by Larry Monocello
Stout & Khreisheh (2015) report on a new subfield of neuroanthropology: that is, neuroarchaeology. One of the goals of neuroarchaeology is to study human brain development and evolution from the framework of material culture. In their analysis, Stout and Khreisheh focus specifically on knapped stone tools, arguing that the work done in previous behavioral and cognitive studies can now be mapped onto the brain.
I found several strengths in their arguments. For one, they employ a framework of the “technological niche,” the archaeological application of the concept of niche construction employed by other neuroanthropologists (see MacKinnon and Fuentes (2012) in The Encultured Brain). They recognize that tool-making is a necessary skill for efficient foraging, as well as highly time-intensive to learn. As the authors say,
Stone knapping is a prototypical human skill, requiring a combination of perceptual-motor coordination and conceptual understanding…The acquisition of even relatively simple, Lower Palaeolithic, knapping skills requires extended practice … supported by a scaffold of culturally structured knowledge, practices, environments, interpersonal relationships and values…explicit teaching[,] and language (869).
In other words, stone toolmaking is fertile ground for making inferences about the development of the human brain, as all of these topics have their place of study in neuroanthropology.
One potential weakness of this approach is that the experimental archaeology done in the advancement of neuroarchaeology, on which this paper’s arguments are based, is done in modern humans. With constant changes in ecological and technological niches over the course of hominin history, using modern humans may require inferring away potential differences in modes of thought and structures between us and our ancestors. Endocasts are of important, though limited, utility in this respect.
Although so far in class we’ve looked at cultural, primatological, biological, and paleoanthropological approaches to neuroanthropology, we have yet to consider the contributions of archaeology to this field. Stout & Khreisheh (2015) adds an interesting perspective to the field, and may help us gain insight into such varied interests as education and enculturation.
Stout, D., & Khreisheh, N. (2015). Skill Learning and Human Brain Evolution: An Experimental Approach. Cambridge Archaeological Journal, 25(04), 867-875.