Stone Age Institute, IU Cognitive Science Program awarded $3.2M to study human cognitive evolution

  • March 28, 2016


BLOOMINGTON, Ind. -- The Stone Age Institute -- in partnership with Indiana University’s Cognitive Science Program and prehistoric archaeological research projects in Tanzania, the Republic of Georgia and China -- has received a $3.2 million, three-year grant from the John Templeton Foundation, one of the largest ever awarded for human origins research.

The grant, titled “What Drives Human Cognitive Evolution?” will critically examine and explore the prehistoric evidence for fossil human brain expansion; the associated behavioral, technological and adaptive patterns in the archaeological record; and the implications for how cognition evolved.

The five project leaders, all Indiana University faculty and members of the university’s Cognitive Science Program, are Kathy Schick, Nicholas Toth, Colin Allen, Tom Schoenemann and Peter Todd.

Schick and Toth are founders and co-directors of the Stone Age Institute, an independent nonprofit center for human evolutionary studies in Bloomington. Allen is Provost Professor of history and philosophy of science and medicine; Schoenemann is an associate professor of anthropology; and Todd is Provost Professor of psychological and brain sciences and director of the Cognitive Science Program.

“This is a unique opportunity to address the question of what drives human cognitive evolution with a strong international component and a strong multidisciplinary component as well,” Toth said.

The grant will help establish a strong focus on evolution of human cognition within the Cognitive Science Program, provide three graduate fellowships and create a distinguished visiting scholars program. It will also fund experimental research, using functional magnetic resonance imaging, into patterns of thought and brain activity involved in tasks related to stone tool-making, language and search for resources; and support the study of fossil brain endocasts, which are casts of fossil skull brain-cases that reveal features of prehistoric brain anatomy.

“A key component of studying cognitive science, and one that is too often forgotten, is exploring what various aspects of cognition are for -- what problems did cognition help our ancestors to solve?” Todd said. “This grant lets us do exactly that, uncovering the evolved cognitive mechanisms that help us tackle central human problems including making tools, constructing sentences, finding information and learning from experts.”

The grant will fund a collaboration of the Stone Age Institute in important archaeological field work at famous prehistoric localities on three continents:

  • Olduvai Gorge in Tanzania, dubbed the “Cradle of Humankind”
  • Dmanisi in the Republic of Georgia, site of the first evidence of fossil hominins outside of Africa
  • The Nihewan Basin in China, called the “Olduvai Gorge of East Asia”

Each of these prehistoric localities has archaeological sites dating to between 2 million and 1 million years ago, a critical time period that documents the first significant expansion and probable reorganization of the early hominin brain. The time period also documents the transition between earlier prehistoric representatives of the genus Homo associated with very simple stone tools into the even larger-brained human ancestral form, Homo erectus.

Over the three years, there will be four international workshops -- in Tanzania, Republic of Georgia, China and the United States. Participants from each country will come together to discuss theoretical and methodological approaches, examine prehistoric materials (stone tools, fossil hominins, associated animal bones, etc.) and visit archaeological sites. This interaction is designed to create productive synergies and cross-fertilization of ideas among prehistorians from these countries and the grant’s project leaders.

“Findings will provide a valuable focus on the critical early periods of human cognitive expansion,” Schick said. “They also will pave the way for future research.”

Funding will also support science education in Tanzania, Georgia and China, including teacher training, student field trips to museums and archaeological sites, and enhancement of collections and museum exhibits in these countries. In addition, the grant will fund the creation of an educational website on human cognitive evolution as well as the production of an edited volume on the subject.

Comments from other investigators:

Colin Allen: “The question ‘Where did we come from?’ is one of the oldest sources of philosophical speculation. The grant from the John Templeton Foundation supports deepened understanding of human cognitive prehistory by increasing the types of evidence, and improving the ratio of evidence to speculation on this topic.”

Tom Schoenemann: “The evolution of human cognition is arguably one of the most important transitions in the history of life. Unraveling the mystery of how this happened is of profound interest, and this grant makes possible a diverse array research projects and synergy among researchers here at IU. It is gratifying to be a part of this.”

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Principal investigators for a John Templeton Foundation grant to the Stone Age Institute and IU?s Cognitive Science Program pose around a Neanderthal skeleton. Clockwise from lower left, they are: Tom Schoenemann, Peter Todd, Colin Allen, Kathy Schick and Nicholas Toth.

Principal investigators for a John Templeton Foundation grant to the Stone Age Institute and IU?s Cognitive Science Program pose around a Neanderthal skeleton. Clockwise from lower left, they are: Tom Schoenemann, Peter Todd, Colin Allen, Kathy Schick and Nicholas Toth.

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