Creativity is about the ability to overturn assumptions. It’s quite an irony, then, that there’s a fundamental and incorrect assumption about creativity itself in culture at large which needs to be challenged if creativity is to be properly understood.
That assumption is about modernity. Creativity falls within the bracket of what most people consider to be ‘advanced’ and ‘civilised’ thought and behaviour. The Renaissance, the Scientific Revolution, the Age of Enlightenment, the Industrial Revolution and finally the 20th century Space Age and Information Age have all been powered by an explosion of inventive and innovative thinking which radically reshaped the world as we know it. Hunter-gatherer societies? Indigenous peoples? ‘Primitive’ humans circa 40,000 years ago in Ice Age Europe? Not so much.
Anthropologists like me who study both indigenous cultures and the origins of humanity know better. As Augustín Fuentes explores in his excellent 2017 book The Creative Spark: How Imagination Made Humans Exceptional, if there’s one defining characteristic of humans it is our ability to be creative. We’re not sure when this peculiar behaviour arose in our evolutionary past, but it was probably somewhere around a hundred thousand years ago. It was then that we essentially transcended our biology. We began making art; performing collective rituals; organising social groups according to symbolic categories; worshipping gods; using grammatical language; and designing and using sophisticated tools and technologies.
Evolutionary anthropologists refer to this efflorescence of ingenuity variously as the Creative Explosion, the Great Leap Forward, the Upper Palaeolithic Revolution, the Human Revolution or the Human Symbolic Revolution. If that cup you saw at the design show is a radical new innovation, what about the very idea of a cup? If Tesla’s new car impresses you (whether earth or space-bound), what about the original invention of the wheel? If you are bowled over by the new exhibition at the Tate Modern, try the entire concept of making art in the first place. That’s radical. That’s creative.
In addition, don’t think for one moment that indigenous groups of our era lack creativity. Whereas we can barely tie our shoelaces these days, in indigenous cultures in Australia, Africa, the Americas and Asia the need to improvise technical solutions to everyday problems made many if not most members of society highly agile thinkers able to improvise creative solutions to everyday problems. If they weren’t, they might not eat or find water or make shelter for the night. And that’s not to mention the extraordinarily rich mythical and folkloric tapestries woven by such peoples, who had far greater immersion in such imaginative narratives than the average person today.
In recent years, creativity has become an increasingly important topic in education, science, business and culture more generally. It's something we desperately need to understand beyond the familiar business-speak clichés. And in only looking to the world today and to (relatively) recent history for insights, we miss the significance of what has gone long before. For me, paradoxically, it is ways of living that emerged deep in humankind's past which hold the ultimate secrets to creativity itself, and thus to our shared creative future.