New Experimental Insights into Early Hominin Cultures and Oldowan Technology

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Dokumentart: PhDThesis
Date: 2025-01-27
Language: English
Faculty: 7 Mathematisch-Naturwissenschaftliche Fakultät
Department: Geographie, Geoökologie, Geowissenschaft
Advisor: Tennie, Claudio (Dr.)
Day of Oral Examination: 2023-01-27
Other Keywords:
Cumulative culture, experimental archaeology, stone tools, lithic technology, human evolution, early hominins, Oldowan, evolutionary cognition, cultural evolution
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Dissertation ist gesperrt bis 27.01.2025 !


Cumulative culture of know-how is considered a key feature of modern human life, being fundamental to the development and diversification of technology, as well as norms, practices, and beliefs. This phenomenon and the underlying copying social learning mechanisms are likely unique – as far as technological know-how – to living modern humans. Other species also have culture, but their minimal culture is guided by non-copying social learning mechanisms that transmit information types like know-what and know-where. Based on the absence of copying social learning mechanisms and cumulative culture of know-how in other species – including non-human great apes – it can be inferred that these mechanisms and processes first emerged during the evolution of the hominin lineage. Due to taphonomic biases (thus limiting from what cognitive archaeologists can make inferences), most of what is left over from millions of years of hominin behaviors and cognition is a 2.6-million-year record of stone artifacts and other tool-use related end-products. Previous authors – often using data from novice knapping experiments as justification – have concluded that even the earliest products of hominin toolmaking in the Oldowan are evidence that hominins were behaving and thinking in ways that are culturally similar to the cumulative culture of know-how in living modern humans. Recent alternative hypotheses have gone against this line of inference, instead proposing – in the same way as for non-human great apes and other primates – that Oldowan technology was a consequence of serial re-innovations and cultural transmission of non-know-how information types. Cognitive and experimental archaeology as an entire discipline faces a vast swathe of epistemological concerns and considerations. Although novice knapping experiments serve a fundamental purpose in the construction of middle range theories about the human and hominin past, they are often entrenched in pathways of circular reasoning and uncontextualized analogies. Instead of focusing on determining what learning conditions are most efficient or effective for the acquisition of knapping know-how by human participants, cognitive archaeology should return to its root: the determination of minimal necessary competences for the existence of artifact types and knapping techniques. As such, we adopted a baseline methodological approach (i.e., an island test) for determining whether copying and cultural transmission of know-how are absolutely necessary for the 5 expression of early knapping techniques by modern human participants. Rather than teach or somehow train the participants to knap, knapping know-how was elicited using the provision of appropriate raw materials and the motivation to use tools (i.e., a baited puzzle box). With our island test approach, we were able to identify manifold occurrences of early knapping technique re-innovations, demonstrating that the know-how for Oldowan toolmaking does not exceed the reach of individual re-innovation capacities and therefore – by proof-of-principle – Oldowan stone artifacts and their requisite manufacturing techniques cannot be considered unequivocal evidence for early cases of cultural transmission of know-how in the hominin lineage. The major theoretical outcome of this study – and outlined in this dissertation – is a minimal culture model for premodern hominins and technological change in the early stone tool record. In this dissertation, I introduce concepts that are fundamental to discourse on non-human cognition as well as the evolution of cognition and technology in the human lineage (Chapter I), review the breadth of novice knapping experiments that have been conducted so far and the epistemological issues that are inherent to this avenue of research (Chapter II), outline the different raw materials and standardization techniques that we tested for use in knapping experiments (Chapter III), describe the methodology that we applied in further detail (Chapter IV), reveal the most important results that came out of the experiments (Chapter V), contextualize the results based on previous and ongoing research related to culture in nonhumans and hominins (Chapter VI), and – finally – discuss the theoretical implications of these and other available data for a minimal culture model of the Oldowan along with other aspects of hominin cognitive and technological evolution.

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