We’ve all had a teacher or two who weren’t exactly Mr. Chips or Mr. Cotter or Yoda. I myself spent time under the tutelage of nuns armed with yardsticks the size of logs. But I never considered any of them to be butchers. That may have been the problem. New research suggests that the first hominin teachers were butchers who passed along the knowledge of making tools and slicing up carcasses and possibly developed an early form of communication.
The study is in the current edition of journal Nature Communications and it looks at the development of prehistoric Oldowan tools, the oldest-known cutting devices. Oldowan tool date back 2.5 million years ago to the Lower Paleolithic period in eastern Africa. Early human ancestors, such Homo habilis and Australopithecus garhias, made stone tools by knapping – the process of using flint or basalt to hammer flakes off of hard rocks that would then be used for cutting and butchering.
Thomas Morgan, lead author of the study, believed that tools were crucial to human development in many ways.
Our findings suggest that stone tools weren’t just a product of human evolution, but actually drove it as well, creating the evolutionary advantage necessary for the development of modern human communication and teaching.
To test this, his team tested various ways of passing the skill of Oldowan stone-knapping skills to 180 college students. They set up five- or 10-member “learning chains,” giving each member five minutes to show the skill to the next person. Those using verbal instructions did the best.
While the original Oldowan toolmakers were “probably not talking,” Morgan says they planted the seeds for the next evolution of hominims who made of Acheulean hand-axes and cleavers.
To sustain Acheulean technology, there must have been some kind of teaching, and maybe even a kind of language, going on, even just a simple proto-language using sounds or gestures for ‘yes’ or ‘no,’ or ‘here’ or ‘there.’
I know a few high school teachers who would be thrilled to get current students to say at least “yes” or “no.”