Letter

The functional brain networks that underlie Early Stone Age tool manufacture

  • Nature Human Behaviour 1, Article number: 0102 (2017)
  • doi:10.1038/s41562-017-0102
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Abstract

After 800,000 years of making simple Oldowan tools, early humans began manufacturing Acheulian handaxes around 1.75 million years ago. This advance is hypothesized to reflect an evolutionary change in hominin cognition and language abilities. We used a neuroarchaeology approach to investigate this hypothesis, recording brain activity using functional near-infrared spectroscopy as modern human participants learned to make Oldowan and Acheulian stone tools in either a verbal or nonverbal training context. Here we show that Acheulian tool production requires the integration of visual, auditory and sensorimotor information in the middle and superior temporal cortex, the guidance of visual working memory representations in the ventral precentral gyrus, and higher-order action planning via the supplementary motor area, activating a brain network that is also involved in modern piano playing. The right analogue to Broca’s area—which has linked tool manufacture and language in prior work1,2—was only engaged during verbal training. Acheulian toolmaking, therefore, may have more evolutionary ties to playing Mozart than quoting Shakespeare.

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Acknowledgements

We thank A. Woods for his time and knapping expertise, the Stone Age Institute for its contributions to Fig. 1, and D. Jones, C. Daniel, E. DeForest, A. Vega, N. Fox, A. Wells, E. Hoeper, E. Dellopolous, M. Adams, S. Allchin and G. Brua for their assistance in the lab. S.S.P. acknowledges support from the Wenner–Gren Foundation (8968), Leakey Foundation, Sigma Xi, the Scientific Research Society and the University of Iowa. S.S.P. held an American Fellowship from AAUW. The funders had no role in study design, data collection and analysis, decision to publish, or preparation of the manuscript.

Author information

Affiliations

  1. The Stone Age Institute, 1392 West Dittemore Road, Gosport, Indiana 47433, USA.

    • Shelby S. Putt
  2. Center for Research into the Anthropological Foundations of Technology, Indiana University, P.O. Box 5097 Bloomington, Indiana 47407, USA.

    • Shelby S. Putt
  3. School of Psychology, University of East Anglia, Lawrence Stenhouse Building 0.09, Norwich Research Park, Norwich, Norfolk NR4 7TJ, UK.

    • Sobanawartiny Wijeakumar
    •  & John P. Spencer
  4. Department of Anthropology, University of Iowa, 114 Macbride Hall, Iowa City, Iowa 52242-1322, USA.

    • Robert G. Franciscus

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Contributions

S.S.P. and R.G.F. developed the concept for the study. S.S.P. and J.P.S. designed the study. S.S.P. performed the experiment and carried out the analyses, under the supervision of S.W. and J.P.S. S.S.P. and J.P.S. wrote the manuscript, with contributions from S.W. and R.G.F.

Competing interests

The authors declare no competing interests.

Corresponding authors

Correspondence to Shelby S. Putt or John P. Spencer.

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    Supplementary Information

    Supplementary Discussion, Supplementary Tables 1-3, Supplementary Figures 1-3, Supplementary References.