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[Paper spotlight] It's in the bag: mobile containers in human evolution and child development

This new paper from Thomas Suddendorf and colleagues examines the development of our understanding of mobile containers — such as baskets and bags.


Abstract: Mobile containers are a keystone human innovation. Ethnographic data indicate that all human groups use containers such as bags, quivers and baskets, ensuring that individuals have important resources at the ready and are prepared for opportunities and threats before they materialize. Although there is speculation surrounding the invention of carrying devices, the current hard archaeological evidence only reaches back some 100,000 years. The dearth of ancient evidence may reflect not only taphonomic processes, but also a lack of attention to these devices. To begin investigating the origins of carrying devices we focus on exploring the basic cognitive processes involved in mobile container use and report an initial study on young children's understanding and deployment of such devices. We gave 3- to 7-year-old children (N = 106) the opportunity to spontaneously identify and use a basket to increase their own carrying capacity and thereby obtain more resources in the future. Performance improved linearly with age, as did the likelihood of recognizing that adults use mobile carrying devices to increase carrying capacity. We argue that the evolutionary and developmental origins of mobile containers reflect foundational cognitive processes that enable humans to think about their own limits and compensate for them.

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