The Myth of the Golden Age.

The Co-evolution of Humans and Tools.

Idle Theory always presents human history as ascent from a time of toil rather than descent from a time of ease. It argues that time-saving human tools imply that in the absence of such tools, in the remote past, human life must have been laborious. In this reverse argument, as technologies are removed, humans become less idle.

But the reverse argument can also be run another way. Ultimately, when all their tools have been removed, humans are slow, naked and defenceless. If humans survived at all, it must have been in an Eden so warm and pleasant that clothes were unnecessary, and in which there were no predators, and in which fruits must have grown in such abundance that they could be easily picked by hand. In short, human physiology itself points to a Golden Age sometime in the remote past, since when life has been getting harder.

The life of man [in the age of Cronos] was, as tradition says, spontaneous.. because God ruled over man just as man still rules over lower animals. There were no forms of government or separate possession of women and children; for all men rose from the earth having no memory of the past. The earth gave them fruits in abundance, which grew on trees and shrubs unbidden, and not planted by the hand of man. And they dwelt naked, mostly in open air, for the temperature of the seasons was mild. And they had no beds, but slept on soft couches of grass, which grew plentifully.
(Plato. Statesman.)

But this version of the argument assumes that the human form is static, that early humans were exactly like modern humans, but without clothing, shelter, or tools of any kind. And it supposes that these early humans began to develop a system of tools which evolved, by trial and error, into modern high technology - which is still rapidly evolving.

But if it is accepted that tools evolved - that the first axes were sharp stones, then carefully chipped flints, then copper, bronze, iron, and now steel blades - why suppose that the human handle that held these tools did not evolve along with them? Why should the tools used by humans show such a rich history of development, but their human users show no development at all? Is it not more likely that just as humans selected and shaped their tools, so their tools selected and shaped them. And that humans and their technologies have been involved in a dance in which both moved, rather than one stood motionless.

After all, a tool such as a stone axe requires a hand that could hold it, and an arm that could raise it. Those humans who could not grasp the axe tightly enough, or were too weak to raise it, or lacked the coordination required to aim and deliver an accurate blow with such an axe, would have been unable to benefit from the use of an axe, and have been at a disadvantage. Those advantaged by being able to use an axe would be more likely to survive than those who could not. The same applies to throwing stones or spears, threading needles, weaving cloth. As new technologies appeared - axes, spears, weaving -, these technologies themselves selected for those people who could most effectively use them.

One might consider how co-evolution of humans with their tools may have gradually acted to shape and mould the human handles which held these evolving tools:

  • If humans began their co-evolution with tools covered in hair or fur, then the development of clothes of one sort or other - animal hides or woven wool or whatever - would have kept them warm in colder climates. Here clothing is added over the top of an existing layer of insulation. This allowed humans to survive in climates that were either as hot as could be tolerated without any clothes, or as cold as could be tolerated with the maximum thickness of clothing. The human type that can live in the widest climatic range is the one which can change from being completely uninsulated - unclothed and hairless - to being heavily insulated by a thick layer of clothes. Thus once humans started to wear extra insulating garments over the top of their furry bodies, losing body hair and relying on clothing for extra insulation gave them the greatest flexibility, able to endure the widest extremes of temperature. That is, humans lost their body hair because they began to wear clothes.
    This doesn't explain, however, why humans have abundant cranial hair, or human males have facial hair.

  • If humans originally were quadrupeds, walking on all fours, but were able to grasp simple tools in relatively rudimentary hands, this would have forced them into an upright posture. And if they were to walk while holding such tools, they would have been gradually forced to become bipeds, their hands full. And if what they carried was increasingly heavy, it became essential to walk as upright as possible so as to carry the load down the spine and legs, without straining muscles. (Try walking bent over while carrying heavy bags.) A nomadic, wandering existence, carrying tools and food, would have further enforced bipedalism.

  • The greater the number of tools were to be held in a hand, the more flexible it had to become. It had, in time, to be able to be cupped to scoop, made rigid to dig or paddle, able to pick up anything from the finest hair to a large rock, wield a hammer or an axe, or throw a stone or a spear.
    If humans had originally been armed with claws, these may have increasingly interfered with a growing need to use hands to hold varieties of tools. But once humans could arm themselves with sharpened staves, the defensive role of claws may have gradually been taken over by handheld weapons. Equally, natural body armour may have been replaced by armoured clothes, armlets, anklets, necklets, and other ornaments.

  • Once humans had become toolmakers, and added to their repertoire of tools, they began to need not only the manual dexterity to make and use these tools, but also the visual acuity to guide them, and the extra intelligence that was needed for hand-eye coordination, and for learning how to make these tools and use them effectively. Tool-using human brains increasingly needed abilities that other animals simply didn't need, because other animals didn't design and use tools. That extra intelligence translated into larger brains.

  • Once humans had invented tools, their use would rapidly be lost if the knowledge of how to make them and use them was not transmitted to others, and to subsequent generations. Animals, whose tools - teeth, claws, etc - are integral to them, and grow from genetically programmed instructions, don't need to learn how to make tools. Human society, and human language, was the only means by which knowledge and toolmaking skills could be transmitted from one generation to the next. It became essential that toolmakers not only be able to make tools, but teach others how to make and use them.
    This meant that, unlike animal offspring, human children had to undergo an extended process of education during which they first had to learn to listen and to speak, and so be able to be taught, before learning vital multiple skills in making and using tools.
    Thus human society was as much about the reproduction of tools and toolmaking skills as human reproduction. Genetically controlled human reproduction largely looked after itself, anyway.
    Despite this, skills that had been gained at one time, and transmitted down many generations, may easily have been lost. A tool might temporarily fall out of use - as fishing nets might if a human group moved inland -, and the skills associated with fishing with nets lost. Or skilled toolmakers might have, on occasion, been too busy or sick to teach others how to make tools. Societies dependent upon tools may have collapsed when toolmaking skills were lost. The invention of writing, so that instructions in toolmaking and tool use could be set down independently of a teacher, offered one way by which skills could be retained by a society.

