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.
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:
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:
Source: The Book of Life. Ed. S.J.Gould.
Estimated dates of human anatomical innovations:
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.
Author: Chris Davis
Last Edited: 18 Oct 1998