Article

Experimental evidence for the co-evolution of hominin tool-making teaching and language

  • Nature Communications 6, Article number: 6029 (2015)
  • doi:10.1038/ncomms7029
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Abstract

Hominin reliance on Oldowan stone tools—which appear from 2.5 mya and are believed to have been socially transmitted—has been hypothesized to have led to the evolution of teaching and language. Here we present an experiment investigating the efficacy of transmission of Oldowan tool-making skills along chains of adult human participants (N=184) using five different transmission mechanisms. Across six measures, transmission improves with teaching, and particularly with language, but not with imitation or emulation. Our results support the hypothesis that hominin reliance on stone tool-making generated selection for teaching and language, and imply that (i) low-fidelity social transmission, such as imitation/emulation, may have contributed to the ~700,000 year stasis of the Oldowan technocomplex, and (ii) teaching or proto-language may have been pre-requisites for the appearance of Acheulean technology. This work supports a gradual evolution of language, with simple symbolic communication preceding behavioural modernity by hundreds of thousands of years.

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Acknowledgements

Research supported in part by an ERC Advanced Grant to K.N.L. (EVOCULTURE, ref: 232823) and grants to N.T.U. from the British Academy (Centenary Project ‘Lucy to Language: the Archaeology of the Social Brain’) and the Leverhulme Trust (ECF 0298). We are grateful to Gillian Brown, Richard Byrne, Jane Rees and Stephen Shennan for helpful comments on earlier drafts. We thank John and Val Lord for supplying us with flint.

Author information

Affiliations

  1. Centre for Social Learning and Cognitive Evolution, School of Biology, University of St Andrews, Fife KY16 9AJ, UK

    • T. J. H. Morgan
    • , L. E. Rendell
    • , L. Chouinard-Thuly
    • , S. E. Street
    • , H. M. Lewis
    • , C. P. Cross
    • , C. Evans
    • , R. Kearney
    •  & K. N. Laland
  2. Department of Psychology, University of California, Berkeley, California 94720, USA

    • T. J. H. Morgan
  3. Department of Archaeology, Classics and Egyptology, University of Liverpool, Liverpool L69 3GS, UK

    • N. T. Uomini
  4. Department of Linguistics, Max-Planck Institute for Evolutionary Anthropology, Leipzig 04103, Germany

    • N. T. Uomini
  5. Department of Primatology, Max-Planck Institute for Evolutionary Anthropology, Leipzig 04103, Germany

    • N. T. Uomini
  6. Department of Biology, McGill University, Montréal, Quebec, Canada H3A 1B1

    • L. Chouinard-Thuly
  7. Centre for Social Learning and Cognitive Evolution, School of Psychology and Neuroscience, University of St Andrews, Fife KY16 9JP, UK

    • S. E. Street
    • , C. P. Cross
    •  & A. Whiten
  8. Department of Anthropology, University College London, London WC1E 6BT, UK

    • H. M. Lewis
  9. Institute of Archaeology, University College London, London WC1H 0PY, UK

    • I. de la Torre

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Contributions

T.J.H.M., N.T.U., L.E.R. and K.N.L. designed the experiment; T.J.H.M., N.T.U., L.E.R., L.C-.T., S.E.S., H.M.L., C.P.C. and C.E. executed the experiment; T.J.H.M., N.T.U., I.D.l.T. and R.K. coded the data; T.J.H.M. carried out the analyses; all authors contributed to the preparation of the manuscript.

Competing interests

The authors declare no competing financial interests.

Corresponding authors

Correspondence to N. T. Uomini or K. N. Laland.

Supplementary information

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  1. 1.

    Supplementary Information

    Supplementary Figures 1-4, Supplementary Tables 1-6, Supplementary Note 1, Supplementary Methods and Supplementary References.

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