12 of humanity's most important first inventions

These are but some of the first things that our species ever invented.
Christopher McFadden
split image of man blowing on fire / early wheel
Earliest human inventions12
  • We are a creative lot, us humans.
  • Since our first appearance on this planet, humans have been creating or repurposing materials to make survival easier. 
  • But what were some of the first tools we ever invented?

From tools to help kill things at a safe distance to harnessing the power of fire, here are some of the most significant technological innovations of our species over our entire history. 

What were humanity's first inventions?

And so, without further ado, here are some of humanity's earliest and most ancient inventions. This list is far from exhaustive and is in no particular order.

1. Early stone, wood, and bone tools likely kicked the whole thing off

12 of humanity's most important first inventions
Modern human stone tools from Skorba in Malta.

Stone, wood, and bone tools were likely one of, if not the first, things we invented in our ancient past. But interestingly, they may well have been developed by our early ancestors as far back as over 3 million years ago.

Many stone tools from the lower Paleolithic (around 2.58 million years ago) have been found in present-day Kenya and Ethiopia. Since human beings (homo sapiens) first arose around 250,000-300,000 years ago, in the mid-Paleolithic, it appears we inherited this technology from our distant ancestors. Possibly our far-distant ancestors, as in 2015, researchers near Kenya’s Lake Turkana discovered stone tools embedded in rocks dating to 3.3 million years ago. Those tools predate the oldest confirmed specimens of Homo by almost 1 million years.

There is even evidence of composite tools (primarily stone fastened to shafts) being developed very early. Whatever the case, modern human stone tools were far more advanced and refined when compared to those of our distant ancestors.

2. Humanity's mastery over fire was a game-changer

12 of humanity's most important first inventions
Our taming of fire has been very useful for us,

Another major ancient human invention was our ability to create and control fire. Finding evidence of the earliest regular use of fire is difficult, but there is clear evidence that the regular use of fire, including for roasting meat, comes from caves in Israel dating back between 400,000 and 300,000 years ago.

Like stone tools detailed above, it may well be that controlled use of fire is another invention homo sapiens inherited from our ancestors. It is thought that our earliest interactions with fire might well have been opportunistic. We may have kept existing natural fires burning by adding extra fuel as needed.

Eventually, we learned how to generate it ourselves at will. The controlled use of fire would prove to be incredibly important for our species by providing a means of cooking food, providing light and warmth, and protection from predators throughout the night.

Some have even speculated that the ability to cook meat may have accelerated our mental development as a species.

3. The bow and arrow changed hunting (and war) forever

12 of humanity's most important first inventions
Arrowheads from Sibudu Cave, South Africa.

The humble bow and arrow was yet another early human invention. It provided early hunters with a safer way to engage and kill prey from a distance, thus rendering the need to get "up close and personal" with potentially dangerous animals less necessary.

Tantalizing evidence from the Sibudu Cave in South Africa points to their invention sometime between 60,000 and 70,000 years ago. The earliest definite bow and arrow remains have been found in Mannheim-Vogelstang, Germany, and date to between 17,500-18,000 years ago.

Others have also been found at Stellmoor and dated around 11,000 years ago.

4. The invention of boats was another major leap forward

12 of humanity's most important first inventions
The Pesse Canoe.

Another major early human invention was the boat. Developed between 40,000 and 700,000 years ago, they would expand mankind's horizons. 

Evidence of early human settlements in Australia (40,000 years ago), Crete (130,000 years ago), and Flores, Indonesia (700,000 years ago) appear to indicate that our early ancestors must have developed some form of transportation over water. 

Whatever the case, the first definitive evidence of early boats, called the Pesse Canoe, dates to only around 8,000 years ago. Technically called a dugout, these early boats consisted of hollowed-out tree trunks. 

5. The invention of agriculture and animal husbandry changed the course of history

12 of humanity's most important first inventions
Source: Anna Frodesiak/Wikimedia Commons

Yet another early and critical human invention was agriculture and animal husbandry. First thought to have been developed over 11,000 years ago, agricultural development would enable human populations to explode.

