Anthropologists call this process cultural transmission, and there was a time when it did not exist, when humans or more likely their smaller brained ancestors did not pass on knowledge. Luke Premo, an associate professor of anthropology at Washington State University, would like to know when that was. Writing in the October issue of Current Anthropology, he and three colleagues challenge a widely accepted notion that cultural transmission goes back more than 2 million years.
How do we know that there was a time when human “cultural transmission” did not exist? That is, what decision-making guides are we using?
Exhibit A in this debate is the Oldowan chopper, a smooth, fist-sized rock with just enough material removed to make a crude edge. Writing in Nature in 1964, the prominent paleoanthropologist Louis Leakey connected the tools with what he said was the first member of the human genus, Homo habilis, or “handy man.” Leakey and his colleagues did not explicitly say Homo habilis learned how to make the tool through cultural transmission, but the word “culture” alone implies it, said Premo.
“All of their contemporaries figured that any stone tool must be an example of culture because they thought that humans are the only animals that make and use tools and humans rely on cultural transmission to do so,” said Premo. “It made sense to them at the time that this ability might in fact distinguish our genus from all others.”
More than half a century later, Premo and colleagues at the University of Tubingen, George Washington University and the Max Planck Institute for Evolutionary Anthropology are asking for better evidence that the technique for making early stone tools was culturally transmitted. Writing in the journal Current Anthropology, they say the tools could have been what lead author Claudio Tennie calls “latent solutions” that rely on an animal’s inherent skill rather than cultural transmission. Homo habilis could have learned to make the Oldowan tool on his or her own, much as wild chimps use sticks to fish for termites.
“Our main question is: How do we know from these kinds of stone tools that this was a baton that somebody passed on?” said Premo, hefting an Oldowan tool in his hand. “Or was it just like the chimp case, where individuals could figure out how to do this on their own during the course of their lifetimes?” More.
What’s remarkable about Premo’s claim is that elsewhere we are told that even the chimps are entering the the Stone Age and taking turns, etc. Such claims are not addressed here because they don’t need to be: Driveby claims of all kinds, not examined against each other, are state of the art.
Maybe that is why we only hear about the limitations in chimpanzee or other great ape abilities in the context of slighting the abilities of human ancestors?
Clearly, our ability to transmit our culture has helped us pass on the techniques we need to thrive in a wide range of environments across the planet.
“It does explain our success as a species,” Premo said. “But the reason we are successful might be much more recent than what many anthropologists have traditionally thought.” Paper. (public access) – Claudio Tennie, L. S. Premo, David R. Braun, Shannon P. McPherron. Early Stone Tools and Cultural Transmission: Resetting the Null Hypothesis. Current Anthropology, 2017; 58 (5): 652 DOI: 10.1086/693846
Absent agreed decision-making guides, there is no way to know.
See also: Are apes entering the Stone Age?
Chimps can learn to use tools on their own, without being taught