Cognitive Archaeology

The term cognitive archaeology was introduced during the early 1980s to refer to studies of past societies in which explicit attention is paid to processes of human thought and symbolic behavior. As the archaeological record only consists of the material remains of past activities -- artifacts, bones, pits, hearths, walls, buildings -- there is no direct information about the types of belief systems or thought processes that existed within past minds. These must be inferred from those material remains. Cognitive archaeology attempts to do this, believing that appropriate interpretations of past material culture, the behavioral processes that created it, and long-term patterns of culture change evident from the archaeological record, such as the origin of agriculture and the development of state society, requires that those belief systems and processes of thought be reconstructed.

There is a diversity of approaches and studies that fall under the poorly defined umbrella of cognitive archaeology (see Renfrew et al. 1993). These can be grouped into three broad categories that we can term postprocessual archaeology, cognitive-processual archaeology, and evolutionary-cognitive archaeology. While these three categories differ in significant ways with regard to both form and content, they also share some overriding features. The first is that an understanding of human behavior and society, whether in the distant past or the present, requires explicit reference to human cognition -- although there is limited agreement on quite what nature that reference should take. Second, that the study of past or present cognition cannot be divorced from the study of society in general -- individuals are intimately woven together in shared frames of thought (Hodder, in Renfrew et al. 1993). Indeed, the study of past or present minds is hopelessly flawed unless it is integrated into a study of society, economy, technology, and environment. Third, that material culture is critical not only as an expression of human cognition, but also as a means to attain it.

Postprocessual studies, which began in the late 1970s, not only laid emphasis on the symbolic aspects of human behavior but also adopted a postmodernist agenda in which processes of hypothesis testing as a means of securing knowledge were replaced by hermeneutic interpretation (e.g., Hodder 1982, 1986). As such, these studies began as a reaction against what was perceived, largely correctly, as a crude functionalism that had come to dominate archaeological theory and attempted to provide a new academic agenda for the discipline, epitomized in a volume by Mike Shanks and Chris Tilley (1987) entitled Re-constructing Archaeology. While the critique of functionalism was warmly received and has had a long-lasting effect, it was soon recognized that the epistemology of relativism, the lack of explicit methodology, and the refusal to provide criteria to judge between competing interpretations constituted an appalling agenda for the discipline. Consequently, while such work was critical for the emergence of cognitive archaeology, it now plays only a marginal role within the discipline.

A contrasting type of cognitive archaeology has attempted to provide an equal emphasis on symbolic thought and ideology, but sought to do this within a scientific frame of reference in which claims about past beliefs and ways of thought can be objectively evaluated. As such, this archaeology has been characterized as a "cognitive-processual" archaeology by Colin Renfrew (Renfrew and Bahn 1991). This covers an extremely broad range of studies in which attention has been paid to ideology, religious thought, and cosmology (e.g., Flannery and Marcus 1983; Renfrew 1985; Renfrew and Zubrow 1993). Such studies argue that these aspects of human behavior and thought are as amenable to study as are the traditional subjects of archaeology, such as technology and subsistence, which leave more direct archaeological traces. Of course, when written records are available to supplement the archaeological evidence, reconstruction of past beliefs can be substantially developed (Flannery and Marcus, in Renfrew et al. 1993). One branch of this cognitive-processual archaeology has attempted to focus on processes of human DECISION-MAKING, and argued that explicit reference to individuals is required for adequate explanations of long-term cultural change. Perles (1992), for instance, has attempted to infer the cognitive processes of prehistoric flint knappers, while Mithen (1990) used computer simulations of individual decision making to examine the hunting behavior of prehistoric foragers. Another important feature has been an explicit concern with the process of cultural transmission. In such studies attempts have been made to understand how the processes of social learning are influenced by different forms of social organization (e.g., Mithen 1994; Shennan 1996). More generally, it is argued that the long-term patterns of culture change in the archaeological record, such as the introduction, spread, and then demise of particular artifact types (e.g., forms of axe head) can only be explained by understanding both the conscious and unconscious processes of social learning (Shennan 1989, 1991).

A third category of studies in cognitive archaeology, although one that could be subsumed within cognitive-processual archaeology, consists of those that are concerned with the EVOLUTION of the human mind and that can be referred to as an evolutionary-cognitive archaeology. As the archaeological record begins 2.5 million years ago with the first stone tools, it covers the period of brain enlargement and the evolution of modern forms of language and intelligence. While the fossil record can provide data about brain size, anatomical adaptations for speech, and brain morphology (through the study of endocasts), the archaeological record is an essential means to reconstruct the past thought and behavior of our ancestors, and the selective pressures for cognitive evolution. Consequently, studies of human fossils and artifacts need to be pursued in a very integrated fashion if we are to reconstruct the evolution of the human mind.

The last decade has seen very substantial developments in this area, although significant contributions had already been made by Wynn (1979, 1981). He attempted to infer the levels of intelligence of human ancestors from the form of early prehistoric stone tools by adopting a recapitualist position and using the developmental stages proposed by PIAGET as models for stages of cognitive evolution. While there were other important attempts at inferring the mental characteristics of our extinct ancestors and relatives from their material culture, such as by Glynn Isaac (1986) and John Gowlett (1984), it was in fact a psychologist, Merlin Donald (1991), who was the first to propose a theory for cognitive evolution that made significant use of archaeological data in his book Origins of the Modern Mind.

