Stone tool-making practiced by early humans may not have required cultural transmission of knowledge

AMERICAN ASSOCIATION FOR THE ADVANCEMENT OF SCIENCE (AAAS)—Contradicting the idea that cultural transmission was necessary for early humans to make stone tools, a new study* finds that 25 human participants with no knowledge of knapping (stone tool-making) all succeeded in figuring out these techniques on their own. The finding suggests that cumulative culture, in which practical knowledge accumulates across generations, may not have first emerged when humans developed Oldowan stone tool technology 2.6 million years ago. “This finding calls for a reinterpretation of the conclusions from previous knapping studies regarding modern human knappers and regarding premodern hominin knappers, seeing as these earlier studies did not truly test for technique-naïve individual performances,” write William Snyder, Jonathan Reeves, and Claudio Tennie. Cumulative culture is believed to have been instrumental to the adaptive success of humans. But despite its significance, it has not been clear when, over the course of human evolution, cumulative culture first originated. Scientists have suggested that it may have emerged during the time of the Oldowan industry, a stone tool technology that first appeared around 2.6 million years ago. However, previous studies had not tested whether cultural transmission of information is necessary for humans to make stone tools using knapping techniques. To investigate, Snyder et al. tested 28 human participants’ ability to replicate early knapping techniques, 25 of which were later found (through a questionnaire) to have no prior knowledge of knapping techniques. The participants were given access to raw materials for toolmaking and were presented with a puzzle box containing a reward that could be accessed by severing a rope holding a door shut. Beyond this, participants did not receive any information related to stone tools or tool-making techniques. Each had 4 hours to complete the task. Snyder et al. found that all 4 early knapping techniques (passive hammer, bipolar, freehand, and projectile) were individually developed by participants who had not received any culturally transmitted knowledge.

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Image shows the percussion of a glass hemisphere against a granite anvil in what is known as passive hammer technique, one way of creating sharp tools that can be used for cutting. William D. Snyder

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Summary author: Shannon Kelleher

Article Source: AAAS news release.

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