in this whole concept domestication of food animals, and you're talking about a concept that was as big a leap for them as a faster-than-light-drive would be for us.
I'm not sure so-called modern humans could do as well.