His scenario, however, has been challenged by Mithen (1996a), who attempted to integrate current thought in EVOLUTIONARY PSYCHOLOGY with that in cognitive archaeology. As such, he argues that premodern humans (e.g., H. erectus, Neanderthals) had a domain-specific mentality and that this accounts for the particular character of their archaeological record. In his model, the origin of art, religious thought, and scientific thinking -- all of which emerged rather dramatically about 30,000 years ago (70,000 years after anatomically modern humans appear in the fossil record) -- arose from a new-found ability to integrate ways of thinking and types of knowledge that had been "trapped" in specific cognitive domains. It is evident that the remarkable development of culture in the past 30,000 years, and especially its cumulative character of knowledge (something that had been absent from all previous human cultures) is partly attributable to the disembodiment of mind into material culture. For example, the first art objects included those that extended memory from its biological basis in the brain to a material basis in terms of symbolic codes engraved on pieces of bone or in paintings on cave walls (e.g., Mithen 1988; Marshack 1991; D'Errico 1995). Depictions of imaginary beings are not simply reflections of mental representations, but are critical in allowing those representations to persist and to be transmitted to other individuals, perhaps across several generations (Mithen 1996b). In this regard, material culture plays an active role in formulating thought and transmitting ideas, and is not simply a passive reflection of these. Whether or not this particular scenario from evolutionary-cognitive archaeology has any merit remains to be seen. But it is one example of the major development of cognitive archaeology -- in all of its guises -- that has occurred during the last two decades. One must anticipate substantial future developments, especially if greater interdisciplinary research between archaeologists, biological anthropologists, and cognitive scientists can be achieved.

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Additional links

-- Steven J. Mithen


Donald, M. (1991). Origins of the Modern Mind. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press.

D'Errico, F. (1995). A new model and its implications for the origin of writing: the la Marche antler revisited. Cambridge Archaeological Journal 5:163-206.

Flannery, K. V., and J. Marcus. (1983). The Cloud People. New York: Academic Press.

Gowlett, J. (1984). Mental abilities of early man: a look at some hard evidence. In R. Foley, Ed., Hominid Evolution and Community Ecology. London: Academic Press, pp. 167-192.

Hodder, I. (1986). Reading the Past. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.

Hodder, I., Ed. (1982). Symbolic and Structural Archaeology. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.

Isaac, G. (1986). Foundation stones: early artefacts as indicators of activities and abilities. In G. N. Bailey and P. Callow, Eds., Stone Age Prehistory. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, pp. 221-241.

Marshack, A. (1991). The Tai plaque and calendrical notation in the Upper Palaeolithic. Cambridge Archaeological Journal 1:25-61.

Mithen, S. (1988). Looking and learning: Upper Palaeolithic art and information gathering. World Archaeology 19:297-327.

Mithen, S. (1990). Thoughtful Foragers: A Study of Prehistoric Decision Making. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.

Mithen, S. (1994). Technology and society during the Middle Pleistocene. Cambridge Archaeological Journal 4:3-33.

Mithen, S. (1996a). The Prehistory of the Mind: A Search for the Origins of Art, Science and Religion. London: Thames and Hudson.

Mithen, S. (1996b). The supernatural beings of prehistory: the cultural storage and transmission of religious ideas. In C. Scarre and C. Renfrew, Eds., External Symbolic Storage. Cambridge: McDonald Institute for Archaeological Research (forthcoming).

Perles, C. (1992). In search of lithic strategies: a cognitive approach to prehistoric chipped stone assemblages. In J-C. Gardin and C. S. Peebles, Eds., Representations in Archaeology. Bloomington: Indiana University Press, pp. 357-384.

Renfrew, C., (1985). The Archaeology of Cult, the Sanctuary at Phylakopi. London: Thames and Hudson.

Renfrew, C., and P. Bahn. (1991). Archaeology: Theories, Methods and Practice. London: Thames and Hudson.

Renfrew, C., C. S. Peebles, I. Hodder, B. Bender, K. V. Flannery, and J. Marcus. (1993). What is cognitive archaeology? Cambridge Archaeological Journal 3:247-270.

Renfrew, C., and E. Zubrow, Eds. (1993). The Ancient Mind. Cambridge: Cambridge Univerity Press.

Shanks, M., and C. Tilley. (1987). Re-Constructing Archaeology. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.

Shennan, S. J. (1989). Cultural transmission and cultural change. In S. E. van der Leeuw and R. Torrence, Eds., What's New? A Closer Look at the Process of Innovation. London: Unwin Hyman, pp. 330-346.

Shennan, S. J. (1991). Tradition, rationality and cultural transmission. In R. Preucel, Ed., Processual and Postprocessual Archaeologies: Multiple Ways of Knowing the Past. Carbondale: Center for Archaeological Investigations, Southern Illinois University at Carbondale, pp. 197-208.

Shennan, S. J. (1996). Social inequality and the transmission of cultural traditions in forager societies. In S. Shennan and J. Steele, Eds., The Archaeology of Human Ancestry: Power, Sex and Tradition. London: Routledge, pp. 365-379.

Wynn, T. (1979). The intelligence of later Acheulian hominids. Man 14:371-391.

Wynn, T. (1981). The intelligence of Oldowan hominids. Journal of Human Evolution 10:529-541.