A white woman and african child reach out to grasp each other's hands

Evolutionary Foundations of Human Uniqueness

Eleven linked investigations of where, when, and how the human capacities for complex cognition, cumulative culture, and large-scale cooperation developed

In 2014, IHO began an ambitious research program funded by the John Templeton Foundation—a collaborative inquiry into the evolutionary foundations of human uniqueness.

Spearheaded by IHO Director William Kimbel, the $4.9 million, three-year grant, the largest of its type for human origins research, supported 11 linked investigations of where, when, and how unique human capacities for complex cognition, cumulative culture, and large-scale cooperation emerged.

The grant included $400,000 to fund a permanent state-of-the-art 2-and 3-D imaging lab at ASU and $200,000 to develop innovative new teaching and learning tools about human origins for use in primary- and secondary-school classrooms.

Read more about this grant on ASU News | Templeton Grant Description

Overview of Research Goals

The 11 projects that form the core of this 3-year funding program from the John Templeton Foundation address a wide range of scientific questions concerning the evolutionary foundations of human uniqueness.

The goal is to explain the processes leading to the emergence of the uniquely human attributes of technology, social learning, cooperation, and language and assess their indelible impacts on the planet.

They constitute an integrated program of research on the key adaptations, time periods, and environments of human origins. Drawing on the expertise and methods from a broad range of life, earth, and social science disciplines, the research program attempts to answer questions of where, when, and how unique human behavioral and cultural capacities emerged.

A central goal of the program is to test, within the context of collaboratively constructed research, predictions from recently generated theoretical propositions about human uniqueness against the empirical evidence produced in the field and laboratory. 

The research program spans more than 3 million years of evolutionary time and topics from the significance of hominin-induced bone modification in the Pliocene to how large-scale cooperative networks evolve in traditional human societies today. It comprises field research at locales in Africa, South America, and Oceania, and museum/analytical/theoretical work in Africa, Europe, and the United States.

Nine principal scientists affiliated with the Institute of Human Origins (IHO) will direct the research, but the 11 projects involve 45 external collaborators and entail 23 graduate-student years and 14 postdoctoral-scholar years of effort. This group will form a network of linked investigations characterized by close interaction among research approaches and integration of the resulting data into a coherent explanation of human uniqueness. In addition to a wide range of highly visible scholarly outputs and a final public symposium, we expect approximately half a dozen PhD projects to be seeded by the initial investments in the proposed research.

This program strongly leverages ongoing, externally funded field and analytical projects in human origins science that have formed the core of the IHO agenda for more than three decades.The organization of the research differs from the traditional model because we bring together leading researchers from disparate scientific approaches under a unifying evolutionary anthropological approach to human origins. This unifying principle enables us to integrate fields as methodologically distinct as paleoclimatic modeling and ethnography in the design, execution, and evaluation of research and the synthesis of results. The 11 thematically linked projects form a potent combination of new discovery through field research, cutting-edge analytical methods, and extended, up-close studies of living human societies. Bridging disciplines that in many institutions still inhabit formally secluded academic structures, the research, to be conducted under the umbrella of a single research institute and its international network of collaborators, is designed to shed new transdisciplinary light on the evolutionary foundations of human uniqueness.

Key Propositions

Humans experience their lives within a world of extraordinary cognitive complexity.

Modern humans view and communicate the nature of their surroundings and experiences through an intricate symbolic structure made possible by a complex, energetically expensive brain. The increasing size and complexity of the brain through time had enormous implications for anatomy, physiology, nutrition, life-history, and the sum total of knowledge that could be accumulated and communicated, including complex technology and far-reaching social networks. The fossil and archaeological records provide the best empirical records for the timing and pace of cognitive evolution.

Cultural accumulation allows humans to rapidly adapt to a wide range of changing environments using highly refined knowledge and tools.

Most organisms adapt to their environment through a combination of genetic evolution and individual learning.  Genetic evolution has favored many types of highly refined behaviors and complicated artifacts in nonhuman species, but these adaptations are employed by all individuals of the species throughout its range.

Human cultural accumulation radically amplifies the complexity of adaptations because people can learn from others. Social learning allows human populations to gradually accumulate knowledge about their environments and develop specialized artifacts that are progressively more adapted to local conditions. The ability to learn from others allows humans to create and replicate tools and artifacts that are far too complicated for individuals to invent on their own.

Humans cooperate more extensively than any other vertebrate species.

Division of labor, trade, and public works are common in human societies. The sick, hungry, and disabled are cared for, and social life is regulated by commonly held moral systems enforced, albeit imperfectly, by third-party sanctions.

