History of Mankind


Invention and Discovery

The material progress of mankind rests upon an ever-deep-ening and widening study of natural phenomena, from which results a corresponding increase in the wealth of means at a man’s disposal for his own emancipation, and for the improvement and embellishment of his life. The discovery how to make fire by friction was an act of the intellect which in its own degree demanded as much thinking power as the invention of the steam-engine. The inventor of the bow or the harpoon must have been a genius, whether his contemporaries thought him one or not. And then as now, whatever intellectual gains were due to natural suggestions must have grown up in the individual intellect, in order, when circumstances were favourable, to make its way to the minds of several or many persons. Only suggestions of a lower, less developed kind, such as we may call quite generally tones of mind, appear like epidemics in many simultaneously, and are capable as it were of giving their tone to the mental physiognomy of a race. Intellectual gains are individual achievements, and the history of even the simplest discovery is a fragment of the intellectual history of mankind.

When primitive man was brought naked into the world, Nature came to meet him in two ways. She gave him the materials of food, clothing, weapons, and so forth, and offered him suggestions as to the most suitable methods of turning them to account. It is with these suggestions that we have now to concern ourselves. In invention, as in all that is spiritual in man, the external world, mirrored in his soul, plays a part. We cannot doubt that much has been taken from it. The agreement between type and copy seems very close when we find the tail of a gnu or eland used by the Bushmen of South Africa, just as it was by its first owner, to keep off the flies of that fly-abounding region; or when Peter Kolb relates how the Hottentots look only for such roots and tubers as are eaten by the baboons and other animals. When we come to consider the evolution of agriculture, we shall discover many other cases of similar suggestions; justifying us in the reflection that in the lower stages of culture man is nearer to the beast, learns from it more easily, and, similarly, has a larger share of brute-instinct. Other discoveries go back to the earliest observations of the sequence of cause and effect; and with the course of discovery the beginnings of science also reach back to the earliest ages of mankind. Some natural occurrence strikes a man; he wishes to see it repeated, and is thus compelled to put his own hand to it. Thus he is led to inquire into the particulars of the occurrence and its causes.

But it is the individual alone who, in the first instance, makes the discovery and profits by it. More is required if it is to become an addition to the store of culture such as the history of culture can take into account. For the mode in which the acquisitions of the intellect are amassed is twofold. First, we have the concentrated creative force of the individual genius, which brings one possession after another into the treasury of mankind; and secondly, the diffusion of these among the masses, which is a preliminary condition of their preservation. The discovery which the individual keeps to himself dies with him; it can survive only if handed down. The degree of vitality possessed by discoveries depends, therefore, upon the force of tradition; and this again upon the internal organic interdependence of the generations. Since this is strongest in those classes who either have leisure or are led by their calling to attend to intellectual matters, even in their most primitive form, the force which tends to preserve what the intellect has won is also dependent on the social organi-sation. And lastly, since a store of intellectual possession has a stimulating effect upon creative minds, which would otherwise be condemned to be always beginning anew, everything which strengthens the force of tradition in a race will have a favourable effect upon the further development of its store of ideas, discoveries, inventions. Those natural conditions, therefore, may be regarded as indirectly most especially favourable to intellectual development, which affect the density of the whole population, the productive activity of individuals, and therewith the enrichment of the community. But the wide extension of a race and abundant possibilities of commerce are also operative in this direction. If we consider, not finding only, but the preservation of what has been found—by diffusion through a wide sphere and incorporation with the permanent stock of culture,—is essential to invention, we shall comprehend that this element of invention, so important for progress, will not attain an equally effective character in all stages of civilization. Everything tends to limit its effectiveness in the lower stages, for the lower we go in civilization, the less is the interdependence of men kept up; and on the other hand, with the increasing interdependence of men the pace of culture is accelerated.

How many inventions of men may have been lost in the long ages before great communities were formed! Even to-day how many do we see fallen with their inventors into oblivion, or, in the most favourable case, laboriously dug up again and so preserved? And who can measure the inertia of the stubborn opposition which stands in the way of the birth of new ideas? We may remember Cook’s description of the New Zealanders in the report of his second voyage: "The New Zealanders seem perfectly content with the scraps of knowledge which they possess, without showing the least impulse to improve upon them. Nor do they show any particular curiosity either in their questions or their remarks. Novelties do not surprise them as much as one would expect; nay, they do not hold their attention for an instant." We know now that on the remote Easter Island writing, the most important of inventions, was generally known. It seems to have died out there without leaving any offspring.

What a vista of eternally futile starts opens when we think of this mental immobility and this lack of quickening interdependence! We get a feeling that all the sweat which the struggle after new improvements has cost our age of inventions is but a drop in the ocean of labours wherein the inventors of primitive times were submerged. The germ of civilization will not grow in every soil. The bulk of civilized methods which a race is capable of assimilating is in direct proportion to its average of civilization. Anything that is offered to it beyond this is only received externally, and remains of no importance to the life of the race, passing as time goes on into oblivion or rigidity. . . . .

