Creativity - humankind’s most defining characteristic

  • April 26, 2016 | Quathar Jacobs

How connected is our creativity to our humanity? (Image: Carolyn Hall Young)

An elaborate painting that evokes feelings of happiness and love when you gaze upon it. A whimsical dance ritual that captivates a crowd. Perhaps even a groundbreaking idea or invention that changes the world, as we know it. These are a few examples of human creativity.

Vision, enterprise, artistry and originality have always been praised by societies. Is creativity, however, actually humanity's most defining characteristic? Scientists have debated this issue for many years and in order to make better sense of it all, we first need to define the term “creativity”.

According to, creativity is the ability to transcend traditional ideas, rules, patterns, relationships or the like, and to create meaningful new ideas, forms, methods, interpretations, etc; originality, progressiveness, or imagination.

Sounds about right. Now, has the human species always been able to fabricate new and original ideas, or was our prehistoric ancestor incapable of creativity?

The definition of creativity is echoed in the “The Origins of Creativity”: “Most theorists assume that creativity requires ideas, behaviour, or products that are both novel and valuable. Thus construed, creativity appears to be uniquely human.”

Their research demonstrates that early examples of technological and artistic inventiveness indicates that human creativity simmered for hundreds of thousands of years before reaching a boil around 90 000 to 60 000 years ago in Africa and 40 000 years ago in Europe.

In another article published by, an author offers insights in The Mystery of Human Creativity Explained. “Invention and imagination are awesome, and uniquely human, abilities,” he says. He also argues, “Man is virtually defined by creativity – in manufacturing, art, literature, music, humour, and virtually every other field of activity.”

Then, in response to a review of his book titled Imagine: How Creativity Works, author Jonah Lehrer is quoted in The Dish, “You … quibble with my speculation that human creativity is rather unique. Well, look around. We have remade this world of ours, for better or worse. We live fully surrounded by our own inventions. At the very least, this suggests that the human mind is doing something a little different than every other kind of mind.”

All three academic arguments claim that creativity is what makes us uniquely human, even “defined by creativity” because of our inventions. However, there are some compelling arguments against this.

The most compelling of these arguments is the fact that human beings aren’t the only species to exhibit creativity. In fact, many animals are able to demonstrate varying degrees of creative behavior. Birds, insects and chimpanzees all exhibit this characteristic.

The abstract of a paper titled Applying Theoretical Models on Human Creativity to Animal Studies supports this argument, saying, “There are several models which are actively used in the study of creativity in humans which can be easily applied to animals to assist with the definition, classification, and characterization of behaviours.”

Needless to say, Homo sapiens first appeared in Southern Africa some 100 000 years ago. And there is significant evidence from about 90 000 years ago that suggests this species was of basic modern intelligence, acquiring knowledge about its environment and making numerous important technological innovations; but that it was lacking in creativity.

Still questioning the origins our creativity? The exhibitions at Maropeng provide highly interactive and enjoyable environments for visitors of all ages to learn and engage with. The lifelike replicas of ancient hominid species will provide further visual insight into the paths humanity has taken and the evolution of human creativity.

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