Evidence shows that agriculture was independently developed in at least 11 centers of origin around the world, with the eight major founder crops in Eurasia (emmer and einkorn wheat, hulled barley, peas, lentils, bitter vetch, chickpeas, and flax) first being cultivated in the Levant about 11,500 years ago. 

The first evidence of animal domestication (chickens, goats, and sheep) comes from around 10,000 years ago in Asia and in Mesopotamia at about the same time.

6. Bricks were another major technological breakthrough

12 of humanity's most important first inventions
Sun-drying raw bricks.

Bricks are yet another essential early human invention. First developed around 7,500 BC, these humble objects would help lay the foundations (pun intended) of masonry constructions like walls, roads, and buildings.

The earliest examples yet discovered are dried bricks – formed from clay-bearing earth or mud mixed with reeds and left to dry in the sun. These were found in Tell Aswad in the Upper Tigris region of southeastern Anatolia in Turkey. 

7. Glass was another early human invention

12 of humanity's most important first inventions
Roman glass cage cup.

Another early human invention is glass. While naturally occurring glass, like obsidian, was used during the Stone Age, the earliest man-made glass appeared around 4,000 years ago.

Archeologists believe that the first genuine synthetic glass was made in Lebanon and the coastal regions of North Syria, Mesopotamia, and ancient Egypt. Around 3,300 years ago, ritual instructions for glassmaking in Mesopotamia were written on clay tablets in a cuneiform script.

The earliest examples of glass, dating to mid-2,000 BCE, come in the form of beads that were probably used as a form of jewelry. Other early examples of glass objects were probably used as knives, arrowheads, and perhaps even a means of exchange. 

8. The wheel was a revolutionary idea

12 of humanity's most important first inventions
Chalcolithicage wheel, circa 5,150 BC.

Yet another ancient human invention is the humble wheel. When and where the first wheel was created is not precisely known, but the first definitive evidence for the use of a wheel are potters wheels from Mesopotamia dating to around 5,500 years ago. The earliest known waterwheel, used to turn millstones for grinding flour, comes from the mid-4th century BC Mesopotamia.

But some have credited the Elamites (an ancient Pre-Iranian people), whose sculptures appear to depict wheels in use. Whatever the case, the wheel would literally and figuratively prove revolutionary for humanity. 

It may seem odd that wheels were developed so long after seemingly more complex 'inventions' such as agriculture. This is because wheels by themselves are of little use; they are much more useful when combined with the axle – and that is a more complex invention.

Interestingly enough, some cultures around the world would never develop the wheel and axle. In many ancient civilizations of South America, for example, the lack of large indigenous beasts of burden to pull wheeled carts is theorized to be the reason. 

However, it should be noted that small, wheeled objects, considered children's toys, have been found in Mexico dating to around 200 AD - 900 AD. 

9. The invention of the written word allowed us to record things and pass on knowledge

The invention of the written word was another significant technological development of our species. Cave paintings aside, the earliest definitive proof of writing comes from around the 4th millennium BC in Egypt and Sumeria

Like other inventions on this list, writing was independently developed by different civilizations worldwide, with, for example, the first evidence of writing appearing in Mesoamerica around 3,000 years ago. 

This invention would, almost overnight, transfer the way humans communicated information to one another and even provide a means of "storing" information for future generations.

10. Clothing was another vital early invention

12 of humanity's most important first inventions
Clothing was a critical early invention.

While we rarely give clothing any special notice today as an invention, its development was critical for our species. As early humans migrated to colder climates, they needed to protect themselves from the elements. Clothing protects from cold, heat, rain, and harmful ultraviolet radiation. It also offers a barrier against injury, insect bites, and infections.

Clothing, made from animal skins and fur, was one of the first inventions to address this need. Clothing allowed early humans to survive in various environments and climates.

