Monday, 16 September 2013

It's Sunday, And It's Gonna be a Dark and Stormy Night.

Well, the jerk pork tenderloin is marinading in the fridge, the sweet pineapple chutney is simmering, and the sweet potato fries are cooling their jets waiting for the oven to get to temperature. Alas, it'll be frozen veg tonight. Yup. No shopping this week. The kitty is at an all-time low. Seriously, I needed a bed! Mind you, I still don't have said bed. So far, I've just paid for it!

But you know I didn't come here to read you my bank statement [which would have been almost as exciting as me reciting, yet again, how I came to be embittered, but later emerged from the bittersweet embitteredness a sweeter man but wiser, having found solace in the fermented grape].

Nope. I came here to stick pins a very much inflated balloon that arrived in the archaeological literature at the end of August. It's about language and stone artifacts and flint-knapping:
Uomini NT, Meyer GF (2013) Shared Brain Lateralization Patterns in Language and Acheulean Stone Tool Production: A Functional Transcranial Doppler Ultrasound Study. PLoS ONE 8(8): e72693. doi:10.1371/journal.pone.0072693
We present the first-ever study of brain activation that directly compares active Acheulean tool-making and language. Using functional transcranial Doppler ultrasonography (fTCD), we measured brain . . . hemodynamics . . . in subjects who performed . . . Acheulean stone tool-making . . . We show highly correlated hemodynamics in the initial 10 seconds of task execution.
Which they argue, might well have been the catalyst for language evolution. Wow. When I read that I was blown away. But it's not what you think. I was blown over by the prodigious amount of air whooshing out of their balloon once I had pierced it with my rapier-sharp mental intelligence-icity, and, I might add, my own, highly evolved, hemodynamics.

[Now, Rob. You shouldn't be so disparaging of people tryin' t' figger stuff out. You did it once. Remember?] [How could I possibly forget?]

I know I'm being bad. As penance, I'll ditch the new foam bed in favour of a bed of nails upon, because there's no way in 'ell I'm gonna give this paper the same credulous treatment that it seems to have received from the media. I know—they're not scientists: they just report on science. Problem is, people who aren't scientists—and even people who are, they're just not palaeoanthropologists—read that stuff and, not knowing any better, buy it.* Then, when the tune changes in the succeeding months and years, we wonder why the public complains about the money spent on research.

*catches breath*

OK. Here's a diverting little video snippet, Video_S1 from the article, showing one of the participants performing the tasks that were being monitored. The first part is the 'control' portion, in which the knapper was asked simply to knock two rocks together, repeatedly. This was to emulate a rock-knocking activity that wouldn't have required too much thought—the proposition being that such physical activity wouldn't be sufficient to somehow lead to language. The rest of the video shows our knapper, clearly, thinking out every flake removal, with the thought in mind of arriving at the end point of the process—an Acheulean hand axe. He's really having to think hard to turn his large flake into a decent Acheulean hand axe. As would you or I. But there's no guaranteeing that the thing we call the hand axe required so much brain activity.

The problem with such experimentation is that it presumes the ancient bipedal apes were knocking rocks together to create an Acheulean hand axe.

And that, as you prolly know, is something that I simply can't allow them to get away with. Their experiment and it's thrilling and important results may, at the end of the day, have been nothing more than a waste of their time, yours, and mine.

Remember? Remember that this thing called a hand axe may well be just a bifacial core that had been reduced only to the point where it looks [a little] like an axe head to your garden variety palaeoanthropologist. Don't worry, I'm not gonna go into a big explanation at this point. I'll just put up a few choice images that more or less speak for themselves [well, after I put words in their mouths in earlier posts]. The montage below is one I made to illustrate the enormous variety of these artifacts, both size and shape. It wasn't possible to portray them all at the same scale. However, in a few of these images there are people parts that do give an idea of the scale. My favourite is the one with several laid out on a table, from a fist-sized one to one that could easily be 500 mm from stem to stern. If this thing they call a hand axe is in fact as variable as these images demonstrate, there was one eff of a lot of lousy flint-knappers in the Lower Palaeolithic.

Uomini and Meyer's study has, perhaps, captured brain connections that played a role in language evolution. However, until it's possible to say, unequivocally, that the so-called hand axe was the shape sought from the moment a Lower Palaeolithic bipedal ape started knocking rocks together, this study cannot stand as evidence that making Acheulean artifacts could have played a part in language evolution.

Thank you all for your kind attention. I'll see you soon.

By the way, the jerk pork and sweet potato fries were delicious, but the warm pineapple chutney was quite forgettable.

* in the sense of definition #5


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