The 82nd Annual Meeting of the American Association of Physical Anthropologists (2013)

Using formal languages to determine the similarity of Paleolithic stone toolmaking and language syntax


Anthropology, Indiana University, Brain Evolution Lab, Indiana University, Stone Age Institute, Indiana University, Cognitive Science, Indiana University

Saturday 9:45-10:00, Ballroom C Add to calendar

Linking behavior with paleoneurological morphology is challenging. Holloway (1969) proposes that there is a common neural substrate for aspects of language production and stone toolmaking. Though there is functional overlap between stone toolmaking and language production in the brain, it is not clear how similar the sequencing in stone toolmaking and language actually are. Does enlargement of Broca’s cap in Homo habilis and emergence of Acheuelan technology indicate the initiation of linguistic behavior?

In this pilot study, techniques from generative linguistics were used to empirically derive a formal language description of the process of replicating a late Acheulean handaxe by a single expert knapper. A formal language is a technique in linguistics and computer science to describe and compare the complexity of sequentially structured processes.

The derived model is best categorized as a Context-Free Grammar (CFG). This categorization is based on the observation that the knapper (1) chunked the sequence of actions into multiple hierarchical levels and (2) manipulated the sequence of actions flexibly at multiple levels. Most generative linguists class natural (spoken) language as a CFG. Compared to natural language, this CFG is ‘expressively’ limited by the constraints of lithic technology.

The derivation of the CFG allows us to describe the sequencing of actions in Late Handaxe manufacture in terms of a push-down automata. This provides a minimal cognitive model for this aspect of stone-toolmaking. If future research supports this architecture, then it suggests an intriguing role for cores as memory storage devices in the process of tool manufacture.

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