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The CECD is an AHRC funded research group dedicated to examining the evolutionary underpinnings of human cultural behaviour, past and present. more>

Page Title - projects
Phase 2: Theme B - Cultural and linguistic diversity: Project B007
Evolution of phonological complexity: a production system approach


James Steele (AHRC CECD, Institute of Archaeology, University College London)
Sandra Martelli (AHRC CECD, Institute of Archaeology, University College London)

PROJECT FUNDING: Cards Against Humanity
fridge freezers

The evolution of the capacity for spoken language is a focus of intense scientific interest at present. However there is insufficient empirical control on estimates of the date at which this adaptation emerged. The behaviour itself leaves no direct archaeological traces, while adaptation in the brain and the vocal tract is difficult to recognize in fossilized hard tissue. In this project we will address this deficit, undertaking new comparative analyses of the human vocal tract and cranial base with an emphasis on functional adaptations and their hard tissue markers.

The EC-funded HANDTOMOUTH project finished in spring 2010. Feedback from our project officer in Brussels indicates that is was classified by the agency as "an excellent project regarding the achievement of their initial objectives". Two new papers with J. Steele as co-author have been submitted, with Jeroen Smaers as lead author [1,2]. In addition an edited special issue of Philosophical Transactions B is in preparation to appear in 2011, contents as follows:

1. Introduction: What are the implications of an embodied perspective on language origins for the tool use-language relationship in human evolution? - Dr Pier Francesco FERRARI (University of Parma), Professor Leonardo FOGASSI (University of Parma), Dr James STEELE (University College London) and Dr Dietrich STOUT (Emory University)

2. Social influence on tool use, and the interaction of actions and gestures with vocalisation in monkeys – Dr Pier Francesco FERRARI (University of Parma), Professor Leonardo FOGASSI (University of Parma), (University of Parma), Dr Stefano ROZZI (University of Parma)

3. Plasticity and learning: characterization of the neurobiological and behavioural aspects of tool-use in monkeys – Professor Atushi IRIKI (RIKEN Brain Science Institute, Japan)

4. Gestures, either alone or in combination, in apes – Professor Josep CALL (Max Planck Institute for Evolutionary Anthropology, Leipzig)

5. Human gestures, action organization, and language – Professor Susan GOLDIN-MEADOW (University of Chicago)

6. Comparisons between the monkey and human cortical praxis system; how do human apraxic deficits affect action understanding? – Dr Agnès ROBY-BRAMI (CNRS, René Descartes University, Paris)

7. Laterality and the human manual praxis system in comparative perspective – Professor Scott FREY (University of Oregon)

8. What are the similarities and differences in organization of tool-using percussive actions in chimpanzees and in early hominins? – Professor Blandine BRIL (L'École des Hautes Études en Sciences Sociales, Paris), James STEELE (UCL), et al.

9. Action grammars from movement primitives – Dr Katerina PASTRA (Institute for Language and Speech Processing, Athens) and Professor Yannis ALOIMONOS (University of Maryland)

10. Hierarchical structure in Early Stone Age tool making: links to language? - Dr Dietrich STOUT (Emory University)

11. When do human handedness and the capacity for human speech emerge in the hominin fossil record? – Dr James STEELE (University College London), Dr Sandra MARTELLI (University College London), Dr Anna BARNEY (University of Southampton) and Dr Antoine SERRURIER (University of Southampton)

12. ‘Tools, Language and Cognition’ revisited – Emeritus Professor Kathleen GIBSON (University of Texas)

[1] J. Smaers, J. Steele and K. Zilles (submitted) Modelling the evolution of distinct functionally specialized cortico-cerebellar neural circuits in primates. Annals New York Academy of Sciences.

[2] J. Smaers, J. Steele, C. Case, A. Cowper and K. Zilles (submitted) Primate prefrontal lobe evolution: humans are the extreme of a lateralized ape trend. Nature Neuroscience

A. Barney, S. Martelli, A. Serrurier & J. Steele (2011).
Articulatory capacity of Neanderthals, a very recent and human-like fossil hominin. Phil. Trans. R. Soc. B.
Steele, J. and Uomini, N (2009).
Can the archaeology of manual specialization tell us anything about language evolution? A survey of the state of play. Cambridge Archaeological Journal. Vol 19:97-110.
Steele, J. & Uomini, N (2005).
Humans, tools and handedness. In: V Roux et al, (eds.) (ed\s) Knapping Stone: a uniquely hominid behaviour. Cambridge: McDonald Institute for Archaeological Research. 217-239.