The Social Trackways Theory of the Evolution of Human Cognition

Biological Theory 9 (1):16-26 (2014)
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Only our lineage has ever used trackways reading to find unseen and unheard targets. All other terrestrial animals, including our great ape cousins, use scent trails and airborne odors. Because trackways as natural signs have very different properties, they possess an information-rich narrative structure. There is good evidence we began to exploit conspecific trackways in our deep past, at first purely associatively, for safety and orienteering when foraging in vast featureless wetlands. Since our own old trackways were recognizable they were self-mirroring, triggering memories of what we had been up to in the past. Using them to find our way back to the band when temporarily lost or to re-find a resource-rich area discovered the day before enabled optimal foraging. Selection for daily reiteration of one’s own old trackways therefore triggered the evolution of what is distinctive about human cognition: the autobiographical or narrative (episodic) faculty for imaginative self-projection. This faculty enabled us to glean useful social information from the stories “told” by other band members’ old trackways, and created spin-off capacities for fast-track social learning. Resultant increases in socioecological complexity then created positive selective feedback loops for further entrenchment. Incrementally we became the ultra-social narrative-minded ape, capable of creating cumulative culture.

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Kim Hugh John Shaw-Williams
Australian National University


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