Invention, Reinvention and Innovation. The Makings of Oldowan Lithic Technology

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In the modern world, creativity often culminates in material things or ideas about how to make them, and therefore should be of major interest of archaeologists, who deal with the material record of the past. Being the first recognizable techno-complex of hominin material culture, the Oldowan constitutes an interesting case for investigating creativity in early hominins. It presents, for the first time in the hominin record, a set of material culture signatures that make it a recognizable archaeological entity, such as the existence of "sites", a novel behaviour of the systematic flaking of stone, and, arguably, an expansion of the dietary niche through the processing of animal resources. In this paper I rely on psychological and ecological approaches of creativity, which define different problem-solving procedures, to explore a range of feasible scenarios related to two questions about the Oldowan. Based on the known behaviours of non-human primates, I first attempt to identify derived behaviours (inventions) that can be considered truly creative events in the Oldowan record. I then focus on the question of whether the spread of the Oldowan after 2.5 Ma was due to social learning and cultural transmission, as opposed to independent re-inventions that can be defined as acts of mundane creativity. It is concluded that the majority of early Oldowan innovations are the continuation or extension of behavioural patterns that might have been shared by early hominins and nonhuman primates. Oldowan stone-tool making is the only major disjunction from behaviours of nonhuman primates and pre-Oldowan hominins. This first invention is followed by a long time of stasis in stone tool technology. Nevertheless, several organizational innovations in land-use patterns and in dietary spectra did occur. The emergence of the Oldowan represents a momentous threshold in hominin evolution because it involved exceptional creativity, essentially different from cognitive patterns shared with other hominids. This first occurrence marks a creative act in the sense that it provided an unexpected and interesting solution to problems faced by hominins. Innovations inferred from the Oldowan record after this event are mostly attributed to mundane creativity.

Original languageAmerican English
Title of host publicationDevelopments in Quaternary Science
PublisherElsevier Ltd.
Number of pages18
StatePublished - 2012

Publication series

NameDevelopments in Quaternary Science


  • Exceptional creativity
  • Innovation
  • Invention
  • Mundane creativity
  • Non-human primates
  • Oldowan
  • Spatial clusters
  • Stone tool making
  • Technological stasis

All Science Journal Classification (ASJC) codes

  • Earth-Surface Processes
  • Geology


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