Greatest Ancient Inventions

If we believe that we're civilised today, it's only because our early ancestors were constantly struggling to improve things for themselves and future generations. Who do we have to thank for the essential building blocks of civilisation?

fire

Burn, baby, burn!

The latest evidence suggests that an ancestor of modern mankind, Homo erectus, was able to use fire around 1.7 million years ago. East African stone artefacts dating from this period show signs of exposure to intense heat consistent with fire. Homo erectus could control fire but couldn't produce it: we still don't know exactly when humans acquired this key skill but sparking flint artefacts between 10,000 and 4,000 years old have been discovered.

Wheel with spokes

Wheel with spokes

Keep on rolling

Ancient Mesopotamia, situated in modern Iraq, is often referred to as the cradle of civilisation, with good reason. Crucially, the earliest known examples of the wheel, dating from 3,500 BC, are credited to this ingenious and industrious people. The first wheels were clumsy, solid discs but, by 2,000 BC, the Egyptians were refining the basic principle, developing spoked wheels for their chariots.

Green fingers

The ability to tame the land around us is at the core of civilised existence. Agriculture transformed us from hunter-gatherers reliant on the whims of nature to communities who could exercise a far greater degree of control over their destinies. Once again, we owe a debt to the people of Mesopotamia, who were practising early forms of agriculture almost 8,000 years ago. Archaeologists believe that the first crops were replanted wild grains. Skills such as crop rotation took millennia to perfect, though: early farmers simply moved on to new pastures when the land they were working became exhausted.

Going potty

Another cornerstone of civilisation is pottery. Access to clean storage facilities, will help your community to thrive. The first pots were probably cast in south-western Japan around 12,000 years ago but only a few fragments of these vessels survive. Much more is known about the Jomon period in Japanese history, which began around 10,000 years ago. Jomon means "cord-mark" in Japanese and refers to the way in which pottery from this period is decorated with cord markings. By 8,000 BC, pottery use was widespread in mainland China, too.

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A life on the ocean wave

Curiosity about our immediate environment is a powerful civilising force. So is the desire to know what lies beyond our own shores. Evidence exists suggesting that seafaring peoples were active in the Pacific and North Atlantic between 8,000 BC and 6,000 BC. Some archaeologists go further, arguing that early man could have been plying the waters of the Indonesian archipelago between 60,000 and 30,000 years ago. Anthropologists believe that, between 20,000 and 10,000 years ago, marsupials were carried by enterprising, island-hopping settlers eager to establish populations of game in their new homes.

Heavy metal

Persian scientists had managed to extract copper from ore by around 3,500 BC. By mixing copper with tin, they produced bronze, a tough, durable metal that could be forged into excellent tools. As The Bronze Age spread across the world, civilisations began to reap the huge benefits of metalworking. Better tools meant better crop yields and better construction techniques. Societies without immediate access to copper and tin began to trade with civilisations that possessed these sought-after resources. Of course, bronze made much better weapons than stone, so metalworking has destroyed civilisations as well as built them...