In the local Museum In The Park there is a small room marked “Collections”. In its centre is an antique, glass-topped, mahogany display cabinet with a stack of drawers below. The glass topped display features pages from nature notebooks: drawings and watercolours of plants, pressed ferns and flowers etc., but it is the closed drawers which interest me.
I love these small local museums: they are usually unattended and this invites me to nosy around and be tangibly involved with the exhibits, something you may not feel free to do in a national museum.
How many visitors open these drawers? Not many, I bet myself. Sliding the uppermost one open, it reveals a collection of small seashells in little boxes. The next one down has larger shells. I go for broke and pull on the bottom drawer thinking, who would bother crouching down to try this if they wouldn’t even bother with the top ones? It doesn’t yield to any amount of tugging. It’s not locked as there is no keyhole; the antique wood has expanded over the years and has wedged its drawer tight.
I try the one above which opens with difficulty. It contains prehistoric tools: an array of delicate looking needles, flint arrow heads and spear heads, scrapers, a great stone axe blade, and a huge, smooth pebble-like stone blunt at one end which looks as if it may have been a mallet or a hammer. There are several pieces of antler, horn and bone too but it’s not clear what these were for.
I stare down at the tools, imagining the minds of the people who made and used them, how their intelligence, perception and awareness compared to ours. It’s easy to believe they were inferior minds, naive, childlike in comparison to us but back home, looking into this, I find it might not be true.
There is an academic school of thought which hypothesises man’s intellectual capacity peaked millennia ago and has since been in decline. Even in early hominids with smaller brain cavities, analysis shows these brains to have been as complex as modern man’s.
What’s to blame for our intellectual decline? Well, ironically, probably tool making. The more advanced the technology we use, the less intelligent the user needs to be.