Archive for the 'Cognition and behaviour' Category

What makes us humans

Hands (Leonardo)The Journal of Anthropological Sciences is now publishing the papers from the meeting “What Made Us Humans“, that took place in Erice on October 2014. The volume is edited by Telmo Pievani, Stefano Parmigiani and Ian Tattersall, and it includes contributions by Thomas Plummer, Dean Falk, Philip Lieberman, Jeffrey Schwartz, William Harcourt Smith, and many others. There is a section on brain and cognition, in which we publish a review on visuospatial functions and fossils. In this paper we discuss topics in extended cognition and embodiment, presenting the available sources of information from fossil anatomy: brain morphology, manipulative behaviors, and hand evolution. Modern humans displayed changes in all these traits, suggesting that differences in visuospatial integration processes may have been associated with changes of the embodying capacity, leading to derived and probably specialized relationships between brain, body, and environment. This article is a further reference on visuospatial integration and cognitive archaeology. All papers from this JASs volume are, as usually, free to download.

Visuospatial evolution

Descartes - Meditations metaphysiques 1641Visuospatial integration is essential in handling, tooling, simulation, and many specific tasks which are supposed to be crucial for human evolution. However, it may be even more important for theories on extended cognition, taking into account the relevance in coordinating the relationships among brain, body, and environment. This is something directly associated with concepts like embodiment, material engagement, and brain-artefact interface. And this is pretty intriguing when considering that the upper and medial parietal areas, which are major functional nodes of visuospatial integration, show a remarkable enlargement only in Homo sapiens. Together with Atsushi Iriki (Riken Brain Institute), we have now published a review trying to interlace all these issues: Extending mind, visuospatial integration, and the evolution of the parietal lobes in the human genus. We have tried to integrate topics in neurobiology, paleoneurology, cognitive archaeology, and comparative primatology, to understand why and how visuospatial integration may have been important, in our genus and in our species, for enhancing material engagement and embodying capacities. This article will be part of an issue of Quaternary International dedicated to the importance of “Material dimensions of cognition”. At the same time, the Journal of Anthropological Sciences is now publishing a second forum on the “three hands” of the Neandertals. The hypothesis of a mismatch between visuospatial functions and cultural complexity in this human species is further discussed with comments by Leee Overmann, Enza Spinapolice, Joseba Rios Garaizar, Ariane Burke, Carlos Lorenzo, and Duilio Garofoli. All the papers of the forum are free to download.

Human Paleoneurology

Human Paleoneurology 2014The book “Human Paleoneurology” is now available on the website of the Springer Series in Bio-/Neuroinformatics. There is an introduction by Ralph Holloway, evidencing some open questions on endocasts. Laura Reyes and Chet Sherwood discuss current issues in evolutionary neuroscience. Philipp Gunz talks about computed methods and digital tools used to reconstruct and compare brain forms. I present a review in functional craniology, namely on the structural relationships between brain and braincase. Simon Neubauer focuses on brain evolution in ontogeny and phylogeny, dealing with the variations in brain size and shape. Natalie Uomini provides an archaeological perspective on behaviour. Erin Hecht and Dietrich Stout supply a detailed description of methods and topics in neuroarchaeology. Fred Coolidge, Tom Wynn, Leee Overmann and Jim Hicks present an overview in cognitive archaeology. A set of images by José Manuel de la Cuétara shows cranial and endocranial digital reconstructions of living apes and extinct hominids. Here a list of chapters and authors. This is a comprehensive collection of papers useful for anyone interested in approaching this field, good for teaching and helpful to present the current state-of-the-art of this discipline.

Three hands for the Neandertals

Lozano et al 2008Together with Marina Lozano (IPHES), this week we have published a JASs Forum on a speculative hypothesis concerning the use of the mouth in support to praxis and handling in Neandertals and their ancestors, as evidenced through the analysis of their dental marks. This behaviour, very common in Homo neanderthalensis and Homo heidelbergensis, is not so frequent in modern hunter-gatherer. According to the theory of extended mind, cognition is the result of the interaction between brain and environment as mediated by the experience of the body. The main “ports” of such interface are the eye (input, from the world to the brain) and the hand (output, from the brain to the world). Modern human brain displays a peculiar dilation of the deep parietal areas, which are particularly involved in visuo-spatial integration, which includes the management of the eye-hand system, the integration with memory, and the integration with frontal executive functions. Hence, we suggest that the necessity of a further additional element (the mouth) may be necessary when the standard anatomical elements are not sufficient to integrate the body relationships with the cultural complexity. A mismatch between the biological substrate (neural system/body interface) and cultural substrate (complex tools and behaviours) could have been the backstage of a risky involvement: the mouth as integrative body support. The investment is not safe, considering the importance of the mouth in different and relevant functions, and it sounds like an extreme solution. Neandertals do not show a similar enlargement of the parietal areas, when compared with Homo sapiens. Although we ignore the exact relationship between brain form and function, the fact that these areas are crucial for visuo-spatial integration is, at least, intriguing. Needless to say, a possible mismatch between neural and cultural systems in Neandertals should not be interpreted as an “intermediate” condition between archaic and modern forms, but else as a lack of proper coordination associated, as far as we know, with an evolutionary blind alley.

The hypothesis has been commented by Lambros Malafouris, Marco Langbroek, Thomas Wynn, Fred Coolidge, and Manuel Martin-Loeches. Next issues to be considered: details of the hand anatomy and hand management, early modern humans associated with Mousterian tools, and functional behaviours in those modern populations that use mouth and teeth for praxis. Hypotheses in cognitive archaeology are necessarily speculative. But we can try nonetheless to supply multidisciplinary evidence to integrate paleoneurological and archaeological data, providing at least a logical framework. In this case the next step is clear: to evaluate further this hypothesis we have to investigate more visuo-spatial behaviours in these extinct forms.

[You can download here the whole forum]

Dynamics of learning

Dynamics of Learning 2014The talks from the Tokyo meeting on learning processes in Neanderthals and modern humans are now published in two books by Springer. The first volume is on cultural perspectives, the second volume is on cognitive and physical perspectives. Cultural anthropologists, paleontologists, archaeologists, sociologists, medical doctors, and psychologists collaborate in a joint project coordinated by several Japanese universities and research institutions (like the Kochi University of Technology and the Keio University) to evaluate whether differences in learning abilities may have influenced the competition between modern humans and Neanderthals. In volume two there is a review of mine on Neanderthals’ paleoneurology, presenting the current information we have on the anatomical and morphological endocranial changes associated with the Neanderthal lineage. The paper evidences structural constraints and functional limits which may have characterized the spatial organization of the Neanderthal braincase.

What made us human?

Photo by Steve McCurryThe International School of Ethology presents a new meeting, entitled “What made us human? Biological and cultural evolution in Homo sapiens“. The meeting will be held at Erice, Sicily, on October 15-18, 2014. A web page is available with program and updating information. The main topic will be the evolution of cognitively modern behaviour. The meeting is directed by Stefano Parmigiani, Telmo Pievani, and Ian Tattersall, and it will include talks in cognitive sciences, paleontology, archaeology, neurobiology, linguistics, genetics, medicine, and psychology, with a large list of speakers.  Registration is now open, have a look!

Language and hybrids

JASs2013 (cover)


We have published the new volume of the Journal of Anthropological Sciences (JASs 2013). It includes many papers on evolution and cognition, mainly on language. The volume  includes reviews on biolinguistics, language evolution, and reproductive isolation in Neandertals. There is a whole forum dedicated to language and hybridization in human evolution, with nine articles discussing issues in paleogenomics. Papers are, as usually, free to download.

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