Goodwill hunting?

Turkey Day 2012. (Gabriel Stabile photo from the New Yorker.)
My recently adopted perch within the discipline of archaeology [i.e. in pajamas in my mother's basement] has led me to expect the unexpected more often than not. Whereas a year ago I was stupefied to discover the sheer number of papers that ['ow do you say eet?] lacked inferential integrity, today [well, yesterday] I was quite un-surprised when I spotted this on my daily Phys dot org Newsletter.
Penny Spikins (2012): Goodwill hunting? Debates over the ‘meaning’ of Lower Palaeolithic handaxe form revisitedWorld Archaeology, 44:3, 378-392.
In which the author argues that 
an emerging concern with reputation building seen amongst higher primates developed within highly collaborative Acheulian societies into a concern with ‘trustworthiness’ and the expression of ‘gestures of goodwill’ to others via handaxe form (p. 378).
The 'finished product' next to the 'raw material.'
Just look at that axial symmetry. And the transverse
symmetry. To say nothing of the dorso-ventral symmetry.
Clearly the work of a cognitively advanced form of hominid. 
You prolly already know what I think of the notion that the handaxe being a desired end product is tantamount to believing that the morphology of a spent bar of soap is the result of conscious decisions aimed at ending up with a particular shape at the end. Yup, you can as readily 'show' the 'mindfulness' embodied in a used bar of soap as you can the handaxe by simply substituting 'bar of soap' for 'handaxe' in [almost literally] every examination of the 'handaxe' phenomenon ever published.
     Just for today, I'm gonna set aside my derision for the above-mentioned 'phenomenon' to address the 'theoretical' underpinning of Spikins's article. First I must say that Spikins's is only the second published work with which I'm familiar that doesn't use the 'handaxe' phenomenon to argue for modern-human-like cognitive abilities on the part of Homo erectus/ergaster. For this, she deserves a medal.
     Nevertheless, the author argues that the 'handaxe' phenomenon embodies an unconscious symbol of trustworthiness. Now, as with all 'just so' stories, of which this is one, the best outcome is a 'sufficient' explanation for a given phenomenon [the worst outcome would be labelled a joke on this blog]. However, it's almost axiomatic that if there's a sufficient explanation about, there's more than likely an equally sufficient one waiting to be revealed. And we're still no further ahead in the search for the 'necessary' reason that I, at least, am seeking for any given archaeological phenomenon.
     If, Dear Reader, you're capable of accepting the notion that something like a 'handaxe' could represent 'trustworthiness' in the same way that, for example, grooming 'represents' such qualities in chimp society, then have I got a story for you. Actually, it's the meat of Spikins's story, with a few of the words swapped for other words. My substitutions are in uppercase. Otherwise the text is copied verbatim. And it goes like this. [Thank you, Maroon 5, for that by-now iconic phrase in your emulation of Mick Jagger!]. [By the by, I've excised all of Spikins's references, and in one case inserted my own.]
Which of these handaxes would this hand pick to use as a butchering tool? Answer: Neither. If you're curious to see a vast number of different handaxe shapes that give lie to the fable of symmetry, click here to go to my handaxe page.
From Spikins (2012)

‘Trustworthy handaxe theory’

There are several grounds for suggesting that a concern with symmetry and with conformity to the golden ratio in handaxe form functioned as a signal of collaborative DOMINANCE potential in Acheulian societies. The emotional capacities expressed in handaxe form, the role of such capacities in reciprocal altruism ASSERTING DOMINANCE in higher primates, a greater significance in modern hunter-gatherers and the match between appearance of handaxes and particular social contexts support the argument that such artefacts signalled ‘trustworthinessDOMINANCE’ to others.

TrustworthyDOMINANT’ capacities displayed in handaxe form 

Long-term reciprocally altruistic alliances DOMINANCE in both chimpanzees and humans are forged ASSERTED AND PERPETUATED by many small unconscious gestures of goodwill THREAT, or acts of altruism VIOLENCE, such as soothing of those in distress CHARGING MENACINGLY AT OTHERS or sharing of food THREATENING VOCALIZATIONS, which as signals of ‘ trustworthinessVIOLENCE POTENTIAL’ contribute to one’s reputation or ‘trustTHREAT metric’. 

Charging chimp (Source)
A concern with imposing symmetry and shape on handaxes can be seen as one of many possible such gestures of goodwill THREAT or ‘trustworthinessVIOLENCE POTENTIAL’ to others. Displaying a willingness to go beyond immediate rational self-interest and to ‘care’ beyond the immediate constraints of function, both for an object itself, as if it were a living thing that might benefit GROW IN STATURE from such attention, and for others who might use it and be affected by a 'pleasing' ITS ‘FEARSOME’ form, give a signal of a willingness to be generous in DOMINANT THROUGH one’s attitudes. The building blocks of such non-functional attention to objects are seen for example in the ‘nurturanceBANGING TOGETHER’ of sticks EMPTY GAS CANS like dolls by infant chimpanzees MICHAEL AT GOMBE (Goodall, Jane and Hugo van Lawick. [1971] In The Shadow of Man). Handaxe forms go nevertheless well beyond a display of ‘irrational’ kindness VIOLENCE in providing a more reliable indicator of collaborative AGGRESSIVE potential than might other ‘gestures’. Overcoming the significant frustrations of imposing form on stone also displays considerable emotional regulation PREDICTABILITY (self-controlANGER/patienceIMPATIENCE), the personality trait that most correlates with better relationships DOMINANCE, greater mental wellbeing CAPACITY and a reduced AN INCREASED tendency towards violence, as well as being correlated with other measures of trust DOMINANCE such as fidelity to partners THE DEGREE TO WHICH OTHER MALES ARE WILLING TO GROOM THE DOMINANT MALE. Making a finely formed handaxe effectively signals not only one’s attitude to others, but also one’s emotional capacity to be a trusty ally AGGRESSIVE (or a faithful mate USEFUL ALLY). 

