School of Anthropology & Conservation

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The Anthropology of Hands Conference

24th - 26th June 2015


Hands conference

The hand of a fossil human (Australopithecus sediba) from 2 million years ago. Photo credit Peter Schmid

The School of Anthropology and Conservation at the University of Kent, Canterbury hosted a three-day interdisciplinary conference on "The Anthropology of Hands". 

Hands function as interactive links to the world around us. Hands serve life: to feed, to communicate, to nurture to work in the broadest sense. In this conference, we aimed to map what is known of hands from human evolution and biology, to human communication, to "the world at hand" from both biological and social anthropological perspectives, as well as other disciplines. We asked questions such as: How are human hands different from those of other animals? How did human hands evolve? How do our closest living relatives the other great apes use their hands? How do hands function biomechanically? How is handedness linked to brain morphology and language development? Is the first language of humans one of gesture? How do hands represent human presence in cave art and body paint? How does the hand feel the world around it? What feeling/emotion is there in touching? Do we think with our hands? How are hands used as metaphors in everyday life? How is our world influenced by right and left hand symbolism? Is the world just beyond our hand part of our mind? What is the role of hands in human labour, and what are the consequences of their supplanting by mechanized production? In pursuing a broad understanding of human hands, we turned anthropological analysis back to its long desired, yet postponed, interdisciplinary paths.

Guest speakers:

  • Prof. Mary Marzke (Arizona State University, USA) on the evolution of the human hand and tool use
  • Prof. Carel van Schaik (University of Zurich, Switzerland) on hand use in our closest living relatives, the great apes
  • Prof. Jean Clottes (Ministry of Culture, France) and Meenakshi Dubey-Pathak on the use of hands in European and Indian cave art.
  • Dr. Gillian Forrester (University of Westminster, UK) on the development of handedness and cognition in human children and great apes.
  • Prof. Daniel Hutto (University of Wollongong, Australia) on how the human hand (and the activities it makes possible) is responsible for our awakening to agency out of mechanism.
  • Prof. Sotaro Kita (University of Warwick, UK) on the development of gesture and language
  • Prof. David Napier (University College London, UK) the role of handedness by relation to symbolic anthropology.
  • Prof. Christina Toren (University of St Andrews, Scotland) on touching and being touched; how we shape the world.

Conference organisers:
Prof. João de Pina-Cabral (Professor of Social Anthropology and Head of School), Dr. Tracy Kivell (Reader in Biological Anthropology), and A.J. Bicker (Honorary Senior Research Fellow).



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Last Updated: 18/08/2015