Social vs. nonsocial information and Lower/Middle Paleolithic

11 minute read

On the basis of a couple of student questions, I think it's worthwhile to reflect a bit on where I am going with this (also possibly made more clear in this post, which covers learning more extensively.

By definition, material culture is culture. From this, it follows that explaining regularities within (and among) stone tool industries is explaining cultural regularities.

On the other hand, there is much more to culture than material culture. Material culture presents one facies of culture, but other aspects may have little to do with the material remains of tool use and manufacture. By extending our consideration of archaeology to the entire chaine opératoire, from the acquisition of raw materials, the process of learning manufacturing skills, and the ultimate use, reuse, and discard of the tools, we may hope that one or more aspects of tool-related behavior will at least touch on many other elements of social life. But still, tools may misrepresent the substance of culture as a whole.

The problems understanding the whole culture at the Acheulean-MP transition are expressed by Belfer-Cohen and Goren-Inbar (1994:145-146, emphasis mine):

Of the 2 my and more, which are assigned to the Lower Paleolithic, over 1.5 my are attributed to the Acheulean Industrial Complex (Isaac 1977,1986). The immensity of this time-span -- which is quite beyond our comprehension -- can be 'blamed' for our difficultures in assessing and interpreting various phenomena observed in the material remains from this period. Prehistoric research during the last few decades has focused primarily on issues such as hunting versus scavenging, mobility, camping, division of labour and sharing, etc. Thus the study of lithic assemblages has become of secondary and minor importance. For a while it seemed as if the lithic component constituting the majority of the retrieved material remains could not contribute any information towards resolving the issues detailed above. However, new approaches to the study of lithics, employing various methods of technical analysis and procedures such as multivariate analyses (Karlin et al. 1991) have led to a better understanding of lithic manufacturing processes (Boëda et al. 1990; Pelegrin 1993). The large body of data acumulated over the long term demonstrates that, through well-planned research, lithic assemblages can provide significant insights into the cultural complexity of prehistoric people (Gowlett 1984; Pelegrin et al. 1988; Pelegrin 1990; Wynn 1993a). Nevertheless, some researchers (usually those far removed from lithic studies) still demonstrate simplistic attitudes, such as referring to a single artefact type, or a single technological feature, as if it faithfully reflected the total material complexity of a Lower Palaeolithic culture. Thus Foley (1987) treated the biface as if it embodied the entire Acheulean tradition, and as such he opposed it to manifestations of Levallois technique, which he regarded as the marker of the Middle Palaeolithic 'Levallois-Mousterian' (p. 386). But not only do most Levantine Acheulean assemblages contain a Levallois component (Gilead 1970; Goren-Inbar in press, and references therein) -- which from the outset pulls the ground from under Foley's argument -- but the paper contrasts two entirely dissimilar, basically incomparable entities -- a specific tool-type and a particular production technique. Most important, the selection of a single component as the all-encompassing representative of a complex techno-typological tradition hinders the serious search for meaningful patterning.

The "new approaches" mentioned here would be part of the "technological approach" discussed by Chazan (1997), reviewed in another post.

After a due consideration of the technical aspects of the Lower Paleolithic industries at 'Ubeidiya and Gesher Benot Ya'aqov, Belfer-Cohen and Goren-Inbar (1994) concluded that the full technical repertoire of Acheulean people was complex and advanced. Quoting Pelegrin (1993), they write:

It is of interest to note that Pelegrin (1993), in his detailed discussion of lithic production, refers to the process of biface manufacture as complex stone knapping. It involves '"a coherent critical approach" to the situation. It is also characterized by the construction of techno-morphological mental hypotheses and their evaoluation through the double filter of what is desirable and what is possible' (pp. 310-311). Summing up his observations, Pelegrin states that 'This operational competence is comparable with that of modern man in this technical context' (p. 313) (Belfer-Cohen and Goren-Inbar 1994:152).

They draw this to an interesting conclusion:

Perhaps we should not be surprised by the complexity observed in early lithic production. Applying the rules of 'General System Theory' (Bertalanffy 1968), we can compare the pattern discerned in the evolution of the lithic material cultures with that learned from Cambrian fossils about the history of life's evolution on earth (Gould 1989): 'The maximum range of anatomical possibilities arises with the first rush of diversification. Later history is a tale of restriction, as most of these early experiments succumb and life settles down to generating endless variants upon a few surviving models' (p. 47). In the history of the evolution of lithic production, too, we have the initial appearance of several production modes, used in a distinct fashion for the manufacturing of discrete morphotypes. Then, in later stages, for example the Mousterian cultures of the Middle Paleolithic, we observe a reduction in the number of production sequences and an increase in typological diversity (ibid:153).

I view the situation rather differently. The maintenance of a cultural tradition of tool manufacture requires individuals to receive both the information of how to make the tools and the motivation to learn and make the same types of tools by the same process. Some information is acquired socially -- by watching others make and use the tools. Some information is acquired physically -- by attempting to flake stone and learning its fracture properties, for example. Likewise, some motivation is physical -- the need to cut something, while some motivation is social -- the need to produce tools that resemble the group's tradition, or that carry forward the signature of a teacher, for example.

Without social motivations to maintain a tradition, individuals may have no particular reason to be receptive to the information that would allow the replication -- information concerning stereotypical reduction sequences and their outcomes. Physical motivations alone -- the need to cut something -- require relatively little in the way of social information.

