Originally a behavioural biologist / comparative psychologist, I am now a cognitive archaeologist based at the University of Tübingen (Germany) where I work as a tenured research group leader ("Tools and Culture among Early Hominins") in the Department of Early Prehistory and Quaternary Ecology. In addition, I am an adjunct scientist at the Lester E. Fisher Center for the Study and Conservation of Apes. Currently my main funding is via the ERC Starting Grant "STONECULT".
My main research triangulates what (if anything) makes human cognition unique - as well as why (and relatedly, when this happened and how often). In particular, I use varous methods and pathwas to study the factors and the prehistorical beginnings that enabled the typical modern human "variant of culture": cumulative culture of know-how - leading to copying-dependent know-how (beyond baseline performance level of individuals).
Cumulative culture of know-how is know-how that has evolved over time by way of causally copying earlier know-how and using that know-how as stepping stones for later know-how (this is how we got to build whatever device you are reading this text from).
A key here is that cumulative cultural know-how requires learning mechanisms that are able to causally produce copies of the original know-how (e.g. imitation, but also some types of emulation, and teaching varieties based on these mechanisms). Interestingly, when we and other tested for them, these kind of know-how transmission mechanisms proved rare in the animal kingdom. Instead, most animal social learning depends on different types of knowledge being transmitted (e.g. know-what; know-where etc.). This proved true even for our closest living related, the other apes. Other apes are therefore restricted to the types of know-how that they can individually develop from scratch.
I approach these topics by studying non-human animals (mainly the other great apes), human adults and human children (also, sometimes, cross-culturally) with a diverse set of methodological approaches (theoretically and experimentally, but also via modelling) - combining insights from developmental psychology, evolutionary and behavioural biology, cognitive archaeology, and biological anthropology.
Through broadening the scope of species examined, extending my findings into our evolutionary past and by developing triangulating research paradigms that can be applied non-linguistically, I aim to probe the origins of know-how copying and cumulative culture of know-how in human ontogeny and phylogeny, as well as the distribution of cumulative cultural know-how across the animal kingdom.
My team's work led to several theoretical advances and empirical findings. Some of these are highlighted below.
Seletected empirical findings:
1. Great apes do not spontaneously copy novel know-how. Apes do not actually "ape" - that is. They only do so once/if we install the skill of know-how copying via human training to them (likely as "cognitive gadgets", sensu Heyes).
2. Great apes can and do spontenously develop their species' know-how individually - i.e. without requiring it to be causally copied from others. In fact, they frequently develop know-how expressed by other ape species.
3. Great ape know-how is essentially on "auto-repeat" across culturally unconnected populations - which is best explained by an absence of know-how copying beyond individual baseline level.
4. Earlier findings of Early Stone Tool production in apes (e.g. "Kanzi", "Abang") were experimental artefacts created via human intereference (via human-instilled cognitive gadgets, demonstrations and even, sometimes, external molding of behaviour)
5. Making relevant amounts of birch bark tar (an archaeologically relevant material) is very easy. Its initial production, too, could likely have been individually reinnovated (at least as long as there was access to fire).
Seletected theoretical advances:
1. Ape behaviour largely or fully consists of "latent solutions": know-how that reliably unravels in a (complex) interaction of genes and environment during ontogeny - but with causal copying of this know-how not being required.
2. Ape cultures exist, but they are based on "baseline know-how" that is merely socially catalysed (and thus locally stable). In other words, great ape cultures are established and maintained by what we call socially mediated, but individual reinnovations, of know-how . That is, social learning often plays a large role in animal culture - but this usually happens via types of knowledge other than know-how; such as transmitting know-where (e.g. where to find this food), know-what (e.g. which type of raw material to make a tool from) etc. The know-how itself is then indvidually added (and different types of individually developable know-how can be socially triggered in this way; e.g. stone hammer vs wooden hammer etc).
3. Copying of behavioural (or tool-) forms - copying of know-how - likely evolved surprisingly late in the human lineage. For example, Early Stone Tools (sharp stone tools) are currently most parsimoneously explained as not having required know-how copying. Similar to ape cultures, their underlying know-how was most likely individually derived (though again, transmission of know-where, know-what etc. played some role in regulating frequencies of specific know-hows). Early Stone Tools are more akin to ape cultures than to modern human cultures.
4. Yet, Early Stone Tools - sharp stone tools - were likely based on know-how that is not available to apes living today. That is, this know-how must have developed on the human lineage - likely a long time after the split from the Last Common Ancestor of apes and humans (which also explains why we see reliable examples of these tools only halfway after this split).
Other topics I studied include potential physiological reasons for chimpanzee hunting behaviour (a behavioural ecological perspective on their hunting) the evolution of human-like cooperation (especially of reputation-based cooperation) and underlying reasons for suspected cases of altruism in great apes.
[Note that Google Scholar is more up to date than ORCID etc below]
Our research group's blog (with infrequent entries)