“Complex cognition shaped the Stone Age hand axe”

on April 16, 2015

Here’s another current article on the relationship between tool-making and language. Archaeology students were taught how to make hand axes and then presented with questions involving tool-making strategies while brain scans recorded what areas of their brains were activated.

“Greater skill at making tools correlated with greater accuracy on the video quiz for predicting the correct strategy for making a hand axe, which was itself correlated with greater activity in the prefrontal cortex. ‘These data suggest that making an Acheulean hand axe is not simply a rote, auto pilot activity of the brain,’ Stout says. ‘It requires you to engage in some complicated thinking.’

“Most of the hand axes produced by the modern hands and minds of the study subjects would not have cut it in the Stone Age. ‘They weren’t up to the high standards of 500,000 years ago,’ Stout says.

“A previous study by the researchers showed that learning to make stone tools creates structural changes in fiber tracts of the brain connecting the parietal and frontal lobes, and that these brain changes correlated with increases in performance. ‘Something is happening to strengthen this connection,’ Stout says. ‘This adds to evidence of the importance of these brain systems for stone tool making, and also shows how tool making may have shaped the brain evolutionarily.’

“Stout recently launched a major, three-year archeology experiment that will build on these studies and others. Known as the Language of Technology project, the experiment involves 20 subjects who will each devote 100 hours to learning the art of making a Stone Age hand axe, and also undergo a series of MRI scans. The project aims to hone in whether the brain systems involved in putting together a sequence of words to make a meaningful sentence in spoken language overlap with systems involved in putting together a series of physical actions to reach a meaningful goal.”

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