Cambridge Archaeological Journal

Special Section: Steps to a ‘Neuroarchaeology’ of Mind, part 2

Can the Archaeology of Manual Specialization Tell Us Anything About Language Evolution? A Survey of the State of Play

James Steelea1 and Natalie Uominia2

a1 AHRC Centre for the Evolution of Cultural Diversity, Institute of Archaeology, University College London, 31–34 Gordon Square, London, WC1H 0PY, UK; Email:

a2 School of Archaeology, Classics and Egyptology, Hartley Building, University of Liverpool, Brownlow Hill, Liverpool, L69 3GS, UK; Email:


In this review and position paper we explore the neural substrates for manual specialization and their possible connection with language and speech. We focus on two contrasting hypotheses of the origins of language and manual specialization: the language-first scenario and the tool-use-first scenario. Each one makes specific predictions about hand-use in non-human primates, as well as about the necessity of an association between speech adaptations and population-level right-handedness in the archaeological and fossil records. The concept of handedness is reformulated for archaeologists in terms of manual role specialization, using Guiard's model of asymmetric bimanual coordination. This focuses our attention on skilled bimanual tasks in which both upper limbs play complementary roles. We review work eliciting non-human primate hand preferences in co-ordinated bimanual tasks, and relevant archaeological data for estimating the presence or absence of a population-level bias to the right hand as the manipulator in extinct hominin species and in the early prehistory of our own species.

James Steele is a Reader in Archaeology at University College London. He specializes in the archaeology of prehistoric human dispersals, and in the evolution of human speech and language. James is Director of the AHRC Centre for the Evolution of Cultural Diversity.

Natalie Uomini is a Postdoctoral Researcher in the British Academy's Centenary Research project ‘Lucy to Language — the Archaeology of the Social Brain’.

She is interested in the origins of language and how it relates to hand preference and brain lateralization. Natalie is currently studying Palaeolithic artefacts in relation to motor control, complexity and lateralized hand-use.