My handaxe

1.23-1.17 million years ago

By today’s date, 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 expressions:

João went to Recife.
Chico stayed in Rio.
The gang kept Zezinho in Salvador.

and corresponding constructions for possessions:

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

Of course the Crampden estate didn’t go anywhere in physical space, but it still traveled in the abstract social space of possession. In some cases just switching from inanimate to animate subject 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. So the cognitive psychology of space gets retooled for thinking about close and distant social relationships, or time ahead and behind. 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. You can find Steve Pinker making this argument in his book The Stuff of Thought. And Barbara Tversky’s just-published Mind in Motion: How Action Shapes Thought seems to make the argument at greater length; I’m looking forward to reading it. For a while most of the evidence of repurposing spatial cognition for more abstract relationships came from linguistics, but there’s now some corroboration from neurology.

And I’ve made the argument for the particular case of kinship: regularities in kin terminology across cultures tell us something about pan-human ideas of “kinship space.” (My kin and mybody parts are arguably the most basic, intrinsic primitive sorts of possessions, since long before my handaxe.) This implies that the evolutionary psychology of kinship has not just an adaptive component (adaptations for calculating coefficients of relatedness and inbreeding), but also a phylogenetic component  (homologies with the cognitive psychology of space).

We’ll see other possible examples, involving e.g. the evolution of speech sounds, as we move along.

4 thoughts on “My handaxe

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  2. Peter T

    Linguistic kinship is also fictive kinship. I’ve wondered if this ties to language – the smallest number needed to keep a language going seems to be at least one thousand, and many forager groups use fictive kinship categories to tie more distant kin (or non-kin) more closely than actual kin (as in “all men of the red wallaby moiety have the obligations of brothers to each other” – with moiety assigned in ways that do not align with actual kinship). Language implies a lot of inter-band contact and cooperation.


    1. logarithmichistory Post author

      Good comment.

      Both property (“my hand axe”) and kinship {“my sister”) belong to the field of possession, in which people are located with regard to their possessions in an abstract space, even when they’re not close in physical space. Kinship is complicated though, because it has a complex combinatorial structure, a kind of “grammar,” that looks like grammar in other areas of language. Here’s me on the grammar of kinship: . You’re right that human kinship is about more than just biological relatedness. It’s also about laying down social norms that allow people, including foragers, to cooperate on a more extensive scale than other primates, and maybe to extend “socially enforced nepotism” even to relatively distant kin. (On socially enforced nepotism, here’s me again: .)


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