What was the first artificial object humans made a billion of?
December 13, 2021 8:06 AM   Subscribe

Amidst a night of revelry, a question was raised about which there was much debate. There was no consensus and debate continues via slack today; I'm hoping that someone on here has a slam dunk answer that will end it. What is the first type of artificial object that humans made a billion of?

The general parameters of the debate were that it had to be a specific type of object and not so much a group of objects. For example, "cooked food" would not count, but baked potato would. Likewise, "stone tools" is too broad but grinding stones are not. The object must not occur naturally in its final usable state, although it can be made of natural materials. Most lines of argument have followed one of two paths - an absolutely ancient object that has been made forever, but maybe not always at prodigious rates, and more modern objects that are relatively newer but have vastly higher production rates. Here are some of the answers that were proposed:

Some ancient currency
Buttons (for clothing)
Sheets of paper

Help me find the best answer, mefi!
posted by _DB_ to Society & Culture (37 answers total) 13 users marked this as a favorite
One of the first tools to be produced in the modern industrial way was rifles, starting around the 1840s, so if it isn’t one of the things you suggested above I would say ammunition.
posted by The Pluto Gangsta at 8:11 AM on December 13, 2021

Servings of porridge?
Servings of beer?
Loaves of bread?

Some food stuff, I’d think.

Not sure they match your specificity requirement.
posted by GenjiandProust at 8:13 AM on December 13, 2021 [2 favorites]

Probably stone hand axes. They recently unearthed an entire city dedicated to manufacturing stone axes in Morocco that's 1.3 million years old. They found stones from vast distances away, indicating people traveled there to have axes made, or obtain ones of different materials than were locally available.

There is of course no way to know how many were produced, but considering that stone hand axes were in use for such a long time (over 1 million years) I would guess collectively a billion could have been made.
posted by ananci at 8:14 AM on December 13, 2021 [23 favorites]

Coins, maybe, given their size and utility. Probably hard to count them all though — metals of all kinds were extracted, smelted, minted, and probably remelted and minted over and again when reused by the era's new boss.
posted by They sucked his brains out! at 8:25 AM on December 13, 2021

I'd say spears, if we're willing to count everything from a sharp stick to more elaborate versions. My guess is that humans started making spears or spearing objects very very early in our evolution and haven't stopped since. Obviously they were refined along the way to include tips from harder materials and then metals, etc. but "straight pointy pole with throwing potential" has probably been part of our existence since we started walking upright and hunting.
posted by jzb at 8:26 AM on December 13, 2021

Fire would have to be in contention, I’d think, though the "final usable state" hurdle would require a bit of a leap.

Maybe a torch?
posted by jamjam at 8:26 AM on December 13, 2021 [1 favorite]

I would wager it was the beveled rim bowl from Uruk.
posted by mdonley at 8:26 AM on December 13, 2021 [7 favorites]

Stone hand axes is not a bad guess. They were in use for over a million years, so only around a thousand would need to be made each year in order to get to a billion (Homo population would have been in the tens or hundreds of thousands during this period, so that's less than one axe per person). They were used by Homo erectus, not Homo sapiens - not sure if that's "human" enough for you!
posted by mskyle at 8:32 AM on December 13, 2021 [20 favorites]

The little clay tokens, pessoi, Greeks and Romans used to wipe their butts.
posted by Ardnamurchan at 8:50 AM on December 13, 2021 [2 favorites]

stone bricks would be a good guess too.
posted by The_Vegetables at 8:52 AM on December 13, 2021 [7 favorites]

I'm going to go with woven brush and grass nests. They leave no fossil record of course, but we were likely making them before we were human, and long before we had the use of fire. Ours would have been more refined than the ones that gorillas make in order to be eligible, so the type I am suggesting would be half wind break and half insulation against the cold and moisture on the ground. I don't think we would have to go with the version that has roofing made of boughs for this object to be eligible as not occurring naturally in its final usable state.

But the first object could have been deliberately-sharpened-stick, as we were making those pretty darn early too.

And then there is the possibility of string-made-by-rolling-fibre-on-top-of-your-thigh. Likely that was made out of the wool that animals shed in the spring and which can be collected from the bushes and brush which scrapes it off the shedding animal, but it could have been made out of semi rotted plant matter too, as long as the local materials had enough roughness that the individual fibres would lock during the rolling process.
posted by Jane the Brown at 8:55 AM on December 13, 2021 [9 favorites]

How strict is the "human" part? Bc I like ananci's answer of stone hand ax, except that those were being made by our ancestors before they were anatomically modern humans.
posted by SaltySalticid at 9:08 AM on December 13, 2021 [3 favorites]

My vote would be either sewing thread or transistors. A billion is a real big number.
posted by tchemgrrl at 9:08 AM on December 13, 2021 [2 favorites]

posted by itesser at 9:10 AM on December 13, 2021 [1 favorite]

I went to match sticks, but I could imagine spear points or some other flint tool could be more numerous, sooner.
posted by From Bklyn at 9:11 AM on December 13, 2021

Best answer: Billion is a big number but so is 100,000 humans in Uruk who need infinity mud bricks to keep expanding their homes, city, infrastructure, vanity megaprojects like ziggurats, etc. My instinct is that the "first billion" would be something "everyone" needs/wants/uses and that you would need many of to be useful. Need more bricks per person/home/construction than most items that come to mind in early history.
posted by GoblinHoney at 9:14 AM on December 13, 2021 [21 favorites]

Some kind of stone tool seems a good shout for the sheer length of time they were used.

