The functional brain networks that underlie Early Stone Age tool manufacture


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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Figure 1: Experimental set-up of the lithic reduction process.
Figure 2: Acheulian activation and the effect of training context.
Figure 3: Oldowan activation and the effect of training context.


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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.

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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.

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

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The authors declare no competing interests.

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Supplementary Discussion, Supplementary Tables 1-3, Supplementary Figures 1-3, Supplementary References. (PDF 424 kb)

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Putt, S., Wijeakumar, S., Franciscus, R. et al. The functional brain networks that underlie Early Stone Age tool manufacture. Nat Hum Behav 1, 0102 (2017).

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