A brief history of Intelligence

The chronicle of human intelligence is but a journey through the history of what we know — and, more importantly, how we know it

by Jillian York

AI 13 February 2024

The history of human intelligence begins somewhere unknown, thousands of years ago, before any recorded history, at least that to which we still have access. We can only speculate about what our earliest ancestors may have known, what knowledge they may have collected about their surroundings, and how they may have applied that knowledge to their lives. But fragments of our history in the form of written records dating back to a little more than 5,000 years ago give us a glimpse into the history of human intelligence.

Tablets found by an archaeological expedition of the Oriental Institute of the University of Chicago in the ’30s in what is now southwestern Iran are written in the Elamite language. The Elamite empire fell to the Assyrians in around 648 BC after a failed attack on Babylon. What we know of Elam comes not from its people but rather from their contemporaries, and their enemies, the other civilizations of the early Bronze Age. 

Elamite has long been extinct as a language. As an isolate, it is notoriously difficult for linguists to decipher, thus preventing us from fully understanding the knowledge of this roughly 4,500-year-old society. But where there is information, there is always hope of furthering knowledge: just last year, French archaeologist François Desset announced that he had deciphered a 4,400-year-old cuneiform bas-relief from Elam.

By contrast, what we know about the ancient Egyptians comes from a plethora of evidence left behind by generations and preserved beneath sand — a beneficial side effect of the arid nature of northeastern Africa. Although local knowledge of some of this history existed and was passed down through generations, it wasn’t until the late eighteenth century that the rest of the world was able to gain insight into how the ancient Egyptians lived and thought.

Though much of the early analysis of these discoveries was conducted by looters and colonizers, the transition of power in Egypt a little over half a century ago has consolidated control of research under the country’s Ministry of State Antiquities (though foreign experts contribute considerable work to the project, with the government’s permission). This localization is beneficial for many reasons, but it also carries notable risks: it can be difficult to trust the interpretation of history in the hands of an authoritarian government — or to know what we don’t know. It is, of course, a great marvel that we are able to understand what we can about Egyptian knowledge and intelligence. Yet the missing pieces — both those that we can only imagine and those, like the loss of the great library of Alexandria, once the repository of much of the world’s knowledge — that we know present gaps in our collective global heritage have and will puzzle historians forever.

Beyond the societies that have received much attention, there are countless others with lineages stretching back thousands of years that have been disrupted by governing bodies seeking to exert control, by conquering bodies, and by assumptions that certain methods of transmitting information would endure. Many Polynesian cultures have passed along knowledge, including their migratory histories, through oral tradition. Although this makes such knowledge more difficult to date accurately, some of these stories may be as old as Sumeria, Elam, and ancient Egypt. Physical relics left behind, such as those found by explorers on Pitcairn Island in the eighteenth century, offer outsiders a bit more understanding. Still, there are more questions than answers about why these societies traveled so far and what they knew.

It is, in fact, the rare society that has managed to keep its own lines of knowledge (relatively) intact. Historically, this has required either a degree of insularity (think of the Jewish, Yazidi, and Druze faiths) or a desire to spread and conquer (think of Catholicism or Islam). The examples of these religious groups demonstrate that it is indeed possible for humanity to pass along information over long periods of time, though perhaps most convincingly in the form of spiritual or metaphysical intelligence.

Today, even with our vast ability to share and preserve information, the preservation of intelligence has proven to be ephemeral. In 2017, five years after the nascent uprising in Syria had clearly morphed into war, observers began to notice that content related to the conflict was rapidly disappearing from YouTube and other platforms. To counter the Islamic State and other extremist groups, these Silicon Valley companies had implemented new policies and tools aimed at removing as much content as possible from such groups in what amounted to an endless game of whack-a-mole.

So what about modern intelligence? As societies, we have moved from recording history in stone to on paper, both fragile in their own ways, and now rely heavily on servers to hold the extent of human knowledge. On the one hand, we are, in some ways, the most intelligent we have ever been; on the other hand, we place our faith not in each other, in collective preservation, but in technologies and tech companies that promise the world but continually disappoint us.

This era, well-documented in popular and academic writing, stands as an early harbinger of what has come since. A little over a decade after hope swept across the Middle East and North Africa in the form of networked uprisings, we’re now in a bleaker era of history in which such battlefronts seem to emerge every few months. In Tigray, Kyiv, Khartoum, and now Gaza, with each war, each set of losses, and each ensuing period of migration, we lose elements of our collective history and intelligence, the stories of who we are.