My hand axe

By today’s date, around 1.3 million years ago, Acheulean tools are well developed in Africa, and found in India too. Sophisticated tools like the Acheulean hand axe probably tell us something not just about cognition in relation to tool making, but also about social cognition. You wouldn’t make a hand axe, use it, and abandon it. Nor would you go to all the trouble if the biggest, baddest guy in the group was immediately going to grab it from you. So there is probably some notion of artifacts-as-personal-possessions by the time Acheulean appears.

Possession is a social relationship, a relationship between two or more individuals with respect to the thing possessed. Robinson Crusoe didn’t “own” anything on his island before Friday came along.

Linguists have noted something interesting about the language of possession that maybe tells us something about the psychology of possession: Expressions for possession are often similar to expressions for spatial locations. Compare spatial locations;

Joao went to Recife.
Chico stayed in Rio.
The gang kept Zezinho in Curitiba.

and corresponding constructions for possessions

The Crampden estate went to Reginald.
The Hampden estate stayed with Lionel.
Thag kept axe.

In some cases just switching from inanimate to animate will switch the meaning from locative to possessive. The Russian preposition y means at/near when applied to a place (People are at Nevsky street) but possession when applied to a person (Hat is “at” Ivan = Ivan has hat.)

What may be going on here: people (and many other creatures) have some mental machinery for thinking about physical space. That machinery gets retooled/borrowed/exapted for thinking about more abstract relationships. The cognitive psychology of space gets retooled for thinking about other abstract relationships too: close and distant kin, time ahead and behind. (You can find Steve Pinker making this argument in The Stuff of Thought.) In other words, we may be seeing a common evolutionary phenomenon of organs evolved for one purpose being put to another purpose – reptile jaw bones evolve into mammalian inner ear bones, dinosaur forelimbs evolve into bird wings. We’ll see other possible examples, involving e.g. the evolution of speech sounds, as we move along.


3 thoughts on “My hand axe

  1. Pingback: Hits, slides, and rings | Logarithmic History

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