May 9, 2017

Stone Age humans 'may have been budding musicians with piano-playing capabilities'

Scientific study has shown that the brain circuits that led to two-sided tools were the same as those activated when playing a piano.

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Ancient humans who took a leap forward in stone tool technology 1.75 million years ago may have been budding musicians – according to new research.

But before you conjure up an image of a Stone-Age human playing classical music on the piano, let's just say that wasn't really the case.

The study, which was conducted by British and US scientists, showed that the brain circuits that led to two-sided tools and weapons such as hand-axes and cleavers were the same as those activated when playing a piano. Which means, if there was a piano in sight, ancient humans would possibly have learnt how to play it.

The switch from simple flake and pebble technology known as "Oldowan" to more sophisticated "Acheulian" tool know-how is considered a hugely important step in human evolution.

To investigate what brought about the change, scientists conducted brain scans of volunteers as they learned to make Oldowan and Acheulian tools.

They found that Acheulian tool manufacture required a combination of visual memory, hearing, movement awareness and action-planning – all essential ingredients of being a musician.

Professor John Spencer, from the University of East Anglia, said: "Our findings do not neatly overlap with prior claims that language and stone tool production co-evolved. There is more support for the idea that working memory and auditory-visual integration networks laid the foundation for advances in stone tool-making.

"It is fascinating that these same brain networks today allow modern humans to perform such behaviours as skilfully playing a musical instrument."

People living 1.75 million years ago had not yet developed any kind of sophisticated language, so the evolution of language circuits in the brain is not thought to have helped them upgrade to Acheulian tools.

The study used an advanced form of brain scan called functional near-infrared spectroscopy (fNIRS) to track the volunteers' neural activity in real time.

Fifteen of the 31 participants learned to knap stone by watching videos accompanied by verbal instruction. The other 16 acquired the skill using the same videos, but with the sound turned off.

Study leader Dr Shelby Putt, from the Stone Age Institute in Indianapolis, US, said: "This work offers novel insights into prehistoric cognition using a cutting-edge neuro-imaging technique that allows people to engage in complex actions while we are measuring localised brain activity.

"The study reveals key brain networks that might underlie the shift towards more human-like intelligence around 1.75 million years ago. We think this marked a turning point in the evolution of the human brain, leading to the evolution of a new species of human."

The study is published in the journal Nature Human Behaviour

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