The Ancientness of Creativity

Anthropologists like me have rarely contributed to debates on creativity in the modern world. The reason is that traditionally, we studied two kinds of “old” society. Biological or evolutionary anthropologists try to understand how and why we became human over the last few millions of years. Social or cultural anthropologists, until recently, specialised in so-called “primitive” cultures – indigenous groups of the Americas, the Arctic, Asia, Africa and Oceania.

Think of creativity, though, and you automatically think of “advanced” or even “civilised” thought and behaviour. The Renaissance, the Scientific Revolution, the Age of Enlightenment, the Industrial Revolution and finally the 20th century Space Age and Information Age could, if grouped together, be labelled the Age of Creativity in the popular imagination. How could anyone studying an Aboriginal Australian with her digging stick or Homo erectus from East Africa CIRCA 1.5 million years ago with his crude hand axe have anything remotely valuable to say about innovative tech startups in Santa Clara Valley in 2016?

There are two reasons this is wrongheaded. Firstly, true creative leaps are about making foundational inventions and discoveries – ones that profoundly transform the way we do things, the way we think about things, even the way we see our place in the world (and the cosmos). As creativity researchers Finke, Ward and Smith put it:

“One can always take an existing design and change a feature here or there to come up with something new. True innovation, however, has a more visionary or revolutionary quality ... There is an enormous difference between gimmicky or makeshift ways of improving on something and ideas that have real creative impact.”

The biggest, most monumental series of innovative leaps in the story of humanity happened long ago in our evolutionary past – not when Starbucks started offering free wifi. Just as the invention of the book had a greater impact on the culture of its day than the invention of the internet has had on ours, and can thus be considered the more creative phenomenon, so the original inventions and discoveries that make up human culture as we know it constitute an even more impressive case of thinking the unthinkable. If you feel the miniskirt invented by Mary Quant in the 1960s was a radical breakthrough, how about the entire concept of clothes? If you venerate Picasso or Dalí, how about the idea of producing, for the first time ever, symbolic marks on a wall to represent a person or animal? Impressed by the idea of dividing up your working day according to a new logic? Try the first time someone thought to measure and mark time itself.

We’re not sure when Culture (with a capital C) emerged exactly, but it was probably around 100,000 years ago in Africa. Suddenly, in evolutionary terms, we find evidence of symbolic art, sophisticated technology, complex social organisation, and religious worship, probably accompanied by fully grammatical language and moral codes of conduct. Evolutionary anthropologists variously refer to this remarkable efflorescence of inventiveness as the Great Leap Forward, the Upper Palaeolithic Revolution or the Creative Explosion. Humanity as we now know it began when creativity began. Forget the Naked Ape. We’re the Creative Ape.

Second, you might be surprised by the high level of technical sophistication exhibited by indigenous peoples. Here’s a technical description of a sealing harpoon used by the Inuit Angmagsalik hunters of Greenland:

“The stone point was attached to the toggle head of bone with a peg, and the distal end of the ivory foreshaft fitted into a hole at the base of the harpoon head. The proximal end of the foreshaft fitted into a hole in the top of the bone socketpiece and was held in place by thongs which passed through a hole in the foreshaft and through two holes in the wooden shaft. At the base of the shaft was a bone counterweight held with pegs. The harpoon line was attached to the harpoon head through two holes, and it extended through two holes in a bone clasp. A third hole in the clasp was fitted over a bone peg wedged into the shaft. The line continued on to another bone clasp to which the end was tied. The floats were held by a single line which ended in a toggle bar where it was attached to a line leading from the harpoon head. The double floats consisted of two blown-up sealskins which were bound together at the middle, presumably with a thong, and had thongs which closed the opening at the head end of each. A section of wood which served to join the floats at the front was forked at the ventral surface in order to fit over a strap across the rear decking of the kayak… The harpoon was launched with a throwing-board and was readied for throwing by fitting two bone pegs in the shaft through matching holes in the throwing-board. The throwing-board consisted of a strip of wood with a bone inset at the distal end held in place with a series of bone pegs.”

Can anyone doubt this is a remarkably creative solution to a serious life challenge? Sure, its design was probably developed over a considerable period of time by several individuals, but its ingenuity is undeniable. If you think it’s creative to devise a TV advert with a gorilla playing the drums but indigenous peoples are a benighted folk unacquainted with the creative process, think again. This is not to mention the gloriously rich mythical tapestries woven by many such groups, whose epic and mind-stretching narratives would give the west’s great storytellers a run for their money.

What’s the moral? That to look forward, try looking back. Our evolutionary past, as well as a multitude of non-western cultural traditions, contain fascinating clues about how people might become more creative today. Oh and do yourself a favour: go read up on the Aboriginal Australian Dreamtime and tell me you don’t gain a new slant on the power of creativity.