Seeking culture's origins in stone

Published 30 July 2020

Somewhere in the 3.3 million year old record of stone tool-making by humans and their forebears, Mark Moore believes there is an inflection point: the evolutionary moment in which teaching emerged. Here, he surmises, hominins started to become humans.

Dr Moore, a University of New England (UNE) Associate Professor and Director of the Stone Tools and Cognition Hub, is now embarking on a four-year project to identify that inflection point after being awarded a $1 million Future Fellowships grant by the Australian Research Council (ARC).

"I'm essentially looking for the origins of teaching," Dr Moore said. "When our human ancestors started to teach, they established the process through which we transmit the extraordinarily complex knowledge that makes humanity what it is today."

Dr Moore will lead an international team looking for evidence of the emergence of "cumulative culture", the uniquely human ability to pass on complex knowledge with high fidelity.

"Researchers from a number of disciplines are interested in this question, but archaeologists have a unique asset to work with: the stone tool record, which begins 3.3 million years ago and extends through to the present day."

It had long been supposed that the initial appearance of stone tools marked the point at which human ancestors started to culturally diverge from other animals. But in an earlier ARC-funded study, Dr Moore demonstrated that early hominin tools were likely a product of rock flaking mechanics, not design intention.

In one experiment, he used a random number generator to determine where to strike rocks, and still arrived at "handaxes" similar to those made by early human ancestors.

Those early ancestors appear to have a passed on their culture of stone tool-making based on imitation or emulation, Dr Moore said, similar to the tool-making that legendary zoologist Jane Goodall observed in chimpanzees.

At some point, though, imitation shifted to teaching and the emergence of cumulative culture, and the ability to make collective knowledge grow with each generation.

Dr Moore will attempt to identify this all-important point in human evolution by starting at either end of the stone tool record, and working toward the middle and an answer.

When he looks at prehistoric stone tools, it will be to establish where in time tools began to repeatedly show a degree of sophistication that implies novices learned from experts about how to knap.

And when he works with the small but intense collectives of modern hobbyist flintknappers, it will be to establish how modern humans transmit knowledge about the craft of making a practical tool from a rock.

"Because rock flaking is governed by fracture mechanics, modern humans are working in the same design space as early hominins. Same rocks, same physics, but today we have a vastly more sophisticated approach to tool making."

By using this two-pronged approach to establishing when in human evolution the ability to teach tool-making emerged, Dr Moore hopes to bring science a lot closer to resolving the question posed by American cognitive scientist Daniel Dennett, about how, "in one species, we’ve gone from termite-style building to Gaudí-style building".

Dr Moore was hooked on stone tools from the age of 10. Combing the paddocks near a golf course near his home in Indiana, USA, seeking lost balls he could sell back to golfers, he found a Native American stone spearpoint. No-one could tell him how such an elegant, purposeful weapon was made out of a rock – and so he began an investigation into stone tool-making that continues today.

UNE's Deputy Vice-Chancellor – Research, Professor Heiko Daniel, said the ARC's Future Fellowship grant was well invested in one of Australia's foremost experts on stone tools.

"Over the past two decades, Dr Moore has been involved, often at the forefront, in some of the most important discussions around the significance of stone tools for understanding ourselves," Professor Daniel said.

"He was involved in the 'hobbit' hominin find on Flores, and has made groundbreaking contributions to our understanding of the role of stone tool-making in the development of human cognition."

"UNE congratulates Dr Moore on winning this recognition. We look forward to the project's findings and the enhanced knowledge of ourselves that the work will deliver."

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