Re: Culture/Flintknapping

Nicholas Gessler (gessler@UCLA.EDU)
Mon, 19 Aug 1996 10:01:31 -0700

Jesse S. Cook III wrote:

>When you and your friends set out to reproduce one or more stone tools, you
knew what >the originals were because someone told you what they were.

What is the source of your confidence that you know what we may or may not
have known or been told 30 years ago or even today? We were a skeptical
lot, interested in seeing for ourselves.

>Had you not had someone identify these objects for you, had they just been
>lying around on the ground, you wouldn't have had a clue because you would
>have had no need that would have had you looking for something like them.
>They would have appeared to be nothing more than pieces of flint or whatever.

If this argument is valid, then however did any of the early natural
historians turn their attention to "figured stones" as fossils, lightning
hits, or artifacts? Granted, they initially got it wrong but they
eventually got it right. Most of us are quite "clued-in" to recognizing
things as different and unusual and it remains to be shown how much language
is responsible for this. No, I think the recognition comes from the fact
that they were different. The point is that they were'nt just "lying around
on the ground," they did not appear like other "pieces of flint or
whatever." As we began to make our own, they no longer appeared
"different," they became "familiar."

>Furthermore, in addition to knowing what they were, you knew, at least in
>general, what they were supposed to be used for. In other words, you came
>to the task with some essential knowledge that you, no doubt, acquired
>through language of one sort or another;

What we knew then, and perhaps know now, is probably much less than what
paleolithic wannabe toolmaker could learn by simply observing more
accomplished flintknappers and tool users. What precisely is your assertion
and what sorts of cognitive structures are you positing for pre, proto, and
contemporary culture-bearers?

1) Can a present day H.s.s. learn or teach another H.s.s. the making and
usage of stone tools with no linguistic communication? My answer: "yes."

2) Could a present day H.s.s. transported to the encampment of H.s.n. learn
the making and usage of their stone tools just by observation with no
linguistic communication? My answer: "yes."

3) Could a H.s.n. (or pre-modern) learn the making and usage of their stone
tools without a linguistic interface? a) without language having evolved,
b) with evolved language but congenitally deaf, or c) with evolved language
but deprived of its usage for tool-related matters?

>and, therefore, in still another way, to repeat what I said before, "your
experience >does not 'back up John's observations'". Now, having disposed
of your defence of John's ill-considered remarks,

What I chose to defend was John's assertion that, "I can teach someone stone
toolmaking basics in hours...," and the observation that such
learning/teaching can progress with minimal (or no) speaking or
subvocalization (internal dialog).

>get back to reality.

Let's do. Let's look back at scenarios 1) to 3) in which I assume that the
critters in question do not have cognitive "deficits." We need some sort of
cognitive model, which I'd be tempted to break down into a
social/physical-module (SPM), an internal-discourse-module (IDM), and an
external-discourse-module (ECM) for we H.s.s. I would suggest that we
H.s.s. don't need to utilize the IDM or ECM for time constrained cultural
transmission, that the SPM will do. However, the "truth" of scenarios 1)
and 2) do not automatically give an answer to 3) until we posit a cognitive
structure for H.s.n.

>I have no doubt whatsoever that, *in the beginning*,
>"the transmission of stone toolmaking techniques from one generation to
>another" was carried out "by way of both the observation of behavior...and
>the observation of the results of that behavior...", but that both
>observations were carried out at the same time in each instance.
>Furthermore, I have little doubt that these activities were carried out in
>the absence of language.

OK, so in the beginning we have tools, the SPM and no IDM or ECM. Today we
have tools, the SPM and the IDM and ECM. Am I correct in assuming that you
feel the IDM and ECM are always turned "on" during cultural transmission? I
would argue that they activated and deactivated differentially among members
of the population as well as differentially during episodes of cultural

>Finally, to my question: "Did you try them out to see if they would serve?",
>you answered: "We never tried to systematically discover and reproduce
their purposes.
>However, the tools worked exceedingly well for a number of our purposes such
>as shaving, butchering, skinning, hide-scraping, bone incising, tree
>felling, wood working, digging, and decorat[ing]."
>I'm sorry to say that I am incredulous. With the stone tools that you made,
>what kind of animal(s) did you skin, butcher, and scrape; what kind of bone
>did you incise and what kind of incisions did you make; what kind of tree(s)
>did you fell and what size; what kind of wood-working did you do; and what
>sort of decorating did you do?

There's no accounting for incredulity. Animal kinds: deer, seal and fish.
Bone kinds: deer, seal and whale. Incision/Decorating kinds: various to
make fish gorgets, small sculptures, circle-dot motives. Tree kinds: small
(under 5-inch) spruce and poplar. Wood-working: not much.

>With your perfect recall, even after 30 years, you should be able to
>remember those details.

Ok, but my memory is no match for your remarkably perfect powers of empathic
connection to our minds 30 years ago and half-way across the world.

>BTW, was any of this ever written up and published?
>It certainly would have made a significant addition to the literature if you
>did indeed do all of those things with those tools.

"Published?" Why bother? As I said, this was mostly done during off hours.
"Significant addition to the literature?" Is your library that
impoverished? There are some excellent human, written and film resources
out there.

Language is certainly a significant contributor to human culture. But we
shouldn't let its surficial prominence overshadow the foundational
contributions of our social/physical, logic and other cognitive modules
which it depends upon and tries to communicate. Language as a
representational "verbal magic" (after Bertalanffy) certainly feeds back
into and complements the others. With regards to tool-making, I think the
other modules (if they could speak) would tell us more. Barkow, Tooby &
Cosmides' THE ADAPTED MIND, now newly available in paperback, sets out an
inspiring strategy.

Nick Gessler