It’s Sunday, And It’s Gonna be a Dark and Stormy Night.

Well, the jerk pork tenderloin is marinading in the fridge, the sweet pineapple chutney is simmering, and the sweet potato fries are cooling their jets waiting for the oven to get to temperature. Alas, it’ll be frozen veg tonight. Yup. No shopping this week. The kitty is at an all-time low. Seriously, I needed a bed! Mind you, I still don’t have said bed. So far, I’ve just paid for it!

But you know I didn’t come here to read you my bank statement [which would have been almost as exciting as me reciting, yet again, how I came to be embittered, but later emerged from the bittersweet embitteredness a sweeter man but wiser, having found solace in the fermented grape].

Nope. I came here to stick pins a very much inflated balloon that arrived in the archaeological literature at the end of August. It’s about language and stone artifacts and flint-knapping:

Uomini NT, Meyer GF (2013) Shared Brain Lateralization Patterns in Language and Acheulean Stone Tool Production: A Functional Transcranial Doppler Ultrasound Study. PLoS ONE 8(8): e72693. doi:10.1371/journal.pone.0072693

We present the first-ever study of brain activation that directly compares active Acheulean tool-making and language. Using functional transcranial Doppler ultrasonography (fTCD), we measured brain . . . hemodynamics . . . in subjects who performed . . . Acheulean stone tool-making . . . We show highly correlated hemodynamics in the initial 10 seconds of task execution.

Which they argue, might well have been the catalyst for language evolution. Wow. When I read that I was blown away. But it’s not what you think. I was blown over by the prodigious amount of air whooshing out of their balloon once I had pierced it with my rapier-sharp mental intelligence-icity, and, I might add, my own, highly evolved, hemodynamics.

[Now, Rob. You shouldn’t be so disparaging of people tryin’ t’ figger stuff out. You did it once. Remember?] [How could I possibly forget?]

I know I’m being bad. As penance, I’ll ditch the new foam bed in favour of a bed of nails upon, because there’s no way in ‘ell I’m gonna give this paper the same credulous treatment that it seems to have received from the media. I know—they’re not scientists: they just report on science. Problem is, people who aren’t scientists—and even people who are, they’re just not palaeoanthropologists—read that stuff and, not knowing any better, buy it.* Then, when the tune changes in the succeeding months and years, we wonder why the public complains about the money spent on research.

*catches breath*

OK. Here’s a diverting little video snippet, Video_S1 from the article, showing one of the participants performing the tasks that were being monitored. The first part is the ‘control’ portion, in which the knapper was asked simply to knock two rocks together, repeatedly. This was to emulate a rock-knocking activity that wouldn’t have required too much thought—the proposition being that such physical activity wouldn’t be sufficient to somehow lead to language. The rest of the video shows our knapper, clearly, thinking out every flake removal, with the thought in mind of arriving at the end point of the process—an Acheulean hand axe. He’s really having to think hard to turn his large flake into a decent Acheulean hand axe. As would you or I. But there’s no guaranteeing that the thing we call the hand axe required so much brain activity.

The problem with such experimentation is that it presumes the ancient bipedal apes were knocking rocks together to create an Acheulean hand axe.

And that, as you prolly know, is something that I simply can’t allow them to get away with. Their experiment and it’s thrilling and important results may, at the end of the day, have been nothing more than a waste of their time, yours, and mine.

Remember? Remember that this thing called a hand axe may well be just a bifacial core that had been reduced only to the point where it looks [a little] like an axe head to your garden variety palaeoanthropologist. Don’t worry, I’m not gonna go into a big explanation at this point. I’ll just put up a few choice images that more or less speak for themselves [well, after I put words in their mouths in earlier posts]. The montage below is one I made to illustrate the enormous variety of these artifacts, both size and shape. It wasn’t possible to portray them all at the same scale. However, in a few of these images there are people parts that do give an idea of the scale. My favourite is the one with several laid out on a table, from a fist-sized one to one that could easily be 500 mm from stem to stern. If this thing they call a hand axe is in fact as variable as these images demonstrate, there was one eff of a lot of lousy flint-knappers in the Lower Palaeolithic.

Uomini and Meyer’s study has, perhaps, captured brain connections that played a role in language evolution. However, until it’s possible to say, unequivocally, that the so-called hand axe was the shape sought from the moment a Lower Palaeolithic bipedal ape started knocking rocks together, this study cannot stand as evidence that making Acheulean artifacts could have played a part in language evolution.

Thank you all for your kind attention. I’ll see you soon.

By the way, the jerk pork and sweet potato fries were delicious, but the warm pineapple chutney was quite forgettable.

* in the sense of definition #5

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More On David Frayer et al.’s Ham-Handed Effort to Use Regourdou 1’s Anterior Dentition To Argue For Language in Neanderthals


Every once in a while a story drops into my lap that makes me thankful there are other disciplines and other minds at work in and around our beloved discipline. In this case, it’s something I found at Phys.org,

A predominance to be right-handed is not a uniquely human trait, but one shared by great apes, study finds

I know, I know. Me mate, Mark Collard, has recently upbraided me [in what I hope was a friendly poke in the ribs] for turning off my bullshit-ometer when something comes along that fits with my view of the world. Be that as it may. In this case, I wouldn’t know where to begin to be critical of the results, since it’d prolly mean watching thousands of hours of video of children and gorillas doing stuff with their hands. Not something my mother raised me for.
     So, I’m provisionally accepting the findings of Dr Gillian Forrester [who did do the hard yakka watching and coding the video], a visiting fellow in psychology at the University of Sussex and a senior lecturer in psychology at the University of Westminster.

The … findings, published in Behavioural Brain Research, challenge a widely held view that right-handed dominance in humans was a species-unique trait linked to the emergence of language. Scientists have long been aware of the association between the left hemisphere specialization for language in the human brain and human right-handedness. For example, 95% of those who are right-handed typically have language function supported by the left hemisphere.

Rewind to about September 8. The Subversive Archaeologist. A piece entitled ‘You Gotta Hand It to Them: From Handedness to Humanity in One. No, Two. No! Seven Inferential Leaps!‘ and followup a couple of days later, ‘A Final (Maybe Not) Word on The Regourdou 1 Micro-Scratches: A Case of Archaeological Foot-and-Mouth?‘ I was responding to the claim that the minute scratches on the labial surfaces of Regourdou 1’s anterior teeth were evidence of right-handedness. The authors preposterously proceed from there to proclaim that it’s also evidence that the Neanderthals had language. Whether or not the Neanderthals could carry on a conversation with me or you, the claim made on behalf of Regourdou 1 and Neanderthals has just suffered a[nother] crippling blow [the first, of course, was my pithy take-down].
     Dr. Forrester also, and crucially, notes that while right-handedness shows up in gorillas when they are manipulating inanimate objects, they cease to favour one or the other hand when interacting with other members of their species. As the good Dr. points out:

‘Human right-handedness is not species-specific as traditionally thought, but rather is context-dependent – a pattern that has been previously masked by less sensitive experimental measures. Our findings support the idea that both human and ape brains have this left hemisphere specialisation directing the right side of the body for ordered sequences of behaviours, but that humans have been able to extend upon this neural architecture to develop language.’

The mighty silverback contemplates manipulating an object with his right hand. Either that or he’s getting ready to signal the pitcher.

In closing, allow me to say that Victory [even a whiff of it] is sweet!
Nitey-nite to all my subversive archaeologist friends.

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