Given their use in butchery, one context in which we might imagine handaxes being produced is preparation for hunting (or indeed scavenging) involving confrontation of large animals. Reaffirming one’s alliances by making gestures of one’s investment in others, and one’s degree of emotional self-control VIOLENT CAPACITY through handaxe form, might be particularly appropriate in such contexts, especially given the dangers posed by large animals and the level of reliance on trust SUBMISSION in one’s allies for survival. One would do well to place the greatest trust RELIANCE in an ally who displays emotional sensitivity TOTAL INSENSITIVITY to others’ feelings and a capacity to act in AGAINST their interest, and who is best able to withstand the temptation to run away AMOK at a critical moment! 

Attention to handaxe form is also a uniquely useful gesture in being exceptionally durable, potentially identifiable to the owner through either memory of production or unique styles of technique and frequently used in a shared DOMINANCE context. A rigidly defined end-product need not be in the mind of the maker since imposing even a fluid common understanding of a characteristic handaxe nonetheless illustrates the patience and self-control necessary to impose shape on stone. The form of a handaxe is worth considerable effort, as it may demonstrate ‘trustworthinessDOMINANCE’ not only in its production but also each time it is seen or re-used, when it might remind others once again of the emotional reliability UNPREDICTABILITY of its maker. 

‘Gestures of goodwill AGGRESSION’ in higher primates 

A threatening gesture with little room for ambiguity.
As ‘gestures of goodwill AGGRESSION’ or trustworthiness DOMINANCE, handaxes require no particular leap in cognitive capacities in early humans COMPARED to those seen in other higher primates, particularly chimpanzees. Collaboration DOMINANCE mediated through a measure of reputation built up through altruistic VIOLENT acts can be seen widely in chimpanzee society. Chimpanzees display altruistic tendencies SUBMISSION in a variety of situations, such as in hugging the losers of fights SOFT PANT-GRUNTS AND KISSING THE THIGH OF the WINNERS of fights (Goodall and van Lawick, ibid), or even including ADDING costly adoption of infants in need GROOMING TIME. They mentally map the behaviours of different individuals returning ‘favoursSLIGHTS’ over relatively long time spans. Chimps call to significant individuals to share a food source with them, and those who are reluctant to share food will tend to encounter aggression when they beg for food in the future. Those alpha males who show greatest self-control AGGRESSION and concern themselves with fairness ‘DOMINANCE’, such as by showing tolerance TOLERATING or breaking up STARTING fights amongst WITH subordinate males, have a longer lived LONG period of high status through support SUBMISSION from the rest of the group, whilst aggressive SUBMISSIVE males have been known to have been excluded from MARGINALIZED IN the group. Although there may be a shift in emphasis, no great cognitive leap is required of early humans in the suggestion that reciprocally altruistic DOMINANCE-BASED alliances structured Acheulian societies. 
 Shaping the face of the Acheulian 

 It is argued here that within groups of Homo ergaster and their descendants, displays of empathetic concern for VIOLENCE TOWARD others and the emotional self-control CAPACITY to act on their behalf DOMINATE were key to the formation of long-term alliances and social support CONTROL. Such capacities were signalled in a concern with the form of handaxes which can be seen as a display of trustworthiness DOMINANCE. Attention to the shape of handaxes, alongside gestures such as consoling another's distress CHARGING AT OTHERS, giving away STEALING food or helping PREYING ON those who are vulnerable, appear to be against FULLY WITHIN immediate rational self-interest. However, whether in chimpanzees, early humans or modern societies, they are ‘functional’ in that they demonstrate a willingness and ability to forgo self-interest SOCIAL BONDS for the sake of others DOMINANCE and thus to forge and maintain reciprocally altruistic alliances USEFUL alliances with much give and takeBULLYING’. In this context, ‘trustworthy handaxe theoryDOMINANCE handaxe theory’ provides a better explanation than existing suggestions for a concern with conformity to the aesthetic ‘golden ratio’ and to symmetry in handaxe form, for the conservatism of handaxe industries, and for the structure of temporal and spatial variations in handaxe emergence and patterning. 

The implication that it was an instinct towards trust DOMINANCE (rather than one towards lust ALTRUISTIC BEHAVIOUR) which shaped the face of the Acheulian is particularly significant in our understanding of such societies and sets a challenge for developing a social interpretation of material culture in the Lower Palaeolithic without recourse to interpretations based on the complex cognitive concepts that structure modern societies.

~Penny Spikins [with the Subversive Archaeologist]

Image from (tip o' the hat to
That felt good.
     I don't think I've done violence to plausibility through my suggested revisions to Spikins's thesis. After all, if World Archaeology published it, and the author thought it up, what's to stop someone in their mother's basement from thinkin' up an alternative scenario. Frankly, the Spikins article begs for it. I'll agree, it's not really 'altruistically reciprocal' on my part. But if Pollyanna* wants to imagine a warm and cozy, touchy-feely Homo erectus, it's up to us to remind her of other possibilities.
     In that vein, have a look at this assessment of the presence of 'fairness' in our closest relations: Chimps only think of themselves when it comes to food. Just sayin'...
* A fictional character created by Eleanor H. Porter (1913), Pollyanna's philosophy of life was to find something to be glad about in every situation.

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