Learning in Lithic Landscapes: A Reconsideration of the Hominid “Toolmaking” Niche

Biological Theory 9 (1):27-41 (2014)
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This article reconsiders the early hominid ‘‘lithic niche’’ by examining the social implications of stone artifact making. I reject the idea that making tools for use is an adequate explanation of the elaborate artifact forms of the Lower Palaeolithic, or a sufficient cause for long-term trends in hominid technology. I then advance an alternative mechanism founded on the claim that competency in making stone artifacts requires extended learning, and that excellence in artifact making is attained only by highly skilled individuals who have been taught and practiced for extensive periods. Consequently both competency and expertise in knapping comes at a high learning cost for both the individual learner and the social group to which they belong. Those high intrinsic costs of learning created contexts in which groups selected cost-reducing forms of social learning and teaching, and in which specialization could develop. Artifacts and their manufacturing processes probably acquired functions as social signals—as honest signals of valuable capacities. The magnification of these signals, through competition between knappers and through inspiring later craftspeople, may account for a substantial amount of the accumulated elaboration visible in the archaeological record. Consequently lithic artifacts operated as material symbols from an early time in hominid evolution.
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