Knowledge vs. know-how? Dissecting the foundations of stone knapping skill

Justin Pargeter, Nada Kreisheh, John J. Shea, Dietrich Stout

    Research output: Contribution to journalArticlepeer-review


    Stone tools provide some of the best remaining evidence of behavioral change over long periods, but their cognitive and evolutionary implications remain poorly understood. Here, we contribute to a growing body of experimental research on the cognitive and perceptual-motor foundations of stone toolmaking skills by using a flake prediction paradigm to assess the relative importance of technological understanding vs. accurate action execution in Late Acheulean–style handaxe production. This experiment took place as part of a larger, longitudinal study of knapping skill acquisition, allowing us to assemble a large sample of predictions across learning stages and in a comparative sample of experts. By combining group and individual-level statistical analyses with predictive modeling, we show that understanding and predicting specific flaking outcomes in this technology is both more difficult and less important than expected from previous work. Instead, our findings reveal the critical importance of perceptual motor skills needed to manage speed-accuracy trade-offs and reliably detach the large, invasive flakes that enable bifacial edging and thinning. With practice, novices increased striking accuracy, flaking success rates, and (to an extent) handaxe quality by targeting small flakes with acute platform angles. However, only experts were able to combine percussive force and accuracy to produce results comparable with actual Late Acheulean handaxes. The relatively intense demands for accurate action execution documented in our study indicate that biomechanical properties of the upper limb, cortical and cerebellar systems for sensorimotor control, and the cognitive, communicative, and affective traits supporting deliberate practice would all have been likely targets of selection acting on Late Acheulean toolmaking aptitude.

    Original languageEnglish (US)
    Article number102807
    JournalJournal of Human Evolution
    StatePublished - Aug 2020


    • Acheulean
    • Experimental archaeology
    • Handaxes
    • Perceptual-motor foundations
    • Skill acquisition
    • Social transmission

    ASJC Scopus subject areas

    • Ecology, Evolution, Behavior and Systematics
    • Anthropology


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