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Tools, Language and Cognition in Human Evolution.

Is it still possible to address the Big Questions in anthropology -- for instance, how language and tool-use were related in human evolution -- scientifically? Or have we become compromised by the minutiae of disciplinary specialization? In this very welcome book, the editors assemble a multidisciplinary team of contributors to demonstrate that the Big Questions are still a vital part of our research agenda.

Their papers review and assess current research in a number of fields relevant to the evolution of human language, tool-use and cognition. This includes work on gesture, signing and vocalizations in humans, language-reared apes and primates generally; on non-human primate tool-use; on comparative neuro-anatomy; on comparative cognitive development; and on the Palaeolithic archaeology of hominid tool-using and symbolic behaviour. The editors' stated aim was to pave a way towards a new generation of conceptual models of hominid behaviour and its evolution in specific ecological contexts. At the very least, they have succeeded in taking to its limits the case for an analogy between language production and tool use (in terms of underlying brain mechanisms), and for a fundamental continuity between human abilities and those of non-human primates.

In the background of this integrative effort is a competing paradigm in cognitive psychology, which holds that particular human abilities have evolved independently as 'modules' which adapt us to perform efficiently in specific domains of skill. For example, there is the postulate of a 'Language Acquisition Device', or of a 'Social Contract Acquisition Device'. It is hard to reconcile this modularity approach with the pattern of human brain evolution, which seems to involve fairly global changes in gross aspects of brain organization and of neural computational resources. Here, Gibson and other contributors also take the battle to their competitors' chosen ground, arguing that the behavioural evidence supports a domain-general model of human cognitive abilities. I was particularly impressed by chapters on the semantics and syntax of non-verbal gesture (Kendon, Goldin-Meadow, Kempler), on work with language-reared chimpanzees (Savage-Rumbaugh & Rumbaugh) and on the development of combinatorial object-manipulation in human children (Lock). However, the issue is not yet resolved: Wynn, in particular, argues against a close analogy between tool use (which he thinks draws on domain-general cognition) and language (which he thinks requires domain-specific abilities). I regretted the absence of references to Terry Deacon's elegant work on human brain evolution (Deacon 1988a; 1988b), which would have been relevant here.

What are the implications for Palaeolithic archaeology? This book is not designed to supply off-the-shelf models to Palaeolithic archaeologists: it is up to us to develop our own interpretative paradigms in dialogue with other behavioural scientists, Issues in primate tool use are well covered by Visalberghi, McGrew and Boesch. These scientists are clearly eager to hear what we have to say about the archaeology of human behavioural and cognitive evolution, and to prompt us if they sense a paradigm is lacking (McGrew). However, overall the archaeological contributions to this book are weakly integrated. Acheulian hand-axes are interpreted variously as aerodynamically efficient projectiles for waterhole predation (Calvin); as a non-verbalized tradition reproduced by default in Homo erectus groups for as long as the raw materials were available for the tradition to be handed down (Toth & Schick); as core tools curated for their use as sources of flakes (Davidson & Noble); or as indexical symbols of some community standard relating to the original tool and its context of use (Wynn). For archaeologists, this book is likely to serve best as a stimulus to future development of a more coherent behavioural paradigm.

Among possible future research directions, most promising are those which raise the issues of hominid social organization and cultural transmission. It is no use having the capacity for language if you cannot share new information, and little use having the ability to make novel and complex tools if you cannot transmit what you have learned to others. The primate evidence raises the issue of imitation and teaching as modes of transmission. Ingold notes the importance of trust in the social and ecological relationships of modern hunter-gatherers. Wynn talks of community standards and the semiotics of tools; Reynolds theorizes a relationship between complementarity of roles in a task group and the combination of elements into a composite tool. Toth & Schick discuss the need for models of hominid foraging and range-use patterns. However, none of this amounts to the systematic replacement of the Home Base model which Palaeolithic archaeology urgently needs.

So the issues are clarified, but the conceptual models of hominid behavioural evolution remain to be built. This is a welcome collaboration, a very useful primer which amply covers many of the topics which archaeologists need to be familiar with if they are to get up to speed in researching human evolution. It is recommended to anyone interested in the Big Questions in anthropology. Best of all, it sets a precedent for bringing archaeologists into constructive dialogue with other behavioural scientists.

JAMES STEELE Department of Archaeology University of Southampton


DEACON, T.W. 1988a. Human brain evolution I: evolution of language circuits, in Jerison & Jerison (ed.): 363-81.

1988b. Human brain evolution II: embryology and brain allometry, in Jerison & Jerison (ed.): 383-415.

JERISON, H.J. & I. JERISON (ed.). 1988. Intelligence and evolutionary biology. Berlin: Springer.
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Author:Steele, James
Article Type:Book Review
Date:Jun 1, 1993
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