Back to Book Reviews

Stone Knapping: The Necessary Conditions For A Uniquely Hominin Behaviour, Edited By Valentine Roux And Blandine Bril
McDonald Institute Monographs, Cambridge 2005, xi + 355pp, numerous b/w illustrations, hbk ISBN 1-902937-34-1, (£35)

The immediate origin for this volume, dated 2005 but actually published in 2006, was a workshop on ‘Stone Knapping: A Uniquely Hominid Behaviour’ held in 2001 at Pont-à-Mousson (France) as the culmination of a four-year CNRS research project investigating ‘Technical Skills among the Early Hominids’. It also links back directly, however, to a previous research project funded by the French Ministry of Research, Cognitive Science Department, into aspects of stone-bead knapping in India, which was directed by the two editors of this volume (Roux et al. 1995) This background, and the fact that one the editors (Bril) is a Professor of Psychology at the École des Hautes Études en Sciences Sociales, Paris, (the other editor is a Research Director at CNRS) help to indicate that the focus of this volume is only in small part concerned with the lithic studies or formally archaeological side of stone knapping. Of the 42 contributors perhaps only eight would regard themselves as archaeologists, the others coming from such fields as biomechanics, behavioural science, primatology, neurophysiology and evolutionary psychology.

Many investigations of early stone knapping start with the technological, morphological and traceological considerations required to distinguish humanly modified and/or utilized artefacts from entirely natural objects, accepting the conventional equation between stone tools and humanity. The present volume is principally interested in going behind such concerns to investigate the ‘how and why’ of early hominins being able to produce and use stone tools. As the editors put it, while stone tools serve to document for the prehistorian the performances which produced them, ‘the competences that underpin observable performances, as well as the conditions for the effectuation of these competences, are not “given” by the artefacts themselves’ (p. 2). It is the examination of these competences which ‘underpin skilled tool-related behaviour, … the bio-behavioural, anatomical and neuronal conditions needed for their development, and … the socio-cognitive conditions required for their actualization’ (p. 2), to which the diverse studies in this volume seek to contribute. In so doing they diverge from and complement the interest in the role of linguistic communication in this area (eg, Gibson & Ingold 1993).

Apart from the introduction and conclusion by the editors, the other 22 chapters are organized into three parts. The first, ‘Stone knapping: characterizing a tool-related task’, is the largest and has various sub-sections. Two papers, by Pelegrin and Roche, look at what is significant and diagnostic in the technology and mechanics of stone knapping in early humans, isolating the knowledge and control of conchoidal fracture and core-monitoring as the key factors. Whilst Pelegrin considers method and technique in general, Roche analyses actual examples of pre-Oldowan, Oldowan and Acheulian knapping from locations in East Africa. A brief paper by Winton examines handaxe manufacturing skill on the basis of modern replication experiments. Three papers by Bril et al., Biryukova et al., and Roux and David are all derived from field experiments investigating the present-day stone-bead knapping at Khambhat in Gujurat, India. These papers are concerned with the concept of skill and with characterizing and differentiating levels of skill and involve some sophisticated investigative methodology with accelerometers and spatial tracking systems. These studies link to the chapters by Ivanova and Smitsman et al., concerned respectively with the biomechanical analysis of the complex coordinated stroke and the action dynamics of tool use. In the final section of part one, papers by Foucart et al., Byrne, and Cummins-Sebree and Fragaszy turn to the evidence for tool use among non-human primates. Foucart et al. (chimpanzee nut-cracking) and Cummins-Sebree and Fragaszy (capuchin monkey abilities) deal with data from specific laboratory experiments, whilst Byrne gives a useful overview of ‘object-directed manual skills in living great apes’.

The second part of the book, ‘Stone knapping: the necessary conditions for the required skills’, has papers which ‘contribute to the study of the mechanisms that underpin the effectuation of the skills involved in stone knapping’. Corbetta’s chapter is concerned with the development of manipulative capabilities in human infants, and leads to the suggestion that it is the emergence of bipedalism which was critical for establishing the bio-behavioural conditions from which stone-knapping skills evolved. Holder looks more theoretically at manual specialization and applies a cost : benefit : milieu approach. Along the way he takes a fairly sweeping but resonant swipe at work in his field, though one which may well have more general applicability:

A lack of integrative training and research underlies some of the most pervasive and serious methodological and theoretical weaknesses in the field of human origins research. Problems commonly found in attempts to reconstruct manual behaviour from the hominin record, whether from the Palaeolithic and fossil record or from extrapolating from living primates, are: 1) a failure to question assumptions, especially assumptions originating outside a researcher’s area of expertise; 2) a willingness to tolerate anthropocentric bias in hypotheses; and 3) a failure to consider a range of alternative explanations. (p. 212)

Like Holder, Steele and Uomini in their chapter are concerned with the issue of handedness, and after a comprehensive overview of the whole topic, including a useful round-up of the skeletal and material-culture evidence for hand preference in the fossil and archaeological record, they seem ultimately to be somewhat ambivalent about its value for the study of the evolution of tool use, more so than the editors concede (p. 12).

