Learning to Be Human

Learning To Be Human was a Leverhulme Trust funded research project that was designed to investigate the relationship between developing flintknapping skill, cognition and language in hominins.  Students were trained in knapping and their developing skills were tracked over a period of 30 months.  Six underwent fMRI brain scans before any knapping and had  additional scans in November 2011 and again after the training was finished in September 2012.  The goal was not to try to simulate ancient learning but to have the learners get as good at knapping as they could while we monitored skill acquisition and changes in brain activity.  I was the Principal investigator with Co-investigators Dietrich Stout (Emory University, Atlanta) and James Steele (University College London). There were two PhD students in the project; Nada Khreisheh who monitored knapping learning (Exeter) and Stuart Page (University College London) who undertook transmission chain experiments . We also worked with colleagues at Imperial College London (Dr. Aldo Faisal) on knapping gestures and Thierry Chaminade (Univeristy of Marsaille) who collaborated with Dietz on the fMRI scans.


The core knapping group of 8 students, Nada, a project assistant (Antony Whittlock) and another of my PhD students (TomWilliams) spent the month of April at the Gault Site in central Texas. This was made possible through the project grant (Leverhulme Trust) and sponsorship of several long-time supporters of my research through the Gault School of Archaeological Research. We spent the month working in the excavation and lab as well as knapping. Everybody greatly increased their abilities and we produced an amazing pile of ‘debitage’. We then spent 2 weeks in Moesgaard, Denmark in September 2011 studying Neolithic artifacts and focusing on biface and square axe technologies. This really expanded all of our knapping horizons. Another intensive training session occurred the next spring in Les Eyzies, France where we  studied Upper Palaeolithic technologies, focusing on Solutrean biface thinning and general Upper Palaeolithic blade technologies.

This project was very enlightening and resulted in a number of highly cited articles and a dissertation.

Knapping Skill Assessment

Virtual dissection and comparative connectivity of the superior longitudinal fasciculus in chimpanzees and humans

Acquisition of Paleolithic toolmaking abilities involves structural remodeling to inferior frontoparietal regions

Extending Experimental Control: The Use of Porcelain in Flaked Stone Experimentation

The Manipulative Complexity of Lower Paleolithic Stone Toolmaking

While not directly related to this project, I was collaborating on other flaked stone studies that resulted in publications including:

Experimental Evaluation of the Levallois “Core Shape Maintenance” Hypothesis

Middle Paleolithic Skill Level and the Individual Knapper: An Experiment