BOOK NOTICE: The Forgotten Transition by John Gilbert

The Forgotten Transition: From event to object and from tool to language. By John Gilbert (2018). Gompel & Svacina, Oud-Turnhout, Belgium. 336 pp.

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In The Forgotten Transition, John Gilbert (Gilbert, 2018) has taken a novel and provocative look at two components of early hominin cognitive evolution, drawing on philosophical, psychological, and archaeological sources. His primary insight concerns the emergence of a true object concept, in the sense of an ontological category that dramatically changed hominins’ relationship to their tools. His argument is actually two-fold. He first presents his reasoning for singling out object concept as a critical development in cognitive evolution (the ‘forgotten transition’ of his title). He then follows this with a second argument that links the evolution of language to the referential resources enabled by a true object concept.

Gilbert organizes the text in an unusual way – at least it was unfamiliar to me as an archaeologist. He first states his theoretical orientation and biases, followed by a succinct presentation of his two arguments. He follows this with a series of chapters that present and discuss the major sources of his ideas. There is, for example, a chapter that discusses Holloway’s seminal 1969 article in Current Anthropology that introduced the idea of the imposition of arbitrary form. There is also a chapter on the ideas of Tim Ingold, and a discussion of Davidson and Nobles’ important contribution to understanding the origin of language. I personally found this organization to be very helpful for understanding Gilbert’s argument, and now wish that more authors would follow the format!

 

Gilbert’s argument for the emergence of an object concept is persuasive. He marshals philosophical and psychological evidence to support his case, but it was his use of the archaeological record that I found most effective. My only disagreement with him is on the timing. He associates the emergence of the object concept with the first stone knapping; I think that it emerged later with the first bifaces, and that the experience of stone knapping for almost two million years was the scaffold upon which hominins constructed the object concept. I consider this disagreement about timing to be minor, and resolvable. The important issue is Gilbert’s nuanced and subtle discussion of object concept itself. I believe that he has, in fact, identified an important, missing piece in the puzzle of hominin cognitive evolution.

 

I have always been skeptical about the potential of archaeology to inform us about the evolution of language (Wynn, 1991), so I was perhaps not as open to Gilbert’s discussion of this issue as a neutral observer might be. I did like that he put great emphasis on the inherent indexical power of objects and tools (he cites the sadly overlooked work of A. Martin Byers, for example (Byers, 1994)), and I am in general agreement about the possible development of referential ability. This strikes me as the most productive avenue for archaeologists interested in language evolution. Gilbert’s argument about syntax/grammar did not overcome my doubt – though it is a well-reasoned attempt. However, one can now add Gilbert’s discussion to the very short list of archaeologically sound attempts.

In sum, The Forgotten Transition is a well-reasoned, archaeologically informed argument for a hitherto underappreciated development in hominin cognition. I recommend it highly for anyone with a serious interest in evolutionary cognitive archaeology.

Thomas Wynn

Byers, A. M. (1994). Symboling and the Middle-Upper Palaeolithic Transition: A theoretical and Methodological critique. Current Anthropology, 35(4), 369-399.

Gilbert, J. (2018). The forgotten transition: From event to object and from tool to language. Oud-Turnhout, Belgium: Gompel & Svacina.

Wynn, T. (1991). Tools, grammar, and the archaeology of cognition. Cambridge Archaeological Journal, 1, 191-206.

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