About Cognitive Archaeology

Cave painting of auroches (Bos primigenius pri...
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The questions of what people of the past thought, how they arrived at these thoughts, and to what extent did the thoughts of people affect the world around them fall under the auspices of cognitive archaeology. In method and theory, cognitive archaeology is relatively new, providing archaeologists with glimpses into past ways of thought through the material remains of those who did the thinking[1][2]

Cognitive archaeology has two main, but broad-reaching, foci[2], the first of which is to examine the origins and evolution of modern human cognition, asking questions such as when did people begin to think as we do and where might cognitive capacities have emerged in our primate ancestors. The second broad focus is that which explores the extent to which human thought influenced the perceptions of the world around them as well as how they chose to interact with it, developing cultures and societies as a result.

One of the central methods employed in cognitive archaeology is to study the ways in which past cultures symbolically represented their thoughts. Renfrew describes symbols as that with which “we speak with, and to a large extent what we think with. The way the human mind routinely employs symbolism is through the use of ontological categories, which are special mental concepts that allow the human mind to store and categorize vast amounts of information without having to know the details of every single member of a category[3]. The idea. or concept of ANIMAL carries with it information that causes most human minds to draw immediate inferences that are separate from that of TOOL. Within these categories reside sub-categories which, likewise, have their own shared inferences. Boyer uses the analogy of the ontological category TIGER and points out that one would expect that if a tiger were dissected and examined, one would not need to dissect and examine all tigers to understand that their insides are the same.

As symbols, ontological categories are useful in making inferences about what people think, but it’s necessary first to understand the contexts of those symbols. Renfrew and Bahn use the analogy of the United States flag, the “Stars and Stripes” which quickly evokes a mental image to those familiar with the flag and its meaning. But to those unfamiliar with it, the meaning and history it symbolizes are both completely lost. The ontological category of STARS AND STRIPES is controlled by cultural context and without an assemblage of additional information, the meaning is lost to the observer. His point, therefore, is that archaeologists must take great care in preserving the contexts of their discoveries as “it is the assemblage, the ensemble, that matters, not the individual object in isolation”. In addition, alternative explanations and hypotheses must also be considered and tested thoroughly against each other in order to make effective or useful inferences about the past.

To help put human cognition in a perspective useful for study, Renfrew and Bahn draw on the work of Karl Popper and his theory of reality which includes three interacting worlds. The first world, Popper described as the world of physical objects. The second is that of subjective experiences and thought processes. World three, for Popper, is that which includes products of the human mind and the “products of human activity, such as houses or tools, and also […] works of art” . For those archaeologists who concern themselves with the first broad focus of cognitive archaeology, investigating the origins of modern human thought and cognition, it is this third world of Popperian cosmology that they are most interested in. Where in both time and space did people begin to exhibit modern human cognition? Or, as Renfrew and Bahn quote John Eccles, “how far back in prehistory can we recognize the beginning, the origin, the most primitive world 3 existence”? According to Renfrew and Bahn, Eccles sees tool culture as this origin but Popper disagreed, attributing language to the beginning of a world 3 existence for humans. Both are certainly topics of investigation for archaeologists.

If human cognitive evolution is looked at in a series of stages, as suggested by psychologist Merlin Donald then a useful model would begin with a stage in human development that would be consistent with the cognitive abilities of non-human primates, what Donald calls an episodic culture. This first stage would then transition to a memetic culture stage, consistent with Homo erectus and our inferences of their abilities based on the material record so far. The second transition would be to a linguistic or mythic culture, characteristic of early H. sapiens and involving the ability to use language and share oral narratives. From there, a transition into a theoretic culture would permit the use of external symbolic storage. That is, humans would have the ability to write down or record in some fashion information that couldn’t fit efficiently into ontological categories. Renfrew (1998) notes that Donald regards the mythic culture stage as being inclusive of the cave paintings found in Upper Paleolithic cultures in Europe and the theoretic culture stage as beginning at the early writing of cultures such as that in Mesopotamia at around 3500 BCE[4] . Renfrew, however, takes some issue with this and suggests an additional stage of external symbolical storage between the mythic and theoretic stages is necessary. The basis for this is to be inclusive of early agrarian societies that had “permanent settlements, monuments and valuables. ” These cultures had a clear need to store information, such as astrological and seasonal information, needed for the successful timing of planting and harvesting. Earlier cultures may have also needed to store information about their hunting or migration strategies or to symbolize their religious or supernatural beliefs.

Renfrew cautions us to bear in mind, however, that a model of cognitive stages need not be sequential, pointing out that, while there is much theory and reason involved in human learning, we still learn rote behaviors through mimesis and repetition, establishing motor sequences. He also describes the paradoxes associated with accepting a model such as this. If there is, indeed, an evolutionary progression that can be observed in the material record, what then should we make of modern or recent non-literate societies? Would they necessarily be included as members of the same theoretic culture phase we consider ourselves to now be in? Or would their lack of writing exclude them? What of individuals who are non-literate yet reside within the milieu of a modern urban culture? Questions such as these not only demonstrate what Renfrew calls “the past/present” paradox, but also serve as a caution when attempting to make analogies between modern or recent hunter-gatherer societies and past cultures to which we seek to understand, such as the those of the Upper Paleolithic.

I’ll post a second part over the weekend that takes the theory and method part above, and looks at how cognitive archaeology can be applied.

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References and Notes:
  1. Renfrew, Colin and Paul Bahn (1996). What Did They Think: Cognitive Archaeology, Art and Religion. In Archaeology. Pp. 369-402. New York: Thames and Hudson []
  2. Renfrew, Colin (2009).  Prehistory: The Making of the Human Mind. New York: Random House [] []
  3. Boyer, Pascal (2001). Religion Explained: The Evolutionary Origins of Religious Thought. New York: Basic Books []
  4. Lloyd, Seton (1984). The Archaeology of Mesopotamia: From the Old Stone Age to the Persian Conquest. New York: Thames and Hudson []
About Carl Feagans 317 Articles
Professional archaeologist that currently works for the United States Forest Service at the Land Between the Lakes Recreation Area in Kentucky and Tennessee. I'm also a 12-year veteran of the U.S. Army and spent another 10 years doing adventure programming with at-risk teens before earning my master's degree at the University of Texas at Arlington.

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