When did humans start social knowledge accumulation?

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Two worked pieces of stone, one an axe head, and one a scraper.

A key aspect of humans’ evolutionary success is the fact that we don’t have to learn how to do things from scratch. Our societies have developed various ways—from formal education to YouTube videos—to convey what others have learned. This makes learning how to do things far easier than learning by doing, and it gives us more space to experiment; we can learn to build new things or handle tasks more efficiently, then pass information on how to do so on to others.

Some of our closer relatives, like chimps and bonobos, learn from their fellow species-members. They don’t seem to engage in this iterative process of improvement—they don’t, in technical terms, have a cumulative culture where new technologies are built on past knowledge. So, when did humans develop this ability?

Based on a new analysis of stone toolmaking, two researchers are arguing that the ability is relatively recent, dating to just 600,000 years ago. That’s roughly the same time our ancestors and the Neanderthals went their separate ways.

Accumulating culture

It’s pretty obvious that a lot of our technology builds on past efforts. If you’re reading this on a mobile platform, then you’re benefitting from the fact that smartphones were derived from personal computers and that software required working hardware to happen. But for millions of years, human technology lacked the sort of clear building blocks that would help us identify when an archeological artifact is derived from earlier work. So, how do you go about studying the origin of cumulative culture?

Jonathan Paige and Charles Perreault, the researchers behind the new study, took a pretty straightforward approach. To start with, they focused on stone tools since these are the only things that are well-preserved across our species’ history. In many cases, the styles of tools remained constant for hundreds of thousands of years. This gives us enough examples that we’ve been able to figure out how these tools were manufactured, in many cases learning to make them ourselves.

Their argument in the paper they’ve just published is that the sophistication of these tools provides a measure of when cultural accumulation started. “As new knapping techniques are discovered, the frontiers of the possible design space expand,” they argue. “These more complex technologies are also more difficult to discover, master, and teach.”

The question then becomes one of when humans made the key shift: from simply teaching the next generation to make the same sort of tools to using that knowledge as a foundation to build something new. Paige and Perreault argue that it’s a matter of how complex it is to make the tool: “Generations of improvements, modifications, and lucky errors can generate technologies and know-how well beyond what a single naive individual could invent independently within their lifetime.”

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