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Friday, 21 November 2014

Accolades For Tom Wynn: Too Bad About That Hand Axe Thing!

This just in!


University of Colorado
Distinguished Professor of Anthropology
Dr. Thomas Wynn
Tom Wynn, of the University of Colorado at Colorado Springs, has just been given that institution's highest academic position—Distinguished Professor.

Well done, Tom!

He began working on bipedal ape cognition in the late 1970s, and in the past decades he and UCCS psychologist Fred Coolidge have compiled an immense amount of work around the evolution and character of, in particular, Neanderthal cognition.

Both are friends of the Subversive Archaeologist—although I'm well aware that they don't concur with much that I've written about the theoretical constructs that surround Paleolithic stone artifacts.

Tom's early work was highlighted by the 1979 "The Intelligence of Later Acheulean Hominids" (Man, New Series 14:371-391), in which he applied Piagettian genetic epistemology to "characterize the intelligence of later Acheulean" bipedal apes—makers of the ubiquitous, yet to me still inherently enigmatic, stone artifact that many call the hand-ax [or handax or hand axe or hand ax, the artifact formerly also known as the coup-de-poing.]

As you're no doubt keenly aware, I question the fundamental premise that lies beneath any such undertaking. Tom used the illustration below in 1979 when outlining his characterization of the intelligence behind the events that led to its having the shape you see here. According to Wynn, “The maker must have been able to conceive the desired shape . . .  .” That "shape" is the bilateral symmetry that has resulted from flake removals, some of which are labelled in this view because they are examples of what Tom calls "retouch," which he infers to have been the purposeful removal of small flakes to produce the desired end product. Granted, this is just one of tens of thousands of such bifaces that have been recovered archaeologically over the years—but the fundamental premise underlying its identification as a hand axe remains the same, and encompasses a shit-load of variation, including other bifacially flaked objects called 'cleavers,' and 'picks,' and 'discoids.'

Forgive me Tom, and you, Dear Reader, if I demur. While this artifact may have been purposefully shaped, that is by no means a necessary conclusion, and to me the evidence for that claim is shaky at best. Bear with me. Let's first look at the view on the right. You see a classic ventral flake surface, complete with striking platform, bulb of percussion, tiny fissures in the rock radiating from the platform, and the concentric ripples emanating from the same point, created  by the Hertzian cone of force that was required to separate this flake from its larger—source—block of raw material, in other words the original core. 

To begin with, there's really no way that I can see to know what this flake's original dimensions were. Although, I suspect that they weren't much different than you see here. I base my—freely acknowledged to be an informed lay person's—opinion on the ambiguity of the timing of all of the flake removals that I've numbered in red in this annotated view. They might all have been removed from the block of raw material PRIOR to this flake's detachment from that core. As such, absent the nibbling that you see labelled "A," the gross shape of this artifact could have been the natural outcome of the physics of rock fracture. Of course, I suppose one could propose that—as is the case with the Levallois so-called technique—those prior flake removals were intended to produce a flake of just this shape. [I think you can guess where I'd stand on that proposition!]

I'm happy for Tom. Kudos, Tom! For your tireless work, for your teaching, for your enthusiasm and for the excitement you've created in generations of archaeologists. But I still think that your construction of pre-modern bipedal ape cognition is profoundly flawed by your major presumption that artifacts such as this were 'created' purposefully in this shape.

One last comment. In the Gazette article Tom is quoted as saying that "One-point-seven million years ago our ancestors made them and continued making them for the next 1.5 million years. Then they quit." Sorry, Tom. Our 'ancestors' may quit making them—most likely when they stopped being our ancestors—but people like you and me have made objects like this up until recent times, as I've pointed out many time before.

Take, for example, these beautiful 'hand axes' from the Americas, with which I'll end this blurt. Archaeologists on this side of the Atlantic have never presumed that these were tools, in and of themselves. That's a much sounder basis—IMHO—on which to ground inferences of cognitive complexity than the one to which Tom Wynn and sooooo many others cleave.


El Pulguero Suroeste is here, in Baja California:


And the Topper Site is on the Savannah River in Allendale County, South Carolina, approximately where you see the bulls-eye in the logo below.