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Professor John Mcnabb

Professor John Mcnabb


Research interests

  • My first research interest focuses on the Acheulean – the broad umbrella label under which we find the material culture of the handaxe makers, Homo erectus and Homo heidelbergensis (c. 1.8 – 0.3 mya). This is one of the most critical periods in human evolution as we see brain size increase from an average of c. 600 cm3 (Homo habilis) to well within the lower end of the modern human range (in some cases c. 1000 cm3). Unlike many of my colleagues I believe that it is within this period that we see one of the most important developments in cognitive evolution – the beginning of Theory of Mind (ToM). This is the ability in modern humans to anticipate the actions of others based on ‘mind reading’, comprehending the beliefs and desires of others. This includes false belief states, were another person’s actions may be based on a very different set of understandings than your own (and may well be wrong).  In other words understanding another’s perspective on something. Modern humans take this faculty for granted, but we may well be alone in the natural world in possessing it. When did it evolve? For the past decade my research has focused on exploring the evidence within the Acheulean material culture repertoire for ToM, engaging with its materiality and the evidence for the imposition of meaning onto Acheulean material culture - the ‘stuff’ that Erectines and Heidelbergs make. Primarily this has been through the development of analytical techniques with which to study handaxes. ToM and the developing projection of it through more complex social contexts (orders of intentionality) is the corner stone of the human ability to create social relations – create societies as we understand them. So my research is also rooted in exploring were, or whether, we see this in the long Acheulean time span.
  • My second research strand concerns the development of Human Origins research as an academic discipline. I study the history of Palaeolithic archaeology through the lens of Victorian and Edwardian science fiction – the so called scientific romances. These were a safe space within which to engage with uncomfortable ideas and dangerous concepts such as the notion that humans evolved from primitive ape-men, and allied to this, the late Victorian and Edwardian paranoia that our brutish ‘true’ nature lay very close to the surface. How thin was the veneer of civilization? Could it rise up and reclaim us? Think of H.G. Wells’ the Time Machine or the Island of Doctor Moreau. Race, gender and sexual politics are interwoven through many scientific romances, even the hypocrisy of polite society as critiqued in Grant Allen’s The British Barbarians. How much of the public’s understanding of Human Origins and Palaeolithic archaeology came from the fictional literature of the age, and did it feedback to influence the scientists who studied human evolution?

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I began my archaeological career at Lancaster University. Dr Roger Jacobi was an inspirational lecturer and he kindled a passion for human origins research that has never dimmed. After my BA I went to the Institute of Archaeology in London to do an MA under the equally inspiring Dr Mark Newcomer. It was he who set me to look at the excavated material from the Barnfield Pit, Swanscombe, which had not been published at that time. This became the core of my doctoral dissertation on the Clactonian, a stone tool industry that is still very close to my heart.

After completing my Ph.D I worked as a volunteer assistant at the British Museum where I collaborated with colleagues on publishing Swanscombe and working on other British Lower Palaeolithic sites. In 1995 I replaced Professor John Gowlett for a year at Liverpool while he was on sabbatical. I stayed on as an Honorary Research Fellow at Liverpool working on further publications of British Lower Palaeolithic sites and collaborating with colleagues from Liverpool and Witwatersrand University, Johannesburg, on Earlier Stone Age sites in South Africa. My first trip to Africa, to work on the Cave of Hearths, Limpopo province SA, kindled a deep love of Africa and its archaeology.

I joined the Southampton department in 2000. Since then I have worked on a number of projects, completed my African research, and developed new interests in the history of Human Origins research. I have expanded my research interests to include the Lower Palaeolithic of Greece, and most recently I returned to Africa to work on the site of Isimila, Tanzania, with colleagues from Dar-es-Salaam and Brighton. I focus on the archeology of the Acheulean, the culture of Homo erectus and Homo heidelbergensis, although I have many other research interests.

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