These features collectively increase the efficiency of human foraging and created the foundation of group-level cooperation. In life-history terms, they favor the evolution of a short inter-birth interval, a long period of juvenile dependency, care for multiple dependent young and long life expectancy. Only humans have this unique combination of features.  In other vertebrate species, cooperation is limited to relatively small groups of relatives and there is little division of labor or trade, and no large-scale conflict.

Research projects

Two cut marks made by stone tools on the rib of a cow sized mammal
Tempelton Project 1
Project 1 uses a novel approach to the empirical study of hominin butchery—a potential sign of enhanced social learning—and other agents of bone-surface modification in the first extensive sample of middle Pliocene (3.4 Ma) fossils amassed for this purpose, through new field work in the critical but poorly known time period between 2.9 and 2.6 Ma.
Searching for evidence of early technology in Hadar, Ethiopia
Tempelton Project 2
Project 2 investigates the environmental contexts of the earliest steps by hominins toward cognitively complex behaviors and technological advances.
Fynbos biome in South Africa. Credit: Chris Eason/Wikimedia
Tempelton Project 3
Project 3 takes the link between cognition and environmental variation forward in time by probing the relationship between cognitive evolution, as read through lithic technology, and the exploitation of resources in a marginal habitat called fynbos in the middle Pleistocene of southern Africa.
Coast of South Africa
Tempelton Project 4
Project 4 uses ethnographic and experimental field data wedded to computer simulation to test the hypothesis that the high productivity of coastal habitats was critical to early modern human adaptive success in the southern African later Pleistocene, which will be examined in the field with archaeological data in Project 5.
microlithic blades, recreated
Tempelton Project 5
The archaeological data in Project 5 also directly addresses the pace of technological innovation, such as heat treatment and microlithic technology.
Fynbos environment
Tempelton Project 6
Project 6 uses experimental field observation and computer simulation to develop a paleoscape model that can predict productivity of fynbos and the conditions under which it would be exploited by hominins. The outcome of these projects will be more complete empirical documentation of exactly when and under what conditions steps were made at different stages of the human career toward novel, cognitively complex behaviors tied to technological advances in hominin resource use.
Grass homes made by local house-building experts
Tempelton Project 7
The pace of technological change is a subject of Project 7, which uses theoretical and ethnographic studies to investigate how demographic factors, such as population size and connectedness, influence the adoption and transmission of complex technology. The outcome of these projects will contribute fresh insights into the evolutionary/cultural events and processes by which humans adopted progressively complex technology — a hallmark of modern human uniqueness. Most significant is the potential to narrow the range of hypotheses regarding the times and places of origins and the “environments of innovation” in technological evolution by linking paleoanthropological to ethnographical and theoretical (modeling) research.
GIS scanning methods are applied to learn more about gorrila teeth errosion patters
Tempelton Project 8
Cumulative cultural evolution in humans implies a life-history schedule that facilitates the early weaning, slow growth, and delayed onset of reproduction underlying the transmission of cognitively complex skills and the development of extensive networks of cooperation. These life-history benchmarks, which are correlated with dental eruption patterns, can be studied in fossils through the age at emergence of the first molar. Project 8 addresses our poor knowledge of the timing of first molar emergence in our closest living relative, the chimpanzee, which is the most appropriate yardstick for assessing the trajectory of human life-history evolution.
Children palying a game on a tablet. Credit: WikiLouise / Wikimedia
Tempelton Project 9
Project 9 fills gaps in our understanding of how child cognitive development interacts with culture (beliefs, norms, and values) and socialization to generate cross-cultural variation in cooperation in several small-scale human societies. The ontogeny of culturally-specific patterns of cooperation connects to Project 10’s focus.
People using public transit in a large city
Tempelton Project 10
Project 10 focuses on theoretical research that explores how and why extensive cooperation in humans is a predictable outcome of the evolution of our unique “moral machinery.”
Members of the Turkana tribe building working together
Tempelton Project 11
Project 11 tests competing hypotheses about the development of large networks of cooperation in a mid-size human society (the Turkana). The outcome of these projects will be improved understanding of how and under what conditions traditional human societies cooperate. Such understanding opens pathways to the archaeological record, in which the record of technological innovation can serve as a proxy for complex cooperative behavior.

Funding Sources

$4,934,107 over 3 years
The John Templeton Foundation, 2014
Principal Investigators: W. Kimbel
This $4.9 million, three-year grant, the largest of its type for human origins research, will support 11 linked investigations of where, when, and how unique human capacities for complex cognition, cumulative culture, and large-scale cooperation emerged.