The evolution of tools and symbolic behaviour

Mark Mills (mmmills@OnRamp.NET)
Thu, 31 Jul 97 01:00:16 -0000

Message-Id: <>
Subject: The evolution of tools and symbolic behaviour
Date: Thu, 31 Jul 97 01:00:16 -0000
From: Mark Mills <mmmills@OnRamp.NET>
To: memetics <>

I've made several allusions to a co-evolution of human biology and human
culture, specifically an expansion of pre-human semiotic and
communication predispositions in parallel with a cultural evolution which
appropriately 'filled' the predispostion's need for experience (specific
words, forms, rituals). This genetic and memetic adaptation may have
been driven by reproductive success attained by cultures with enhanced
abilities to teach young individuals tool skills (among other things).
Our modern biological predisposition for language acquisition is an
outcome of this co-evolution.

I thought it wise to post something of a brief history of human tool use.


The evolution of tools and symbolic behaviour

Thomas Wynn


Tools constitute the most abundant evidence
of hominid behaviour over the last two million years. While they
have undeniably played an important, if not central,
role in hominid ecology, they have also played a role in
semiotic behaviour. This role probably had its origins
in the agonistic use of tools we still see today in
non-human primates. When we first encounter extensive
use of stone tools, about two million years ago, the
ecological context of use is not dramatically different
from that of modern apes, and we may assume that the
semiotic role of tools was also comparable. By one
million years ago tools present patterns well outside the
range of anything we know for apes, tempting some
scholars to argue for the presence of language. However,
given the cognitive and developmental contrasts between
tool behaviour and language, such conclusions are
unwarranted. At 300 000 BP the ecological context of
tool behaviour was much like that of modern hunting and
gathering, but the tools present an enigmatic conservatism
in style that suggests a semiotic role very different
from that of tools in modern culture. And yet the hominids
appear to have had an almost modern intelligence. It
is not until relatively late in human evolution, certainly
by 15 000, that tools present the volatile time and space
patterns typical of the indexical role of modern tools.

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