The first evidence of clothing is challenging to pinpoint due to the perishable nature of early materials such as animal hides and plant fibers. However, researchers often rely on indirect evidence to estimate when clothing emerged. One such type of indirect evidence is the form of lice evolution.

The divergence of head and body lice, which are genetically different, suggests that clothing may have appeared around 100,000 to 170,000 years ago. If true, this would mean that body lice are adapted to live on clothing, whereas head lice live on the scalp. As for direct evidence, although early clothing was made of perishable materials, we have found tools that appear to have been made explicitly for creating clothing dating back around 40,000 years ago. This also ties in with art depicting clothing, such as the Venus figurines dating back from between about 40,000 BCE and 10,000 BCE, some of which appear to be wearing clothing.


11. Language is a defining feature of our species

Language has been critical to the development of human society, as it allows for complex communication, information sharing, and collaboration. The ability to convey abstract concepts and ideas in writing has enabled humans to transmit knowledge across generations, organize it into complex social structures, and develop culture and technology. Language is a crucial factor differentiating humans from other species and has been a driving force behind human progress.

The first evidence of language is difficult to determine, as spoken language leaves no direct trace in the archaeological record. However, like clothing, we can make some educated guesses. We know, for example, that language must have predated writing, making it at least 6,000 years old. But it must be much older than that.

One key indicator is our anatomy. The human vocal tract, brain structures, and other anatomical features related to language production and processing have evolved over time. The FOXP2 gene, which is involved in developing speech and language, has been identified in both humans and Neanderthals. This suggests that the capacity for some form of language may have existed at least 500,000 years ago.

Another potential dating indicator is the first appearance of symbolic behavior, such as abstract art and ritual practices, which is thought to require cognitive abilities and cooperation associated with language. Early examples of symbolic behavior date back to around 100,000 years ago, with more complex forms emerging during the Upper Paleolithic period (approximately 40,000 years ago). There is also some evidence that language pre-dates our species.

12. Art is another defining aspect of our species

When we talk about the most essential firsts of our species, art has to be one of the most critical. Like other early inventions mentioned above, it is difficult to say when it was first in use, but some of the first evidence of art dates back to the Upper Paleolithic period, around 40,000 to 30,000 years ago. Some of the earliest known examples of art include cave paintings, sculptures, and engravings. The cave painting in Chauvet Cave, the Venus of Hohle Fels, and The Blombos Cave are prime early examples. The first human artistic representations, markings with ground red ocher, date from around 100,000 B.C. and were found in African rock art.

Forget about Picasso, Rafael, or Vincent van Gogh; whoever created the first cave art is undoubtedly the greatest artist ever. They invented the whole thing. Although, as with other inventions here, art most likely first appeared in multiple places and at multiple times.

The invention of art has been highly significant in human history, serving various purposes and playing an essential role in the development of culture and society. Art has allowed humans to express their thoughts, emotions, and beliefs, fostering more profound understanding and connection between individuals and groups. It has also contributed to transmitting knowledge and ideas across generations, helping preserve and evolve cultural traditions.

Art has played a central role in religious and spiritual practices, connecting individuals with the divine and reinforcing shared beliefs and values. It has provided humans with a sense of beauty and aesthetic pleasure, enriching their lives and encouraging creativity and innovation. As a form of social commentary and critique, art has challenged norms, expressed dissent, and promoted social change, shaping societal values and advancing human progress.

And that is your lot for today.

Humanity's earliest inventions laid the foundation for our species' remarkable progress and development. From the creation of stone tools, the mastery of fire, and the development of clothing to the birth of language and the emergence of art, these groundbreaking innovations have significantly shaped human culture and society.

They allowed early humans to adapt to diverse environments, communicate complex ideas, and build the foundation for thriving civilizations. As we continue to advance technologically and explore new frontiers, we must appreciate the ingenuity and resilience of our ancestors, whose first inventions set us on a path toward a future filled with endless possibilities.

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