Although our view of the material culture of ancient people is distorted by the things which do and don’t survive. I assume ancient humans would have had other kinds of objects, made of wood, bone, hides and so on, which wouldn’t survive in the fossil record and may have been used in greater numbers than hand axes… but we can’t know.
posted by Bloxworth Snout at 9:23 AM on December 13, 2021 [1 favorite]

Pins - or nails?
posted by rozcakj at 9:35 AM on December 13, 2021 [7 favorites]

Seconding bevel-rimmed bowls. Millions have been found, so easily a billion were produced.. They are one of the first, if not the first instance of a kind of mass production.

What I find fascinating is that there still isn't scholarly agreement on how they were made or what they were used for. Just that there are lots of them and they are all roughly the same.
posted by vacapinta at 9:36 AM on December 13, 2021 [12 favorites]

There'd be no record of it, but I'd bet that we hit a billion of those "Cool S" shapes being drawn in the mud with sticks fairly early on in our species.
posted by AlSweigart at 9:50 AM on December 13, 2021 [20 favorites]

Your question made me think of the Mitch Hedberg joke "Rice is great if you're really hungry and want to eat two thousand of something." So I'm going to go with domesticated grains. Corn, rice, wheat, barley etc were just grass seeds before we started messing with them.
posted by bleep at 9:51 AM on December 13, 2021 [5 favorites]

posted by hworth at 10:00 AM on December 13, 2021

Do fires count as an object?
posted by Vatnesine at 10:26 AM on December 13, 2021

Stone flakes from the stone-tool-making process. Having spent an entire summer once writing numbers on stone flakes with a nib pen and india ink, I can guarantee they surpassed the billion mark long before stone axes did.
posted by bricoleur at 10:40 AM on December 13, 2021 [2 favorites]

I would say pots -- bowls, jugs, barrels, etc. Even a shallow hole dug in the ground may qualify.

Because carrying water is so important, for storing and cooking food, and for hygiene.

Once in an interview I heard Spalding Gray say something like "The world is full of pots and books -- why should I create yet another?" As we know, the books came later; but we've needed those pots since antiquity.
posted by Rash at 11:11 AM on December 13, 2021 [1 favorite]

Baskets or pottery have been around for a long ass time. Same with clothing, staring with hides.
posted by Crystalinne at 11:12 AM on December 13, 2021

Bone beads.
posted by RedEmma at 11:37 AM on December 13, 2021 [1 favorite]

H. sapiens sapiens started 200,000 years ago, so keep that in mind when talking about "human" invention. That might be long enough to produce a billion stone flakes, if the entire human population produced at least 5,000 of them every year. Also, would campfires count as an "artificial object"? Or a cooked meal?

One trillion would be more interesting, even though the answer is obviously AOL trial CDs.
posted by AlSweigart at 11:53 AM on December 13, 2021 [3 favorites]

Beads. From bones, antlers, ivory, semiprecious stones, gold, silber, shells, etc. Garments covered in thousands of tiny beads have been found in many cultures burial sites.
Also clay tablets, covered in cuneiform.
posted by 15L06 at 1:32 PM on December 13, 2021 [2 favorites]

Clothes or blankets. These are not in the historical record, because unlike rock they deteriorate. We assume that what we discover is what was important to ancient peoples, but we can on discover what survived. We can't discover relics of love and hope and family, because are the relics of our hearts, and our hearts are lost to time.
posted by SPrintF at 1:59 PM on December 13, 2021 [2 favorites]

I'm going to go with toothpick. Easy to make, any individual would go through a lot of them and we were probably making them before we were anatomically modern humans. Also impossible to verify as most of them would have been wood.
posted by arha at 2:09 PM on December 13, 2021 [2 favorites]

Lots of sources claim there are over 3 billion bricks in the Great Wall of China. I'm going with kiln-fired bricks.
posted by JoeZydeco at 4:23 PM on December 13, 2021 [2 favorites]

I like bricoleur's stone flakes answer. Another thought: empty mussel/oyster shells. There's a lot of reeeally big middens out there.
posted by Text TK at 4:53 PM on December 13, 2021

A bit heartbreaking if the answer is that the first thing we created a ton of was “trash” but I guess yeah. Re the bevelled holes, what a fascinating read, but it says archaeologists had a hard time forming them without moulds. Tell me that’s an economy of language and they had experienced ceramicists trying to make them by hand?
posted by J.R. Hartley at 11:10 PM on December 13, 2021

The correct answer is almost certainly lead shot made of uniform size in a shot tower, the first of which was invented in 1808. According to this article, more than 20 million units could be manufactured per hour, so a mere 500 hours of operation could produce a billion uniform manufactured pieces of ammunition. More here.
posted by metatuesday at 8:22 AM on December 14, 2021 [1 favorite]

Beads, as mentioned above. Pre historic jewellery dates to 150000 years ago and beads have been a constant since. Unlike bowls etc beads have always been mass produced as you need a large quantity even to make a single bracelet or necklace.
posted by mani at 8:33 AM on December 14, 2021 [2 favorites]

Best answer: I tried to estimate the point at which we'd have a billion people. This page on wikipedia only starts estimating at the neolithic era (~10,000 BCE).

There are assumptions and interpolations, but to my surprise we probably had a billion individual by 4000 BC, before the neolithic was even over. So certainly--if you are accepting things like "arrowheads"--we've had a billion of something back in prehistoric times.

Estimating the total number of individuals alive even earlier is going to be wildly inaccurate, but now seems relevant to the question. If you figure we averaged 250,000 individuals alive at a given time between 200,000 BCE and 10,000 BCE and average lifespan was under fifty years, I come up with perhaps around a billion people who walked the earth prior to the Neolithic. So very old artifacts are relevant too!

So this whole comment is just a long winded way of saying that I think everyone here who suggested beads was quicker off the mark than I was and is likely correct. And if it's not beads, it's something like that.
posted by mark k at 12:37 PM on December 15, 2021 [1 favorite]

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