Our expansion has always been supported by technology and pragmatic violence. North America saw mass extinctions of most of its large mammals soon after Homo sapiens populated the continent 12,000 to 15,000 years ago. The continent lost five species of horse (no native American horse species survived); camels (no species survived); several elephant-like creatures including mastodons and mammoths (no species survived); North American llamas (ditto), lions and cheetahs (ditto and ditto); two types of deer; three types of antelope; a giant moose; two species of oxen similar to the Arctic musk ox; a giant beaver; all four species of ground sloth; a large condor-like bird called a teratorn; giant armadillos as large as automobiles called glyptodonts and a smaller relative called pampatheres; two types of giant bear; both types of saber-toothed cats; and several large pig-like species including giant peccaries and North American tapirs. What all these creatures had in common is that they were either good to eat and vulnerable to our weapons, or they were competitive and/or dangerous to humans. The Clovis People who populated North America at the time were hunters. They are known to us mainly through their stone arrowheads and spear points left behind for archaeologists to find.
Most of our inventions are more benign than the spear and the arrow. The wheel provides a popular example of our ingenuity. Since we learned to walk upright, our hands had been available to carry things. Since we could carry objects for long distances, we could use technology more effectively. A chimpanzee dependent on all four limbs for mobility cannot effectively carry much stuff, and so technology is less valuable to the chimp. We can use technology effectively because we can move with it.
The wheel allowed us to carry much more.
The earliest depictions of people using wheels date to about 3,500 years BC, from some Polish pottery picturing a wagon. It was probably invented a thousand years earlier. Wheeled vehicles spread rapidly across the civilized parts of Europe and Africa, judging by the archaeological record.
Among the Romans’ technological advantages that helped them conquer other countries were water wheels, improved wagons and speedy, nimble chariots. The people of Australia and the Americas didn’t get the wheel until Europeans brought it to their continents. Without the wheel or the associated technologies related to horsepower, the Native Americans and aboriginal Australians were at a distinct technological disadvantage to the interlopers. And the interlopers more or less took over.
Technological change does not progress evenly across history. We’ve witnessed the sudden, rapid improvement of information technology during our own lifetimes. Today’s cell phone harnesses capabilities that would have exceeded the powers of world-class supercomputers 30 years ago. But ours is not the first period of rapid technological advancement. Similar spurts of ingenious creativity have occurred throughout history. The chain-driven “safety bicycle” was invented around 1885. The modern automobile appeared at almost the same time. The Wright Brothers took flight over the dunes at Kitty Hawk less than 20 years later and the first airline flew with passengers aboard within a dozen years or so.
In 30 years mobile humanity went from the invention of the modern bicycle to airline travel.
Across our panoramic past human beings have used technology to expand around the globe and exploit its resources with growing ingenuity. We’ve also killed each other more or less continuously in battles over territory, resources and ideas. If humanity continued that pattern of expansion and conflict, tomorrow’s crowded planet might be a very unpleasant place. Human history gives us plenty of evidence to support a pessimistic outlook.
But history also gives us plenty of reason for optimism. On the humble foundation of skin clothing and bone jewelry we have built a wondrous technological superstructure to support ongoing innovation.
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