February 15, 2023
Alan Chen


-A 20,000 year old mystery is solved with novel thinking

-Our ancestors were probably more creative than us 

-Today innovation and creativity are in big demand

-AI is dramatically reshaping creative fields

-We need to foster our creativity and potential to be innovative

At the start of January 2023, an arm-chair archaeologist, and full-time furniture restorer; Ben Bacon, seemingly solved a 20,000 year old mystery. He noticed peculiar markings on numerous cave paintings from around Europe, and considered whether they could be something more than just random patterns. Spending countless hours researching these images, Ben theorised that the markings formed a lunar calendar. His theory and research has subsequently been backed up by academics. Not only had Ben unraveled a mystery, but he had also stumbled upon possibly the earliest example of record-keeping captured in the form of ‘proto writing’.

Ben Bacon - Durham University (Photo: BBC)

What’s amazing about this is the striking similarity that our ancient ancestors bare to ourselves. It’s sometimes easy to forget that our forebears were just like us. Their world might have looked different, but they probably had the same kind of concerns and aspirations. The truth is, we still have the same basic drive today, as we did back then. Hunger. Fear. Survival. 

Yet aside from our primal urges, we’ve also inherited other very useful things. The creation of stone tools, the ability to harness fire, or the depiction of animal migrations are actually brilliant innovations. They are nothing short of miraculous. Think about it; there was no way to look something up back then. No books. No Internet. No YouTube. People had to figure it out on their own, or be shown how through meticulous example. It’s the equivalent of having a private tutor, or attending a masterclass. Today these are luxuries. But back then, we did this as a matter of life and death - which is a very powerful motivator. 

Survival of the fittest?

This is made even more remarkable by the fact that humans were relatively rare back then, which meant that our innovations were probably occurring fairly frequently among much smaller groups. This was a time before there were huge numbers of people living in a centralised location, where we were relatively isolated and certainly not considered an alpha predator. In fact, we were probably prey for a whole host of animals, so our only chance of survival was to stick together and devise ways that improved our ability to survive. 

Acclaimed anthropologist Margaret Mead was once asked by her students what the first sign of civilization was. Instead of pointing at obvious man-made artifacts, she said that the discovery of a 15,000 year old healed femur bone represents the start of true civilization. The femur is the longest bone in the body, and breaking it means certain death in nature. A healed bone represents a decision made by more than one human to stay and care for the injured person, and demonstrates an understanding of medicine and physiology. This meant that the injured person was given time to heal, which means providing shelter, food and safety for at least a 6 week period. All of this points to our ancestors not only acting like us, but being just as resourceful, innovative and capable.

Moving down the food chain

Today, innovation is demanded and highly sought after in the urban jungle. It’s often the difference between successful companies and the ones that fail and become cautionary tales like the “Blockbusters” and “Kodaks” who didn’t innovate quickly enough. “Increased innovation” is a key business priority according to Forbes and numerous economists who are predicting how the global economy will shift in the next twelve months - and they are not wrong. In the coming years, our ability to innovate, to tap into our creativity and to stay resourceful; is imperative. Artificial intelligence is progressing at an exponential rate, and will soon change the way we conduct ourselves in virtually all industries and possibly in all facets of our daily lives. Looking at the headlines over the last 10 months, it’s not even a big leap to imagine this scenario. Midjourney and Chat GPT have dominated social media discussions. It’s no longer a matter of “If” but rather “when” this change will happen.

The new food chain - illustrated by Alan Chen

In the not so distant tomorrow, we may no longer be the most dominant life form. Perhaps then we will have an inkling of what it must have felt like for the first of our kin as they stepped out into the wide world. It was during these humbling moments that innovation and creativity came to define us as a species. They were not simply KPI’s, instead they were necessary adaptations for survival in the wild. Today we’ve domesticated everything - including ourselves, but at what cost? In automating everything, we’re no longer required to think or fend for ourselves with the same degree of urgency. We are authoring systems that reduce our need to be creative, which might ultimately be stifling our potential for innovation. At the same time, these systems may be leading us towards future Wicked Problems as AI begins to upend education, and may eventually displace millions of people by way of obsolescence. While running from technology is not the answer, it is worth considering what else we can be doing to foster these most important of human traits.

A few seeds we can plant today to thrive tomorrow:

  1. Experiment with technology: We should strive to understand it, and apply a creative mindset especially as the trends are being formed. This will give us an advantage in understanding how these technologies might impact us further down the track, whether they are passing trends, or here to stay. And crucially, it might help decide what we can do about it.
  2. Collaborate with people outside of your field: One of the key requirements in solving wicked problems is to look outside of your immediate circle. A shift in perspective is often the most critical thing we need in order to make breakthroughs. Who knows what other mysteries and challenges could be solved by novel collaborations.
  3. Foster creativity like your life depends on it: seek every opportunity to  strengthen your creative muscles. It could be professional development, or giving extra time to your side hustle. If you have the power to help others realise their creativity, use it! It might be investing more time in your kids, or passing on that specialist skill you’ve honed over years. Someone out there needs it.


Read this article on Medium

How a 15,000 year old human bone could help you through the coronavirus: https://www.forbes.com/sites/remyblumenfeld/2020/03/21/how-a-15000-year-old-human-bone-could-help-you-through-the--coronavirus/?sh=2947e1a837e9

Londoner solves 20000-year Ice Age Drawings Mystery:  https://www.bbc.com/news/uk-england-london-64162799