If we draw conclusions from certain acquisitions of culture which may be found among a people, such as garden plants, domestic animals, implements and the like, to its contact with some other people, we may easily forget this simple but important circumstance. Many institutions among the inhabitants of our mountains fail to betray the fact that they have lived for ages in the neighbourhood of a high civilization; the Bushmen have appropriated astonishingly little of the more copious store of weapons, implements, dexterity, possessed by the Bechuanas. On the one side the stock of culture progresses, on the other it retrogrades or stands still, a condition into which a movement, evidently in its nature not strong, easily passes. This is an instructive phenomenon, and a comparison of various degrees of this stationariness is specially attractive. Any one who starts with the view that pottery is a very primitive invention, less remote than almost any other from the natural man, will note with astonishment, not in Australia only but in Polynesia, how a talented race, in the face of needs by no means inconsiderable, manages to get along without that art. And when he finds it in existence only in Tonga and the smaller Easter Island at the extreme eastern limit of Polynesia, he will be apt to think how much more the intercourse between lands and islands has contributed to the enrichment of men’s stock of culture than has independent invention. But that even here again intercourse is very capricious, we learn from the absence of this art among the Assiniboines of North America, next door to the Mandans, who excel in it. Here we learn that inventions do not spread like a prairie-fire, but that human will takes a hand in the game and not without caprice, indolently declines some things while all the more readily accepting others. The tendency to stand still at a stage that has been once reached is greater in proportion as the average of civilization is lower. You do just what is enough and no more. Just because the Polynesians were able to heat water by putting red-hot stones into it, they would never have proceeded to pottery without foreign aid. We must beware of thinking even simple inventions necessary. It seems far more correct to credit the intellect of "natural" races with great sterility in all that does not touch the most immediate objects of life. Migrations may also have given occasion for sundry losses, since the raw material often occurs only in limited quantity, and every great migration causes a rift in tradition. Tapa plays an important part among the Polynesians, but the Maoris lost the art of its manufacture. In these lower stages of civilization the whole social life is much more dependent upon the rise or upon the loss of some simple invention than is the case in the higher. The nearer life stands to Nature, the thinner the layer of culture in which it is rooted, the shorter the fibres which it strikes down to the natural soil, the more comprehensive, the further-reaching every change in that soil naturally is. The invention of the way to manufacture clothing, whether in the form of woven stuffs or of beaten bark, is surely natural and yet rich in results. The entire refinement of existence among the natural races of Polynesia, resting upon cleanliness and modesty, and sufficient by itself to give them a high place, is inconceivable without the inconspicuous material known as tapa. Bark is converted into a stuff for clothing, which provides not only a plentiful covering for the body but also a certain luxury in the frequent change it allows, a certain taste in wearing and in the selection of colours and patterns, and, lastly, a means of amassing capital by preserving stores of this material which are always convertible. Think, on the other hand, of an Eskimo’s skin coat or a Negress’s leather apron, which are worn through successive generations and laden with the dirt of them. Tapa, a material which can be provided in quantities without much trouble, naturally represses the weaver’s art, which can only have proceeded by a long and toilsome road from plaiting. In the lake-dwellings there are products which, with equal justice, are referred to both one and the other form of work. This suggests the relations between basket-weaving and pottery; large earthenware vessels were made by covering baskets with clay. There is no need on this account, with William H. Holmes, to call the whole art of pottery, as contrasted with plaiting, a "servile art," but this outgrowth is instructive.

