Sunday, June 13, 2010


On Thursday I went to a talk by Miriam Noel Haidle, who talked about tool use in human and non-human animals. Haidle is part of the research project "The role of culture in early expansions of humans," which looks extremely interesting.
In her talk, Haidle introduced the idea of "cognigrams," which code the cognitive operations necessary for performing a complex task with multiple steps such as tool use. What is most interesting is that you can create cognigrams for the tool-using behaviour of humans, other tool using animals, and pre-humans, and then compare their complexity and use this to asses their cognitive potential.

Here's the abstract of her most recent paper elaborating on this idea:

"Tool use is the main database to track down behavioral developments in the archaeological record and thus human evolution. Working-memory capacity and modern cognitive potential, however, are no simple and obvious characters in tool behavior. Coded in cognigrams, which allow a direct comparison, animal and human tool use can be examined for specific aspects of the working-memory capacity. Detailed studies of tool behavior of wasps, sea otters, bottlenose dolphins, and chimpanzees are presented and compared with the manufacture and use of Oldowan tools and Lower Paleolithic spears. Although this shows a wide range of problem-solution distances, problem solving in animals seems to be restricted to problem complexes for which a solution can be found in spatial and temporal vicinity. In human evolution, the complexity of tool behavior increases regarding the number of active foci managed at a time in an action, the number and diversity of operational steps in a problem-solution complex, and the spatial and temporal frame in which solutions are sought. The results suggest a gradual development of the different aspects of a complex capacity instead of a late introduction of a closed phenomenon with only different facets."

Haidle, Miriam Noël (2010) Working‐Memory Capacity and the Evolution of Modern Cognitive Potential. Current Anthropology 51:s1, S149-S166

Here are two of these 'cognigrams', one of a chimpanzee tool set which is used to extract termites, (Haidle 2010: S154) and one of the cognitive complexity needed to create the kind of 400,000 year-old spear found in Schöningen, Germany. (Haidle 2010: S156)

1 comment:

epigenetic1 said...

Reminds me of William McGrew's idea of "techno-units." He compared chimpanzee and Tasmanian aboriginal material cultures. I did not think he applied the scheme very rigorously, but it sure was a clever idea. See, for example:

Tools to Get Food: The Subsistants of Tasmanian Aborigines and Tanzanian Chimpanzees Compared,
W. C. McGrew, Journal of Anthropological Research, Vol. 43, No. 3 (Autumn, 1987), pp. 247-258.