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ISU Bio-Anthropologist Continues Research on Communication Through Stone Tools

Shelby at work
Shelby Putt, an assistant professor at Illinois State University, at work on an expedition.

Discover magazine and National Geographic laying on the coffee table captured the mind of Dr. Shelby Putt at a young age.

Growing up, Putt was inspired by her dad, a scientist. Putt always had an interest in language and became fascinated in the evolution of language and how it relates to our intelligence.

Now, Putt is a bio-anthropologist and assistant professor at Illinois State University. Her research explores the link between stone tools and communication.

Scientists have not come to a conclusion when language evolved; language does not fossilize, so there is not direct evidence. However, stone tools are used to help figure out the link between the two.

Putt’s research looked at some of the earliest stone tool technologies, including the oldowan and acheulean. The oldowan dates back to 2.6 million years ago; it mimics a round pebble with a sharp edge and would have been used for butchery. The acheulean tool dates 1.8 million years ago and is shaped like an arrowhead that can fit in your hand.

“My research so far has been looking at the differences in brain activity of people recreating these different technologies. And so far, it does seem to look promising that the shift from the oldowan to the acheulean technology may have sparked some type of language evolution. Again, it’s inconclusive. We can't say that for sure, but there is evidence pointing in that direction which is really neat.”

The archaeological record shows that stone tools date back at least 3 million years ago. That does not mean language started back then, but it helps scientists to make hypotheses.

What is a bio-anthropologist?

Putt describes a bio-anthropologist as a scientist who investigates the biology and behavior of humans and their closest primate relatives from an evolutionary perspective.

“Then you have biological anthropologists, and we are interested in biological differences between people, but also my specialty is the evolution of our species. So as the name sounds like we're interested in biology.”

Inspiration to research stone tools and communication was from Putt reading articles.

“How I started on my research path was reading this article in a seminar I was taking by a man named Dietrich Stout who works at Emory University and he had started doing similar work with stone tools and language and neuroimaging. With science it's very rare that you just come up with a completely novel idea that no one's ever thought of before. Pretty much every good idea has already been thought of before.”

Putt says that if there is limited research on a certain thing then it is considered pioneering a new field.

Alongside research, Putt works as an assistant professor and is unable to do much research due to the pandemic. Putt says Illinois State University has granted her more opportunities than she can partake in since the pandemic. Putt teaches a Human Origin course, a Paleoanthropology advanced course and a Primates advanced course. Her goal is for her students to be hands-on in the classroom.

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Camberyn Kelley is a WGLT intern focused on reporting and online writing. She is also a student in Illinois State University's School of Communication.