The fact that the most necessary kinds of knowledge and dexterity are spread throughout mankind, so that the total impression of the stock of culture possessed by the "natural" races is one of a fundamental uniformity, gives rise to a further feeling that this scanty stock is only the remains of a larger total of possessions from which all that was not absolutely necessary has gradually dropped out. Or can we suppose that the art of producing fire by friction made its way all alone through the world, or the art of making bows and arrows? To discuss these questions is important, not only in order to estimate the measure of the inventive talent possessed by natural races, but also to obtain the right perspective for the history of primitive humanity, for it must be possible to read in the stock of culture, if anywhere, from what elements and by what ways mankind of to-day has become what it is. Now if we pass in review what is possessed by the natural races in artifices, implements, weapons, and so on, and deduct what is and has been imported, in some cases already to a large extent, by means of trade with modern civilized races, we are inclined to form a high conception of their inventive talent. But what guarantee have we of the independent discovery of all these things? Undoubtedly before there were any relations with Europeans, relations existed with other races which reached down to these lower strata, and thus many a crumb must have fallen here from the richly spread tables of the old civilizations of Egypt, Mesopotamia, India, China, and Japan, and has continued here in a mutilated shape perhaps quite alien to the original uses served by it. The ethnographer knows cases enough of such borrowings; every single race shows examples of them. Nor is the examination of their nature and significance anything new. We may specially recall an original remark of Livingstone’s which, though made with another intention, is fairly applicable here: "The existence of various implements which are in use among the Africans and other partially civilized races, points to the communication of an instruction which must have proceeded at some time or another from a superhuman being." Think as we may about the conclusion of this remark, its main point is fully justified as a contradiction of the widespread assumption that everything which natural races have to show of their own came into existence in the place where it is now seen, and was invented by those races themselves. When we find all races in Africa, from Moors to Hottentots, producing and working iron after one and the same method, it is far more probable that this art reached them all from a common source than that it was independently discovered in all parts alike. At one time people pointed triumphantly to the turkey as an animal which had been independently domesticated by barbarous races, until Spencer Baird discovered in Mexico the ancestor of this ill-tempered sovereign of the poultry-yard. In the matter of utensils, borrowing from civilization is naturally more difficult to prove, since these do not, like plants and animals, bear about them, however obliterated, the marks of their origin. But may not the Indian, who got his maize from Mexico, have learnt from the same quarter the art of his delicate stone-work? Such introduction, together with its consequence of the widest possible propagation, must seem to us more natural than the independent invention of one and the same utensil, or one and the same touch of art in a dozen different places. Attention has been quite recently called to the fact that the Solomon Islanders have bows and arrows, while the inhabitants of New Zealand and others in the neighbourhood have not, and people were quite ready to credit the former with the invention of this ingenious weapon. As has been already pointed out, people are, in this matter, wonderfully inconsistent. On the one hand the natural races are put down to the level of the brute, on the other hand inventions are ascribed to them which are, at least, not of an easy kind. One is always too apt to think of invention as easy, considering only the difficulties of finding out, which for a brain of genius are small; but it is otherwise with the retaining of what has been found out. In some cases it has been possible to penetrate down to the more remote origin of apparently quite spontaneous productions of "natural" races. Bastian has compiled a list of cases in which certain elements of European civilization have been formally imitated; a good instance being the characteristic Fijian form of club copied from a musket of the last century. The savages thought they would have to have the dreaded weapon at least in wood, and produced a club remarkably ill-adapted to its proper purpose. A head-dress used in the New Hebrides is a colossal exaggeration of an admiral’s cocked-hat. The remarkable cross-bow used by the Fans is more to the purpose. It reached the Fans of the interior from the Portuguese discoverers on the west coast, and they retained the pattern, while on the coast firearms came into use, as in Europe. Now, after four hundred years, the cross-bow turns up again; but as the Fans have neither the patience nor the tools to fashion a lock, they slit the stock, and use the cross-bow to shoot little poisoned arrows which might just as well be shot from a light long-bow.

If it were less difficult to seize the manifestations of intellectual life among the lower races, we should be able to gather a much richer harvest among them. Indian traces run through the religion of the Malays and extend perhaps to Melanesia and Polynesia. We find such striking similarities, especially in the cosmogonic legends of Bushmen and Australians, Polynesians, and North Americans, that nothing but borrowing is left to explain them. So in the domain of politics we find points of accord. The institutions of Kazembe’s country, as described by Lacerda and Livingstone, or Muata Jamvo’s, as reported by Pogge and Buchner, remind us partly of India, partly of ancient Egypt. In the domain of social and political conceptions and institutions, the coincidences are striking. The deeper we search into these matters, the more convinced we are of the correctness of an expression used by Bastian at a date when the sharp division of races was a gospel, and the unity of mankind was scouted. In his Journey to San Salvador he says: "Even to the islands slumbering on the bosom of the Pacific, ocean-currents seem to have driven the message of the more abstract triumphs of civilization; perhaps even to the shores of the American continent." We may be permitted to add the conclusion that no one understands the natural races who does not make due allowance for their intercourse and connection, often disguised as it is, with each other, and with civilized peoples. There is, and always has been, more intercourse between them than we would suppose from a superficial observation. Thus, long before the Nile route was opened to traffic, wares of European origin, especially pearls, made their way from Darfour by Hofrat el Nahas, even to the Azandeh. Where strong resemblances occur, the question of intercourse, of communication from abroad, should always be raised in the first instance; in many cases possibly that of very direct intercourse. We think that we are quite justified in asking whether it is not by fugitive slaves that so many elements of African civilization have been spread through South America. For centuries the Japanese have had very little intercourse with the races of the North Pacific; yet it may be that we ought to refer to some such intercourse as this (which, in truth, not only enlarges, but, as time goes on, always tends to decompose) the wicker armour worn by the Chukchis, so like Japanese armour. Thus, however, races formerly depended on each other; and no more than at present was there ever on this earth, so far as our historical knowledge shows, a group of men who could be said to be devoid of relations with others. Everywhere we see agreements, similarities, affinities, radiating out till they form a close network over the earth; even the most remote islanders can only be understood when we take into account their neighbours, far and near.

