The Story of Civilization: Economic Elements – The Foundations of Industry

“Man, said Franklin, is a ‘tool-using’ animal.”
Will Durant, “Our Oriental Heritage”, page 12.
(A “knapper” from Irian Jaya, in West Papua, New Guinea: studies suggest that this kind of stone tool production skill was acquired by hominids at least 500 thousand years ago — and that also indicates the presence of some kind of language already at that time.)

SUMMARY: Beginning with the discovery of fire, man starts to build tools and produce more and more material goods and food, thus improving his living conditions. Initially, such improvement is given by the direct use of the goods; later, by the accumulation of wealth through the sale of surplus.


“If man began with speech, and civilization with agriculture, industry began with fire.” His probable initial use was to tame the darkness; after that, it was used for heating and then to cast metals. With the power of fire, man may have looked at the animals around him and at nature as a whole and resolved to imitate its tools and its industry. “Man, said Benjamin Franklin, is a tool-using animal.”

Probably taken from the vegetable world, the stick was the first tool, very simple but very useful. In agriculture, it became the hoe; in war, the spear, the javelin, the sword. From the mineral world, rocks were carved into a myriad of utensils; of the animal world, in turn, leather, bones and shells provided the raw material. The inventiveness of primitive man might equal or even surpass that of the average modern man. We differ from them only by the social accumulation of knowledge, materials and tools, not by an innate superiority of brains. Honestly, if civilization depended on my own inventiveness, I think we would not have passed the Stone Age yet!

To the most basic tools, most likely through women, it followed the art of weaving, of basketry, of pottery, and finally the art of building shelters using clay bricks, moss, twigs. “Art began where nature left off.”

Only three further developments were necessary, then, for the primitive man to create all the essentials of economic civilization: transport mechanisms, trade processes, and a means of exchange.

Initially, the man was his own “beast of burden“, then he tamed the animals and, with ropes and twigs, created the sled; he rolled logs underneath the sleigh to lessen friction, and then cutting cross-sections of the logs created the greatest mechanical invention of all, the wheel; he put wheels under the sled and made a wagon. With other logs he made rafts or carved them into canoes, and with them he found the most convenient means of transport: the streams and rivers — even the sea.

As human skills and natural resources are distributed unevenly, a people may be better able to produce certain articles than its neighbors (Adam Smith called it “absolute advantage“). From these articles that they produce more than they can consume they will offer the surplus to other people in exchange for theirs. This is the origin of commerce.

For a long time, trade was based purely on barter, until they invented a standardized trading medium to expedite and facilitate operations. At first, this medium was something universally useful like salt, furs, and especially cattle. The very word capital comes from the Latin capitale that means property, and this in turn derives from caput, which means head (cattle). When metals became more available, they gradually replaced other means by their convenient representation of high value – first copper, then bronze, silver and finally gold – occupying little space and weighing even less. But this last development was probably not made by the primitive man, but by the early civilizations.

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