Why Has 99 Percent of the Technological Progress by Modern Humans Come in the Last 10,000 Years?

Before we could have robots, we needed to figure out fire, tools, and the wheel.

Photo by Toshifumi Kitamura/AFP/Getty Images

This question originally appeared on Quora.

This question reads: Modern humans are estimated to be about 200,000 years old, but it seems that 99 percent of technological progress has occurred in the last 10,000 years. What were we doing before that?

Answer by Pratyush Rathore:

Suppose, I give you a magic coin worth 1 cent, which multiplies itself 100 times every year.

At the end of 1 year, you would have a negligible amount: $1.
At the end of 2 years, you would have a very small sum: $100.
At the end of 3 years, you would have barely enough: $10,000.
At the end of 4 years, you start seeing a modest $1 million dollar heap.
At the end of 5 years, you would have a good $100 million.

Now, at the end of the fifth year, you come to me and say, “I have kept the coin with me for 5 years, but 99 percent of the money it made came in last year. What was the coin doing before that?”

So, to answer in one word: compounding.


Answer by Balaji Viswanathan, Founder Zingfin.com:

Short answer: We took tens of thousands of years to settle down (starting from the migration in Africa). After we settled down, we discovered ways to domesticate plants about 12,000 years ago, discovered metals about 8,000 years ago and started writing things about 5,000 years ago. Each of these steps helped us bring the humans together and build ideas on top of another. Let us look at some of the major events in human history.

  1. Migration from Africa: The modern humans are believed to have evolved about 200,000 years ago. (Recent African origin of modern humans.) For the first 100,000 years, we remained there until some unexplained sequence of events started forcing them outward. Then humans started walking, and it took multiple generations for them to survive the deserts Africa to reach Europe and Asia, and later the Americas. Imagine walking the Sahara or Arabian desert with no shoes, water cans, or camels. Only when we started settling did we have the time and resources to build something that could be passed on to the future generations. Without that settlement, great ideas would have died with the person or the tribe. Our first major settling down happened around 12,000 B.C. (Sedentism)
  2. Low Population: Until about 10,000 BC, the world population never exceeded 15 million and mostly was around 1 million (Urban World History). The present population of the world is 7 billion, and 1 million is comparable to the population of a medium-sized city. When you have just a couple of million people spread in this big wide world, there is little that humanity could collectively build. Even if we assume that early human being could be as productive as us, their civilization could produce less than 1/1000 of what our society could do.
  3. Life Expectancy: From that point until 20th century, we had a very low life expectancy (about 30 years). Imagine if we all died by the time we reached 30, how much could we learn from our parents and how much could we teach our kids? Given the low life expectancy of early humans, there was not much time to learn and teach. We just started randomly doing whatever we could to survive. (Life expectancy)
  4. Use of fire: Early humans didn’t find a way to use the fire in a controlled way. This means we often lived in a dark (no fire means no lights), cold, and scary place (Control of fire by early humans).It was about 125,000 years ago that we started using fire in a controlled way, and it took a lot of trial and error.
  5. No sophisticated tools and domesticated animals: Early humans used primarily stone tools, and until about 50,000 years ago, these were quite crude. They helped a little bit in hunting, but didn’t take us far. We had to wait until 6000 B.C. to get our first metal: gold (History of Metals). With metals we could tackle a lot more elements and make far more tools. We didn’t have any animals to help us out. We first started domesticating dogs and later sheep, pigs, horses, etc. Each of the domestication waves took thousands of years of trial and error (Domestication).
  6. Civilization allowed us spare time. By 12,000 B.C., many groups of humans found habitable regions to grow their tribe. They had found ways ways to domesticate a few plants and animals and had made superior tools. As large groups of humans started gathering and work year-round in the same place, we found ways to share and transmit ideas. Trade was discovered, and humans suddenly found spare time to do stuff (Civilization).

    Until that point, we spent most of our time in survival mode. Once we could grow and store stuff, we had plenty of time for pleasure. That meant that we could start building things (for worship and living), organizing into more complex groups, and start specializing (Human evolution).
  7. Writing began. (History of writing) It was about 3000 B.C. when we actually started putting our ideas into a pictorial form. Until that point, most of the ideas that humans generated would have evaporated. Imagine if we had no science books. Each generation would have to discover Newton’s laws and all other scientific theories by themselves. With writing, we could stand on the sholders of others.

    Then, we discovered the wheel about 4,000 years ago. This allowed us to travel fast and transfer products and humans between regions. The rest is history. In short, we spent a lot of time in a trial-and-error mode to find the right places to live and the right things to eat. Given the short life spans and absence of settlements, ideas could not get transmitted. As we discovered ways to keep us warm and bright at night, got spare time due to agriculture we started putting our brains to a good use.


Innovation/Invention requires a lot of trial and error and the ability to build on previous results. Until a few thousand years ago, these experiments were local, and there was little we could learn from others’ experiments. Thus, a guy in Ethiopia might have been trying to master fire control even 5,000 years after a guy in Sweden has already mastered it. There was no easy way to transfer ideas given the lack of wheel (to enable quick movement), writing systems, broadcast communication, etc. The population was also too low to improve the odds of experimentation. Lastly, we were too focused on survival to afford us the time to innovate. Agriculture liberated us from the focus on the daily search for food.

Finally, we are constantly discovering more about our past, and our knowledge of our ancestors is not complete. A hundred years ago, we didn’t know about the magnificent Indus Valley civilization and knew little of Mesopotamia or Incas. New discoveries are constantly pushing back the known history, and I would not be surprised if we discover more complex civilizations from 10000 BC that have just been lost due to the passage of time.

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