Resource 3: History of technology

Background information / subject knowledge for teacher

Before you read about the history of technology, spend a few minutes thinking how technology first began. When do you think it all started? What sorts of things did the first people need to make? What do you think might have been the very first thing that they made? Why?

Technology is something that has built up over the ages; it is as old as the human species. And it is at the very centre of most human experience. It always has been and it always will be.

All the latest research shows clearly that human life had its origins in our part of Africa; Southern Africa is now known to be the ancient home of all people – the ‘cradle of humanity’.

As people developed here in Africa and advanced their culture, they found ways to use, adapt and change natural things to make their lives easier. They developed cultural and kinship systems. (Systems themselves are a kind of technology – a way to regulate human life and behaviour.)

Perhaps the first great inventions were bags, or baskets, and knots to tie things. Skins, parts of plants, and fibres were probably used, and knots, weaving and plaiting were invented. (Of course, dried gourds, or calabashes, could also be used as carrying containers.) Bags and baskets were probably invented by women to carry the food that they had gathered, so that they could carry more than a handful back to their homes. Also, they needed to be able to carry their babies safely, while they gathered roots, fruit and plants.

Once human hands were freed by the invention of bags and baskets, people could use their hands for other things. Hunting and other tools were also developed, using hard substances such as bone or stone. Long bones could be twisted or broken and shaped by rubbing them to form bone daggers for cutting or stabbing.

Rocks could be knocked and chipped to make stone hand-axes. The sharp flakes that were chipped off could be used for scraping skins to get leather. These tools could be used to make other tools. And so people evolved more and more complex technology to make human life easier in one way – and perhaps more complicated in others.

From early on, people probably decorated themselves. They made ornaments like beads, bracelets and necklaces to wear. This required skilful technology.

Before long, people probably discovered that they could get certain colours from plants. They also found, crushed and mixed coloured minerals to make pigments to paint and decorate designs on their bodies. By cutting the skin and rubbing ash into the wounds, beautiful, permanent patterns of scars could be made. At some stage, tattooing was invented.

Of course, they also decorated the objects and tools that they made. We’re sure that early people appreciated beautiful, carefully made things.

At some point, the control and use of fire became an important part of human life. This gave people some control over darkness, and a way to process certain foods by cooking or smoking. Control over fire meant that people could now move to live and settle in colder places. Fire could also be used to bake pots made of clay. This process turned the pots into stronger containers that could be used for cooking as well as storing.

Discovering how to find, mine, melt and shape metal was another important series of technological discoveries and inventions.

The taming and domesticating of animals was also a technological advance. This led to a nomadic herding lifestyle. In drier places, people learned to dig wells to provide their animals with water. Domestic animals could be a source and sign of wealth. Complex trading and bartering systems probably developed.

Learning how to grow crops led to the development of agriculture and settled farming. Control of water by irrigation was another technology that was developed.

Settlements turned into villages. Villages, in turn, developed into towns and cities. These towns and cities were complex systems that required many different jobs, which required specialised skills and technologies.

As human life got more complex, many other tools and systems had to be developed. Tools were used to make marks or records on stone or clay that carried messages or information of importance. Writing systems were developed.

Eventually, more complex tools and sets of tools turned into machines that could do the work of many people or animals. They could even do things that people had not been able to do before. When people worked out how to use the wind and water as sources of energy to work the machines, production systems improved. Using steam and coal was another major breakthrough, which led to the industrial revolution.

You can see that technological development leads to all sorts of other changes. Sometimes the changes are good and sometimes the changes can cause problems.

Today we live in a modern world that is dominated by rapid technological change. Do we control technology, or does technology control us? Understanding the uses of technology and being able to live and work as human beings in this modern world is a very important life skill for everyone to learn.

Original source: University of Fort Hare

Resource 2: Interrogating artefacts

Resource 4: Black rhino