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Research project

John McNabb - Hominin Landscape Use in ESA Isimila, Tanzania

  • Lead researcher:
  • Research funder:
    Society Of Antiquaries Of London
  • Status:
    Not active


Lead researcher

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?

Research outputs

E. Schuelein,
A Wagner,
S Willems,
& J Steelant
, 2014 , Journal of Fluid Mechanics , 752 , 1--33
Type: article
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