Mountaineering or Ratcheting? Stone Age Hunting Weapons as Proxy for the Evolution of Human Technological, Behavioral and Cognitive Flexibility

  • Marlize Lombard
Part of the Vertebrate Paleobiology and Paleoanthropology book series (VERT)


Cultural, behavioral and cognitive evolution is often seen as cumulative and sometimes referred to in terms of a ratchet or the ratchet effect. In this contribution, I assess the value of the ratchet analogy as blanket explanation for the above aspects of human evolution. I use Stone Age weapon technologies as proxy for the evolution of human technological, behavioral and cognitive flexibility, and by doing so show that the ratchet analogy falls short of explaining human variability and complexity as reflected in the Stone Age archaeological record. Considering human cultural, behavioral and cognitive evolution from a theoretically constructed rugged landscape point of view, I suggest that mountaineering may be a more suitable analogy for the accumulation of human culture. In this scenario, culture and technology anchor societies within their respective evolutionary trajectories and fitness landscapes, and it more accurately reflects humans as ‘masters of flexibility’.


Projectile technology Bow-and-arrow Spear Spearthrower-and-dart Cumulative culture Cognition Fitness landscapes 



I thank the ROCEEH group for the invitation and funding to participate in this discussion, and colleagues and friends who took the time to comment on the draft manuscript. My research is funded by the African Origins Platform of the National Research Foundation of South Africa. Opinions and mistakes remain my own.


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Copyright information

© Springer Science+Business Media Dordrecht 2016

Authors and Affiliations

  1. 1.Department of Anthropology and Development StudiesUniversity of JohannesburgAuckland Park 2006South Africa
  2. 2.Wallenberg Research Centre, Stellenbosch Institute for Advanced Study (STIAS)Stellenbosch UniversityStellenboschSouth Africa

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