Professor John McNabb FSA, PhD, MA, BA

Senior Lecturer in Human Origins

(023) 8059 3178

Dr John McNabb is a Senior Lecturer in Palaeolithic Archaeology at the University of Southampton.

I began my archaeological career at Lancaster University. Dr Roger Jacobi was an inspirational lecturer and he kindled a passion for human origins research that has never dimmed. After my BA I went to the Institute of Archaeology in London to do an MA under the equally inspiring Dr Mark Newcomer. It was he who set me to look at the excavated material from the Barnfield Pit, Swanscombe, which had not been published at that time. This became the core of my doctoral dissertation on the Clactonian, an industry that is still very close to my heart. After completing my Ph.D I worked as a volunteer assistant at the British Museum where I collaborated with colleagues on publishing Swanscombe and working on other British Lower Palaeolithic sites. In 1995 I replaced Professor John Gowlett for a year at Liverpool while he was on sabbatical. I stayed on as an Honorary Research Fellow at Liverpool working on further publications of British Lower Palaeolithic sites and collaborating with colleagues from Liverpool and Witwatersrand University, Johannesburg, on Earlier Stone Age sites in South Africa. My first trip to Africa, to work on the Cave of Hearths, Limpopo province SA, kindled a deep love of Africa and its archaeology.

I joined the Southampton department in 2000. Since then I have worked on a number of projects, completed my African research, and developed new interests in the history of Human Origins research. I have expanded my research interests to include the Lower Palaeolithic of Greece, and most recently I returned to Africa to work on the site of Isimila, Tanzania, with colleagues from Dar-es-Salaam and Brighton.

My current research has two strands. I am continuing to explore the meaning of variability is African and European Palaeolithic stone tools, and what that might mean for social and cognitive evolution. In addition I am developing my interests in the history of human origins research, in particular as it was reflected in Victorian and Edwardian fiction.

Research interests

One of the principal themes of my research is Interpreting the behaviour of ancient human ancestors. This is largely based on either the analysis of ancient material culture, primarily stone tools, or alternatively on site based contextual data (and more usually both). Specifically my interests focus on 1.8 – 0.25 million years ago, and the period of the Acheulean handaxe culture. I have developed (and continue to do so) original and innovative ways of interrogating handaxes, and other stone tools, in order to draw out an understanding of the behaviour of the hominins who made these tools. I have applied these new methodologies at sites I have directed or worked on in South Africa, Europe, and UK. Major monographs have recently appeared on Canteen Koppie and Cave of Hearths, two key sites in South Africa. I have also extended and adapted my methodology to explore more theoretical issues which focus on what stone tools can tell us about the cognitive evolution of humans. I am currently working on the question of when do hominins begin to incorporate non-utilitarian messages into material culture. This question boils down to when do we become self-aware, and when do we become aware that others in our social group are the same. This is a key threshold in our evolution, and one that is currently under researched.

The second them is the historical research on the development of human origins as an intellectual question in Victorian and Edwardian society. I have recently completed and published my latest book Dissent with Modification. It takes a multidisciplinary look at the period 1859 to 1901. It combines archaeology and anthropology with historical and literary scholarship. It incorporates arguments about what exactly the Victorian general public understood human evolution to be, and where that information came from. I argue that despite an unprecedented access to factual data and polemical discussion through topical magazines, much of the public’s understanding of human evolution came from fictional stories, in particular science fiction. This was one of the very few outlets whereby ‘unpalatable’ truths on brutish origins could be presented in a safe and non-threatening medium. As an extension of this strand I am currently involved in the reanalysis of the Piltdown forgery whose centenial is this year. I was the first researcher to investigate the stone tools from the hoax in 50 years. Some important new insights into the forgery and the practise of Edwardian science came out of this (2006 paper in The Arch. J.).

PhD supervision

I am interested in supervising any topics on the Earlier Stone Age/Lower Palaeolithic of Africa or Eurasia, ancient technology, the Acheulean or non-handaxe industries of the Old World. I am also happy to supervise projects on Victorian and Edwardian archaeology and anthropology, and the history of Palaeolithic archaeology as a discipline.

Current Ph.D/MPhil topics I am supervising:

  • Clovis and the technology of the earliest peopling of the Americas
  • Benjamin Harrison and the eoliths of north Kent
  • Neanderthals at La Cotte de St Brelade, Jersey
  • Simple prepared cores and the origins of Levallois in Europe

Research group

Centre for the Archaeology of Human Origins

Affiliated research groups

Human Evolution, Chronology, Dispersals and Lifeways, Representation, Visualisation and Politics of Archaeology, Prehistoric Landscapes, Monuments and Materialities

Research project(s)

Lower Palaeolithic Lesvos

This project is exploring the character of Lower Palaeolithic/Earlier Stone Age occupation of Greece’s first major Lower Palaeolithic site.

Crossing the Threshold: the evolution of place and landscape in earliest prehistory (Funded by the Arts and Humanities Research Council) 2013-2016

With an award of £570,000 from the AHRC we will investigate a critical period in deep human history. The three year project “Crossing the threshold: the evolution of place and landscape in earliest prehistory” will focus on the unparalleled archive of one hundred thousand stone tools and ice age faunal remains from the site of La Cotte on Jersey.


The first myth! The oldest sci-fi story! “If you just look at it, it’s looking at you.” With Prof. John McNabb 📽 at Southampton University. #prehistory #iceage #anthropology #prehistoricart #lionman #archaeology #mythology #ancient #ancienthistory

♬ Ambient-style emotional piano – MoppySound