These most remote islands, too, show how indigenous industries always dwindle where European or American manufactures come. When Hamilton visited Car Nicobar in 1790, the women wore a kind of short petticoat, made of tufts of grass or rushes strung in a row, which simply hung down; now they universally cover up their bodies with stuff cloths. Thus a century’s progress has resulted in the replacing of the grass petticoat by woven materials. Meanwhile, the domestic industry perishes, and no new dexterity arises in its stead. On the lower Congo we no longer find the bark-stuffs and fine webs which Lopez and other travellers of the sixteenth century prized so highly. Where, too, is the art of polishing gems and obsidian, which produced such conspicuous results in ancient Mexico? or the goldsmith’s work and tapestry of the old Peruvians?

For estimating the importance of external suggestion, nothing is more instructive than the consideration of races which are poorest in an ethnographical sense. Of them we can say that they are invariably also those whose intercourse with others is scantiest. Why are the most remote races at the extremities of the continents or on the less accessible islands the most destitute? Ethnographic poverty is only in part a consequence of the penury, the general poverty, which presses on a people. This has been readily recognised in the case of many races, as, for instance, the Australians, whose life on the arid steppes of their continent, almost destitute of useful plants and animals, is one of the poorest and most depressed that has been allotted to any race on the earth. But even in the most favoured northern tracts within the tropics, they are almost totally devoid of that tendency to the artistic adornment of existence which flourishes so profusely among their Papuan neighbours, and forms the luxury of barbarous races. In this case we need not seek far for the causes of their ethnographical poverty. Every glance at the conditions and mode of these people’s life shows how sharp is their struggle to maintain bare existence, but it also shows the impoverishing effects of remoteness from the great streams of traffic. The out-of-the-way situation of Australia, southern South America, the interior of South Africa, and eastern Polynesia, exercises the same impoverishing influence everywhere upon the indigenous races. If any one is inclined to see in this a sort of contagion of poverty, referable to the smaller number of suggestions offered under these conditions by Nature to the mind, and especially to the fancy, he must beware of hasty conclusions. Easter Island, though small, and by nature poor, is ethnographically rich; and hardly any barbarous race is superior in artistic development to the Eskimo.

We know how the utensils and weapons of civilized races have spread as it were by stages and continue to spread to races which previously possessed no notion of them. When Stanley crossed the Dark Continent, on his first remarkable journey along the Congo, the last point where firearms were seen in native hands was left on the east at the famous market-town of Ny-angwe. He came upon them again to the westward at Nbenga, 6º north of Nyangwe, in the shape of those four old Portuguese muskets, ever to be historical as the first sign from which the party learned, at the most critical moment of their journey, "that we had not missed the way, and that the great stream really reached the sea." Nyangwe and Nbenga are on the borders of an area of 200,000 to 250,000 square miles wherein firearms, with which the coasts of Africa have roared these four hundred years, were a few years ago unknown. It is true that other things have been more quickly diffused, as for instance those American products which were not brought here till the sixteenth century—tobacco, maize, and potatoes. But they too have travelled by stages; the Damaras have only come to know tobacco within the last few dozen years.—F. RATZEL, , 1:76–84.


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Chicago: "Invention and Discovery," History of Mankind in Source Book for Social Origins: Ethnological Materials, Psychological Standpoint, Classified and Annotated Bibliographies for the Interpretation of Savage Society, ed. Thomas, William I. (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1909), 427–435. Original Sources, accessed September 29, 2023, http://originalsources.com/Document.aspx?DocID=UG47FIFXDCEVCCR.

MLA: . "Invention and Discovery." History of Mankind, Vol. 1, in Source Book for Social Origins: Ethnological Materials, Psychological Standpoint, Classified and Annotated Bibliographies for the Interpretation of Savage Society, edited by Thomas, William I., Chicago, University of Chicago Press, 1909, pp. 427–435. Original Sources. 29 Sep. 2023. http://originalsources.com/Document.aspx?DocID=UG47FIFXDCEVCCR.

Harvard: , 'Invention and Discovery' in History of Mankind. cited in 1909, Source Book for Social Origins: Ethnological Materials, Psychological Standpoint, Classified and Annotated Bibliographies for the Interpretation of Savage Society, ed. , University of Chicago Press, Chicago, pp.427–435. Original Sources, retrieved 29 September 2023, from http://originalsources.com/Document.aspx?DocID=UG47FIFXDCEVCCR.