Blades were first produced by Homo sapiens during their colonization of Europe from Africa approximately 40,000 years ago. This has traditionally been thought to be a dramatic technological advance, helping Homo sapiens out-compete, and eventually eradicate, their Stone Age cousins. Yet when the research team analysed their data there was no statistical difference between the efficiency of the two technologies. In fact, their findings showed that in some respects the flakes favoured by Neanderthals were more efficient than the blades adopted by Homo sapiens.
Now that it is established that there is no technical advantage to blades, why did Homo sapiens adopt this technology during their colonization of Europe? The researchers suggest that the reason for this shift may be more cultural or symbolic. Eren explains: “Colonizing a continent isn’t easy. Colonizing a continent during the Ice Age is even harder. So, for early Homo sapiens colonizing Ice Age Europe, a new shared and flashy-looking technology might serve as one form of social glue by which larger social networks were bonded. Thus, during hard times and resource droughts these larger social networks might act like a type of ‘life insurance,’ ensuring exchange and trade among members on the same ‘team.'”
The cite is Metin I. Eren, Aaron Greenspan, C. Garth Sampson, Are Upper Paleolithic blade cores more productive than Middle Paleolithic discoidal cores? A replication experiment, in The Journal of Human Evolution. It isn’t on their website yet. The ScienceDaily writeup is a bit clumsy here and almost superfluously dumb there. It could have been about 1/4 as long.
In any case, sometimes I wish I know more evolutionary anthropology. John and Sandman have a comparative advantage here. Nevertheless, Henry Harpending told me years ago that the changes in tool type tens of thousands of years ago were not as comprehensible as they might be if they dovetailed perfectly with rise of man the modern. Neandertals had larger cranial capacities than our own species, so that should give us one prior as to why we shouldn’t assume they were much less intelligent than our own kind. Additionally, if we look at our history we note that many times conquests were not achieved through great technological imbalances. The Mongols for example were superior in terms of organization and human capital.1 Some of the same factors combined with historical contingencies played a role in the Arab expansion and the rise of Islam. Certainly the Spaniards were superior in technology to the natives of the New World, but the 90% declines in population within one generation due to disease susceptibility probably played a greater proximate role in the demographic replacement.
One could make the case that technological differences only became the preponderant independent variables in conquests and population replacements within the last 500 years. The combination of Quinine and the Maxim gun opened up Africa in the late 1800s. Ironically we might be projecting our own Whiggish age and its dominant dynamics back to the prehistorical period!
1 – Nearly all Mongol males were capable of being cavalrymen because of the skills of the nomadic lifestyle.