Teaching and complex tools evolved together in humans, study says

The ability of ancient humans to master tools coincided with their ability to teach others, a new study says.

UK researchers conducted experiments designed to replicate the evolution of human-made tools over several hundred years with pipe cleaners and bits of paper.  

The experts found that participants who taught each other made the most rapid progress, compared with those who had to merely imitate others or learn by themselves.  

The improvement of technologies and tools across generations, known as 'cumulative cultural evolution' (CCE), has been key to our success as a species.

But the origins of CCE, which have led to world-changing inventions such as the internet, aviation and human spaceflight, are difficult to trace. 

Once humans invented teaching, we likely made the first steps towards humanity developing the incredible modern-day technologies we know today, researchers suggest. 

What we now know as CCE was alluded to by English physicist Isaac Newton – a prominent figure of the scientific revolution of the 17th century – when he famously said: 'If I have seen further it is by standing on the shoulders of giants.' 

UK researchers conducted experiments designed to replicate the evolution of human-made tools over several hundred years with pipe cleaners and bits of paper. Pictured, 10 versions of tools developing (left to right) in different study conditions

UK researchers conducted experiments designed to replicate the evolution of human-made tools over several hundred years with pipe cleaners and bits of paper. Pictured, 10 versions of tools developing (left to right) in different study conditions

CCE AND SIR ISAAC NEWTON

Cumulative cultural evolution (CCE) is the social-learning process through which adaptive modifications accumulate over historical time. 

CCE involves sequential improvements in the performance of an innovation over successive rounds of cultural transmission. 

It's recognised as a powerful evolutionary force and has allowed technological inventions to exist. 

CCE was alluded to by English physicist Isaac Newton – a prominent figure of the scientific revolution of the 17th century – when he famously said: 'If I have seen further it is by standing on the shoulders of giants.' 

Newton meant that he was able to build on generations of research by those that came before him to make his achievements – including discovering the the laws of gravity and motion – even possible. 

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This new study suggests that, as early humans developed more complex tools, natural selection began to favour those with the brains to be able to teach others. 

'Humans have an unrivalled ability to pass knowledge down the generations,' said study author Dr Alex Thornton at the the University of Exeter.

'Traditional theories assumed that CCE requires specialised processes, like teaching, to transmit information accurately, but this cannot explain why these processes evolved in the first place.

'Our aim in this study was to test the hypothesis that these processes gradually co-evolved with an increasing reliance on complex tools.' 

As part of the study, researchers recruited 600

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