The role of play objects and object play in human cognitive evolution and innovation

Felix Riede, Niels N. Johannsen, Anders Högberg, April Nowell, Marlize Lombard

Research output: Contribution to journalArticlepeer-review

63 Citations (Scopus)


In this contribution, we address a major puzzle in the evolution of human material culture: If maturing individuals just learn their parental generation's material culture, then what is the origin of key innovations as documented in the archeological record? We approach this question by coupling a life-history model of the costs and benefits of experimentation with a niche-construction perspective. Niche-construction theory suggests that the behavior of organisms and their modification of the world around them have important evolutionary ramifications by altering developmental settings and selection pressures. Part of Homo sapiens' niche is the active provisioning of children with play objects — sometimes functional miniatures of adult tools — and the encouragement of object play, such as playful knapping with stones. Our model suggests that salient material culture innovation may occur or be primed in a late childhood or adolescence sweet spot when cognitive and physical abilities are sufficiently mature but before the full onset of the concerns and costs associated with reproduction. We evaluate the model against a series of archeological cases and make suggestions for future research.

Original languageEnglish
Pages (from-to)46-59
Number of pages14
JournalEvolutionary Anthropology
Issue number1
Publication statusPublished - 1 Jan 2018


  • creativity
  • innovation
  • niche construction
  • object play
  • play objects

ASJC Scopus subject areas

  • Anthropology


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