Researchers at Stanford University have published a study that explores the impact of human innovation on patterns of tool emergence throughout prehistoric societies, as outlined in a press release. Although the use of specific tools is typically attributed to changes in environmental factors and cultural evolution, the study used a computer model of cultural evolution to reproduce all of the patterns of tool emergence in prehistoric societies and found that bursts of human creativity could be the underlying cause.

In the computer model used in the study, it was apparent that some inventions were the result of large bursts of spontaneous creativity, whereas others were invented by drawing parallels with existing tools and building ideas from them.

"It was insightful to realize that tools can create 'ecological niches' for other tools to fill," said Oren Kolodn, co-author of the paper. "Once you invent something like a raft, it paves the way for the invention of a paddle that'll allow you to manipulate it, tools that will help you mend it and eventually also new technologies for offshore fishing or transport of things."

Tool evolution is unique because it can be distributed through different people and pockets of society, which separates it from the inheritance of genetic traits.

"In general, humans inherit genetic traits directly from our parents," said Nicole Creanza, co-author of the study. "In contrast, cultural traits - tools, beliefs and behaviors that are transmitted by learning - can be learned not only from parents but also from teachers and peers."

Although the current results are promising, the researchers believe that with more time the findings will further expand our knowledge of the underlying causes of tool evolution and reveal things that archaeological records alone could not.

"We don't completely understand the sudden bursts of cultural accumulation in the archaeological record, but researchers have proposed that an environmental change or a shift in cognitive capacity could spur a 'cultural explosion,'" said Creanza. "Our model demonstrates that these 'explosions' could also be a feature of cultural evolution itself, as long as some innovations are dependent on others."