In a sub-section of part two entitled ‘Somatic and neural substrate’, Marzke’s chapter examines the kinds of grip necessary for undertaking knapping and related tasks and the skeletal correlates for this. She concludes, with due caveats expressed for the limitations of the data, that the skeletal evidence for Australopithecus afarensis would be consistent with manipulating small spherical stones for nut pounding and missile throwing, but not stone knapping. Maier et al. investigate what neural systems contribute to dexterity and tool use in primates through a study of four species with increasing dexterity: cat, squirrel monkey, macaque monkey and Homo. In a rather extraordinary chapter, Stout describes experimental work using Positron Emission Tomography to examine brain activation during ‘Oldowan-style’ stone knapping with Nicholas Toth as the ‘guinea pig’, who in one experiment was required to simulate ‘Oldowan’ knapping while lying on his back on the scanner bed! Jacobs et al., in what is described by the editors as a major contribution (p. 14), consider the impairment of tool-use actions suffered by individuals with apraxia, a higher motor disorder, and the possible (but somewhat opaque to this reader) lessons for understanding stone-knapping skills.

The final part of the volume, ‘“Actualizing” conditions for innovation in stone knapping’, consists of papers ‘pertaining to the definition of the socio-cognitive conditions needed for the actualization of stone-knapping’. Bushnell et al. look at learning in human infants and the importance of imitation as well as causal understanding, reflecting on imitation as a mechanism for skills transfer among early hominins. Lockman’s paper also considers human infants, suggesting that the psychological skills they need when beginning to engage with artefacts may help us understand the types of skills needed by hominins to support tool manufacture and use. Stout, in his second contribution to this volume, gives an ethnographic perspective from his fieldwork among stone-adze makers in the New Guinea highlands, focusing on the ‘scaffolding’ for skill learning and development which is provided within a particular social and cultural milieu. Marchant and McGrew report on a fascinating piece of fieldwork in Senegal in which the distribution of stones and fruit debris was mapped around four baobab trees as part of a study of baobab smashing by chimpanzees. This case study would have benefited from being even more ‘archaeological’, with plans and photographs as well as the descriptive and tabulated data, but it opens a window into tantalizing possibilities in this field of ‘etho-archaeology’. In Marchant and McGrew’s paper this case study forms the background to speculation on the evolutionary trajectory and cognitive development from fruit smashing to stone knapping, with a final observation that:

It is no longer advisable for palaeoarchaeology to ignore primatology, any more than it is for primatology to ignore the implications of its findings for prehistory. Knapping stone may be unique to hominins, but not by much. (p. 349)

I have to confess that I found this book pretty heavy going and sleep-inducing in parts, and it is probably the case that only reviewers would even attempt to read every chapter, some of which are of an extremely specialized nature within what is anyway an area of specialist interest, or more correctly areas of different specialist interests. Some papers are far more readable and approachable (eg, Byrne; Marchant and McGrew) than others (eg, Smitsman et al.; Lockman) – though this betrays the reviewer’s personal preferences and interests – and there are some instances in the book where I felt ‘blinded by the science’ of studies from which any actual outcomes seem in effect ambivalent or simplistic. Nevertheless, taken as a whole there is a real and exciting sense of interdisciplinary endeavour emanating from the volume, with almost every contribution attempting in some respect to relate to the editors’ fundamental purpose of characterizing the capacities involved in stone knapping.

Whilst not normally a fan of introductory chapters in which the editors effectively review the book you are about to read and ‘steal’ the conclusions of their contributors, in this case I was extremely impressed by the way in which Roux and Bril tackled their task. Given the disciplinary diversity here, the fact that not all the authors are, quite understandably, as focused as the editors, and that some conclusions are pointing in different if not contradictory directions from others, Roux and Bril’s extended introduction (pp. 1-18), subtitled ‘a dynamic systems framework for studying a uniquely hominin innovation’, constitutes a substantive contribution in its own right. As well as guiding potential readers to the chapters likely to be of most interest for their own specialisms, their chapter provides an accessible cross-cutting introduction to this whole field. Will the field continue to develop? The editors are confident that further research along these lines will ‘bring forth scenarios aimed at a better understanding of this early part of human history’ (p. 355). Certainly the type of studies contained in this volume are the bedrock from which such scenarios are created, and one hopes the editors will continue to foster and promulgate them. Wider communication of understanding about early human history will of course not come directly through books like this, which require translation into more digestible formats (eg, Mithen 1996) and other media (eg, TV, museums, etc) for that to happen, but they are the essential prerequisite.

This is another substantial tome (weight = 1.5kg; my much-used review copy has come adrift from its binding) from the McDonald Institute, which is now established as a key player in the field of archaeological monograph publication. The McDonald editorial team must be congratulated for bringing another complex work to fruition with, so far as I could see, a minimum of typos (Marzke’s name is misspelled on pp. 12-13) or other apparent glitches (chapters 11 and 16 alone lack introductory abstracts). What this monograph series could use, however, is a design makeover for its covers – the volume under review has a particularly unpleasant and haphazard combination of colours, shades and barely-visible images – since the covers currently detract from the high standards evident in all other respects.

Alan Saville
National Museums Scotland

Gibson, K.R. & Ingold, T. (eds), 1993. Tools, Language and Cognition in Human Evolution. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press
Mithen, S., 1996. The Prehistory of the Mind. London: Thames and Hudson
Roux, V., Bril, B. & Dietrich, G., 1995. Skills and learning difficulties involved in stone knapping: the case of stone-bead knapping in Khambhat, India. World Archaeology 27(1), 63-87

Review Submitted: December 2006

The views expressed in this review are not necessarily those of the Society or the Reviews Editor.

Home Page The Prehistoric Society Home Page