Sunday, September 16, 2012

From stone axe to mobile: hand-held learning

One of my most prized objects is a Neolithic handaxe, picked up on the Downs close to where I live. For me, it's similar, but more exciting, to hold than an iPhone, as to handle this object is to touch the mind of someone who lived tens, even hundreds of thousands of years ago. It’s not only an object you can learn from but a lesson in learning. To watch an axe being made with a hammerstone, then antler or soft hammer for edging, is to see a masterclass in manufacture. But what have we to learn about the minds of our ancestors and how these skills were taught and learnt?
Tools as technology
James Hutton and Charles Lyle had opened up the vastness of the past, through geological fieldwork with the concept of deep time. The history of the earth was pushed back from thousands to millions then billions of years. Darwin’s publication of On the Origin of the Species by Natural Selection (1859) supported the idea that the evolution of life had to be seen in this context of deep time.
Part of the re-evaluation of the origins and evolution of life was the re-evaluation of our own species. Almost immediately Prehistoric Times (1865) by John Lubbock defined and split the Stone Age into Palaeolithic and Neolithic. The Palaeolithic was characterised by flaked stone artefacts and the Neolithic by polished stone axes. Technology, hand axes, were already defining the epochs of human evolution.
Axes and pedagogy
Hand axes are the primary evidence for learning in prehistory. Stone tools show intent and are a window into the minds of our ancestors and their ability to learn. We have been making these axes for one and a half million years. What is astounding is how similar they are over such a huge geographical area (three continents) and over a million and a half years, the same teardrop shape and cutting edge.
First, they are difficult to make. It requires knowledge, decision making and sophisticated skills that take time to learn and, importantly, skills that must have been taught. Defined as learning objectives, we can first assume hand-eye co-ordination, the ability to imagine a future three dimensional shape and the ability to conceive the tool as having a purpose.
Suitable local material had to be found and the right shaped nodules selected. Then there’s the fiendishly, difficult knapping skills. This involves the use of tools to make tools, as later axes required hard hammers and soft hammers for edging.  As one knapps, constant adaption and problem solving is needed, as it is not just a matter of applying a set of fixed rules. Over and above these skills is the mathematical skill of transformation. Gowlett (1993) has inferred, from the fact that they were able to make axes of the same shape at different sizes, the mathematical ability to scale. These are complex cognitive abilities and acquired skills. Few people, even today, master the skills of prehistoric knappers.
Wynne (1979) has used the idea that early human cognitive development reflects what we know about child development and so placed axe manufacture into a Piagian development model. He argued that the earliest axes use the simple the cognitive skill of striking a blow next to the fracture left by the first blow. This only demands a ‘one thing at a time’ skill, a pre-operational intelligence. Later axes show the ability to imagine a three dimensional shape and work towards symmetry, an operational intelligence. However, Piaget’s stages have not withstood the test of time and the earliest axes seem to show more skill than the pre-operative concept allows. It would seem that considerable knowledge and skills are required for even the earliest forms of axe production and that these skills are likely to have been taught by skilled experts.
Prehistoric teaching
Imitation must surely have been the way learning took place but is there evidence for teaching? Boesch (1991) has observed occasional episodes of chimps being stimulated, facilitated and actively taught in the wild, where for example, an adult chimp repositioned a nut on a natural anvil for a younger chimp and rotated a stone hammer in the hand of a younger chimp to crack nuts. However, tool making and teaching by adult animals is almost non-existent in the wild. Assuming that early humans were cognitively superior to chimps, Kohn (1999) argues that axe production was a skill most likely taught by mothers to sons. Experiments have shown that it is not easy to teach by demonstration alone and that language, in the sense of the ability to teach, is also likely to have been used.
As homo sapiens emerged from Africa, we see the development of tool manufacture away from the one ax from one stone culture towards the production of blades, points and scrapers. This is often in response to the changing food sources, namely smaller animals in drier conditions. When large, obvious and plentiful sources of protein become depleted, smaller animals must be hunted and that requires more guile and smarter tools, especially projectiles.
Skills and selection
What remains a puzzle is the fact that many handaxes show manufacture beyond utility. The Boxgrove axes, just a short drive from my home, were manufactured on the spot for butchery and left there but huge hand axes, such as the Furze Platt Giant and many other finely worked examples seem to show axes for ‘show’. Kohn argues that symmetry reflects fitness and that sexual selection is at work here. Some evolutionary psychologists suggest that sexual selection in combination with imitation and teaching is needed to explain the reach and longevity of axe production. It would seem, however, that axe production went well beyond utility into cultural and social significance. The very act of acquiring the skill to make an axe may well have been a mark of fitness and social status.
We can fooolow the evolution oh hominoids as much by the trail of stone tools they left behind, as the rare fossil bones. When we link the fossil evidence with the stone tool evidence, we see a cognitive progression present in the toolsets, which become smaller, more sophisticated and more differentiated in use, a bit like mobile technology in the modern world.
Early humans developed a technical intelligence in the working of stone that is rarely matched, even today. Stone axe production was profligate and shows that we developed, not only the ability to use the technology of tools, but also the ability to teach and learn a wide range of high level cognitive and motor skills. There is also evidence that this technology was more than just practical tool production. Its role in social and cultural life was considerable. We, as a species, could be said to be defined by our teaching and learning skills. Although the stone axe is only obliquely a learning tool, it set our species on the road to massive advances in the use of tools and technology. From the stone axe to mobiles, hand-held tools have a long pedigree in learning and teaching; the brushes used in cave paintings, reed pens, clay tablets, books, pencils, chalk, cameras, calculators and mobiles have all been used to enhance and accelerate our ability to teach and learn. Above all, they put learning literally into the hands, and therefore minds, of the learner. 
Mithen, S. J. (1996).The prehistory of the mind: A search for the origins of art, religion, and science. London: Thames and Hudson.
Rudgley, R. (1998).Lost civilisations of the Stone Age. London: Century.
Kohn M. (1999) As We Know It: Coming to terms with the evolved mind. Granta.
Boesch, Christophe (1991) Teaching among wild chimpanzees.Animal Behaviour, Vol 41(3), Mar 1991, 530-532.
Wynn, J. (1979) The Intelligence of later Ascheulian Hominids. Man 14, 371-91.
Gowlett, J. (1993). Ascent to civilization: The archaeology of early humans. New York: McGraw-Hill.


Jim Hamlyn said...

Great stuff! I covet that gorgeous flint axe of yours – makes me want to get out and find one of my own.

I see you refer to Mithen. I just read his paper entitled “The Evolution of Imagination”. I highly recommend it. It’s a fascinating and, to my mind, very plausible explanation for the vast flowering of culture over the last 50,000 years and why the technology of axes, like yours, were so comparatively slow to develop.

Looking forward to your next instalment.


Seb Schmoller said...

Donald. Thanks for writing these. Concerning Savants not Savages and Pre-Linguistic Minds, I'd always assumed that human cultures back to 10s of thousands of years before the cave paintings at Altamira and Lascaux had fully developed languages. Is that not the case? Seb