Innovation 101 – migratory study offers insight into how humans develop new technology and ideas

The human inovation process is more of a slow, steady climb than a sum of great leaps, a new University of Reading study shows. Our minds tend to innovate by adding small improvements through trial and error report the scientists, who studied one of the most important cultural events in human history – the migration of the Bantu-speaking farmers in Africa some 5,000 years ago. Mark Pagel, Professor of Evolutionary Biology at the University, led the study.

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Using data about current communities and an intricate language family tree, researchers found that the Bantu tended to stick to familiar territory — literally and figuratively: they largely kept to the savannas they knew, and avoided the new and strange Congo rainforests. when they finally moved into these areas, their migration slowed down, effectively halting in the forested areas for nearly 300 years. The team argues that the primitive farmers needed this time to adapt to their new environment, and to acquire the knowledge and technology they needed to master this very different environment.

The research suggests that innovation does not come as easily to humans as we might have believed. It also faults the theory that thinking hard will lead to the right solution, and places the merit of innovation to a steady accumulation of knowledge and experience passed down from one generation tothe next.

“Sweeping out of West Central Africa more than 5,000 years ago the Bantu migration was one of the most influential cultural events of its kind. Disease, changes in climate and an increase in population meant it spread over a vast geographical area, eventually moving all the way down to the southern tip of the African continent,” Pagel said.
“But despite being modern humans with the intelligence and skills to adapt, the Bantu seemed to choose routes that kept them in familiar environments. Exploring exactly how this happened provides crucial evidence of how humans go about developing ideas and new technologies.”

The team’s efforts were focused on re-creating probable migration paths of over 400 Bantu-speaking groups. Their models showed that their incursions were followed corridors of savannas — which they were used to traversing and living off of — rather than following a more random distribution through jungle and savannah.

“Crucially, our findings fit with archaeological evidence. The research demonstrates that despite humans having an unmatched cultural potential for innovation, we perhaps underestimate how difficult developing life-changing new technologies actually is.”

The study offers some valuable insight into the way our brains work on innovation. The image of the genius is a powerful motif in our culture, evoked from comic books, with know it all Tony Stark, to giants of literature such as Sherlock Holmes. But those “Eureka” moments are not what got us down from the trees or put us on the moon. The heavy lifting was done the old fashioned way — with lots of elbow grease.

“From Watt’s steam engine design to Edison’s lightbulb, history is replete with the ‘genius’ inventor. But those amazing feats were not developed in a ‘Eureka moment’. Watt’s engine was more a redesign more than an invention. Edison’s notebook reveals that he tried thousands of filament materials before alighting by chance on his favoured material.”

“Very little has changed. Even today, science and business rely on groups pooling their knowledge and skills, and even then many groups cannot compete. Innovation is hard even for the most intelligent species on Earth.”


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