Seen this way, the greater part of what distinguishes humans from other animals arises entirely from their use of tools. Their hairlessness, their biped motion, their adaptable hands, their larger brains. The evolution of human life has been the evolution of a toolmaker species and its tools. The first humans were probably covered in fur, walked on all fours, and had rudimentary hands, and small brains, but over aeons of tool development they were shaped into the modern human form - and are still being shaped.

In this approach, humans have not been using tools for millions of years. And indeed what defines humanity is its tools. Humans cannot be separated from their tools. Human culture is human-and-tool culture. The first human, whatever he or she looked like, was a creature which became dependent upon some tool for survival. That first tool, the adam & eve of all tools, defined the first Adam and the first Eve, and shaped the entirety of subsequent human history.

The toolmakers were, for most of their evolution, were never as fast as leopards, as powerful as bulls, as aerobatic as birds. They were jack-of-all-trades, and masters of none. But they could switch quickly from being one to the other. The hand that could hold a hoe could instantly pick up a spear. The body that wore clothes could instantly don them or doff them. Humans could adapt very quickly to changing environments, where other animals could not.

There never was a Golden Age in which some first men - who looked just like modern men, but minus clothes and tools - frolicked naked in an Eden overflowing with fruits that could be plucked by hand: because those human ancestors were not naked, and had no fully developed hands. This doesn't mean that there were never easy times in human history. There were probably many interludes when the vagaries of climate and the natural fecundity of the land, and above all the advantages gained by their own technological innovations, made for an easy and idle life - before the climate grew harsh, the land barren, and human existence became toil again. The myth of the Golden Age is a product of the imagination of modern men, looking upon their own bodies, wondering in what circumstance or environment such a slow, hairless, undefended creature could have lived, and inventing a Garden of Eden in which he could have survived. And it has been these same modern humans, aware of so many differences between themselves and other animals, who concluded that humans must belong to some quite separate race of beings, made of some different material.

Anthropologists no longer tend to count toolmaking as exclusive evidence of being human, because chimpanzees have been known to make and use simple tools. But clearly tool use by early humans is of extreme antiquity, as shown in the following outline record:

  • Proconsul, earliest human ancestor, lived 23 Myrs ago.
  • A series of footprints of Australopithecus afarensis, 3.7 Myr old, were found by Mary Leakey at Laetoli, proved that it walked upright. Brain volume 350 ml, about the same as modern Chimpanzees.
  • It seems likely that stone tools were being produced in Africa 2.5 Myrs ago.
  • Homo habilis ("handy man") worked stone tools, chipped to give a single rough cutting edge, in the Olduvai Gorge between 1.5 and 2 Myr ago. The tools made stayed much the same for about half a million years. Homo habilis brain volume 500-750 ml. Homo habilis' hand, foot and leg bones showed some human features.
  • Flint tools first appear 1.2 Myrs ago.
  • Homo erectus, 0.5 to 1 Myr ago, produced a versatile kit of stone tools. Items in the kit were designed to cut, pound, scrape, shred and whittle. Homo erectus' brain volume 650-900 ml.
  • The earliest known wooden spear fragment, 40 cm long, made of yew, is 300 Kyrs old.
  • Neanderthals, who lived from 30 to 200 Kyrs ago, made borers, scrapers, points, knives, and hand-axes. Neanderthals used fire. They also buried their dead - the first humans known to have done so. Neanderthal brain volume, 1300-1700 ml, was larger than modern humans' approx 1350 ml.
  • Cro-Magnons from 40 Kyr ago, early modern Europeans, had highly sophisticated flint tools, but also worked bone and ivory. They produced decorated artefacts, figurines, and cave paintings.
  • End of the last ice age 10-15 Kyrs ago.
  • Rise of Mesopotamian and Egyptian civilizations, 6-7 Kyrs ago.

Source: The Book of Life. Ed. S.J.Gould.

Estimated dates of human anatomical innovations:

  • Post-orbital closure, present in all higher primates: 40 Myrs ago.
  • Modern ape tooth patterns: 35 Myrs ago.
  • Loss of tail: 23 Myrs ago.
  • Rotation of thumb: 18 Myrs ago.
  • Stable elbow: 15 Myrs ago.
  • Broad sacrum: 3.3 Myrs ago.
  • 'Human' knee joint: 1.8 Myrs ago.
  • 'Human' foot: 1.8 Myrs ago.
  • High forehead: 0.1 Myrs ago.

Source: The Book of Life. Ed. S.J.Gould.

Since stone tools are the only kinds of tool likely to survive for long periods, while wooden artefacts, hides, or woven plants or hairs are likely to decay and leave no trace, the use of stone tools 2 Myr ago may well conceal far earlier use of wooden tools, woven baskets, animal hide clothes.

Idle Theory

Author: Chris Davis
Last Edited: 18 Oct 1998