Tooling and construction: from nut-cracking and stone-tool making to bird nests and language

Michael A. Arbib*, Dorothy M. Fragaszy, Susan D. Healy, Dietrich Stout

*Corresponding author for this work

Research output: Contribution to journalArticlepeer-review

3 Citations (Scopus)
11 Downloads (Pure)


The present paper provides an integrative theory of actions and motor programs for skill in tool use, construction, and language. We analyze preconditions for action as well as making their effects (postconditions) explicit, emphasizing the “how” of action details as well as the “what” of motor programs, aided by conceptual analysis of several brain modeling efforts. The theory is exemplified by analysis of the subtractive construction involved in percussive tooling by capuchin monkeys and Oldowan and Acheulean stone tool by protohumans making before turning to the additive construction of hafted tools. A complementary analysis focused on the construction of bird nests explores the notion of “image” and “stage” in construction. We offer a brief comparison with birdsong before arguing for a very different relation between communication and construction in humans. Pantomime lifts manipulation from practical to communicative action in protohumans, and we consider the role of pedagogy before offering hypotheses on the emergence of human language that suggest how language may have evolved from manual skills. We note that language provides an open-ended means for devising innovations in tool use and construction, but reiterate the importance of this framework for diverse future studies in ethology and comparative psychology.
Original languageEnglish
Article number100121
Number of pages24
JournalCurrent Research in Behavioral Sciences
Early online date7 Jul 2023
Publication statusPublished - 7 Jul 2023


  • “How” versus “what”
  • Acheulean tool making
  • Bird nest construction
  • Capuchin nut cracking
  • Construction (additive/subtractive)
  • Hafted tools
  • Image and assemblage
  • Language evolution
  • Mirror system hypothesis
  • Motor programs
  • Oldowan tool making
  • Pantomime
  • Postconditions
  • Preconditions
  • Technological pedagogy hypothesis
  • Tool use
  • Tooling


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