Tasmania is just an island of modest size, but it was the most extreme outpost of the most extreme continent, and it illuminates a big issue in the evolution of all human societies. Tasmania lies 130 miles southeast of Australia. When it was first visited by Europeans in 1642, Tasmania was occupied by 4,000 hunter/gatherers related to mainland Australians, but with the simplest technology of any recent people on Earth. Unlike mainland Aboriginal Australians, Tasmanians couldn’t start a fire; they had no boomerangs, spear throwers, or shields; they had no bone tools, no specialized stone tools, and no compound tools like an axe head mounted on a handle; they couldn’t cut down a tree or hollow out a canoe; they lacked sewing to make sewn clothing, despite Tasmania’s cold winter climate with snow; and, incredibly, though they lived mostly on the sea coast, the Tasmanians didn’t catch or eat fish. How did those enormous gaps in Tasmanian material culture arise?
The answer stems from the fact that Tasmania used to be joined to the southern Australian mainland at Pleistocene times of low sea level, until that land bridge was severed by rising sea level 10,000 years ago. People walked out to Tasmania tens of thousands of years ago, when it was still part of Australia. Once that land bridge was severed, though, there was absolutely no further contact of Tasmanians with mainland Australians or with any other people on Earth until European arrival in 1642, because both Tasmanians and mainland Australians lacked watercraft capable of crossing those 130-mile straits between Tasmania and Australia. Tasmanian history is thus a study of human isolation unprecedented except in science fiction – namely, complete isolation from other humans for 10,000 years. Tasmania had the smallest and most isolated human population in the world. If population size and isolation have any effect on accumulation of inventions, we should expect to see that effect in Tasmania.
If all those technologies that I mentioned, absent from Tasmania but present on the opposite Australian mainland, were invented by Australians within the last 10,000 years, we can surely conclude at least that Tasmania’s tiny population didn’t invent them independently. Astonishingly, the archaeological record demonstrates something further: Tasmanians actually abandoned some technologies that they brought with them from Australia and that persisted on the Australian mainland. For example, bone tools and the practice of fishing were both present in Tasmania at the time that the land bridge was severed, and both disappeared from Tasmania by around 1500 B.C. That represents the loss of valuable technologies: fish could have been smoked to provide a winter food supply, and bone needles could have been used to sew warm clothes.
It’s an astonishing story. Isolation causes not just a lack of innovation, but a reversion in technology. Critical technologies, like those needed for catching and eating fish disappeared through the years of isolation. Now that Tasmania is connected back up to the rest of the world, current technology has diffused back in, and we even occasionally have great new ideas come out of Tasmania. Connections are the key.
In order to innovate, we need sources of new ideas, which come through connections with other people. We need to maintain the skills needed to keep the technologies current, which also come through connections. And the ideas need to spread, which again comes through connections.
Connecting ideas is the core of innovation, but without connecting ideas to people, there is no innovation at all. The lone inventor sitting in a garage is a myth. Innovation is social. It always has been, and it always will be – just look at Tasmania for proof.