In a statistical analogy, the Lower Paleolithic may usually be interpreted beyond the number of degrees of freedom it actually presents. Bifaces, core tools, and flakes made on different raw materials and with different reduction modes are not necessarily evidence of complexity. Certainly a modern-day knapper asked to recreate each of the many combinations of tools and mode in an assemblage would have a complex task ahead of him. But thirty novice knappers asked to make each of several tools and given time to work with the materials would very likely come up with many different methods. In essence, our analyses might like to make some conclusion about "complexity", perhaps for interpreting cognitive prowess, but "complexity" is simply not a parameter relevant to the assemblages

The Middle and Upper Paleolithic expresses some strong differences in tool types and manufacturing techniques across assemblages, along with greater within-assemblage consistency in technique. These two observations -- variability between and consistency within -- are sides of the same coin, since consistent differences between samples are impossible without consistent similarities within samples. They both arose because individuals were making more use of social information sources as they learned to make and use tools. Traditions are necessarily less recognizable when individuals acquire and use less social information in tool manufacture. Thus, more social information must lead to more recognizable and distinctive industries.

Continuing the statistical analogy, the later industries present more degrees of freedom. There is more information to be explained in their production techniques, and the techniques themselves explain more about the lifeways and cognition of the makers. But what is to be learned is not mainly spatial or technical abilities, but instead attention to social information and motivations for maintaining social traditions.

The point to the analogy is that the earlier tool traditions can say little about cultural systems, because the people show little evidence of having attended to cultural information in the context of tool manufacture. Even among chimpanzees, tool manufacture requires some cultural information -- observing other individuals using tools, for example -- and early humans must have had more social information about tool manufacture than this.

And some aspects of early human tool manufacture do reflect social information. For example, raw material utilization clearly varies among sites:

Figures 2 and 3 list the major tool types with the raw materials of which they were most frequently made (as can be seen in this inventory, the bifaces represent but one of several production sequences encountered at the site). Similar associations of specific kinds of raw material with specific tool types have been repeatedly identified elsewhere, especially in East Africa (Feblot-Augustins 1990 and references therein). In our opinion, these associations, which were found to be spatially and temporally transgressive at Ubeidiya, clearly attest to a continuous and effective process of information transmission. Such preference for certain selected raw materials within a given assemblage is a distinctive feature of the Acheulean, and can be viewed as indicating awareness of one or more of the following environmental potential, lithological properties or procurement logistics. Interestingly, the relative frequency of certain tool types does not seem to have been affected by the degree of availability of specific raw materials. Thus, while the scarcity at the site of limestone, for example, does not seem to have deterred the production of limestone spheroids and sub-spheroids, the abundance of basalt pebbles did not result in a higher production rate of basalt bifaces (ibid.: 150).

But the use of social information did not dominate early tool manufacture. This means that the same functional items may have been repeatedly reinvented independently. A diversity of forms and methods reflects the primary use of nonsocial information in the learning and production of tools. Each individual worked with stone, probably upon observing others do so and use the tools that resulted. But they did not attend to the specific procedures used by other individuals, at least not beyond a point. Instead, each individual discovered much about flaking techniques and the physical properties of stone by himself (or herself). That repeated trial-and-error learning spread across many individuals explains the variation in reduction sequence in early tool traditions, the relative simplicity of end results, the use of a similar range of procedures on multiple raw materials, and the widespread lack of interregional or local variations. Some variations did exist and were persistent (i.e., East Asian lack of handaxes, woodland vs. nonwoodland in Europe). These may have reflected functional considerations oor persistent and widespread differences in raw materials (i.e. bamboo). But the East Asian case in particular begs for a solution that involves social as well as functional considerations, since bifaces to occasionally occur and might presumably have been useful for a range of functions that bamboo and simple choppers and flakes could not manage.

In this case, there is some reason to see the biface not only as a functional implement but as an icon of its own manufacture. Social information is present in the form of the biface itself, to the extent that it is clearly recognizable as a product of human manufacture. A person might discover the way to replicate a biface, and even the motivation to do so if recurrently exposed to the shape and manufacture of them. Thus, the Achuelean tradition carries persistent social information, even if the ability of individuals to incorporate this social information was limited to the end product and basic fact of manufacture.

It is tempting to interpret uniformity as requiring the repeated emphasis of certain kinds of information. But this interpretation assumes a human context in which many other kinds of social information are easily received and compete for attention. Students put their names repeatedly on assignments because of long reinforcement and adverse consequences for failure. This piece of information is emphasized to drown out the noise of other social information.

But standardization and uniformity may equally be the result of limits to information transfer. We may imagine a society in which the only information that can be written is a name. In this context, it would be no mystery why there should be many objects that have names on them -- indeed, it is the only possible outcome. The biface may have emerged from a society much more like this one -- it was repeated because of the lack of other information, not because of a persistent reinforcement.

As an aside, individuals who use lots of social information in their toolmaking procedures -- essentially, who learn to make tools by observing the precise steps that others use to make tools -- may not always imply that groups will arrive at different toolmaking traditions. There may be, after all, one best way to make tools, and different groups may arrive at similar methods semi-independently. But the observation that later technologies appear to become more consistent in their use of reduction sequences is strong evidence for the greater employment of social information irrespective of the appearance of regional or local variations. These variations may be a welcome confirmation of the model, but the degree of such variations cannot be predicted from it.


Belfer-Cohen A, Goren-Inbar N. 1994. Cognition and communication in the Levantine Lower Paleolithic. World Archaeol 26:144-157.

Noble W, Davidson I. 1996. Human evolution, language and mind. Cambridge University Press, Cambridge UK. Amazon