What Can Archaeology Tell Us about the Mind?

What can relics of the past tell us about the thoughts and beliefs of the people who invented and used them? Recent collaborations at the frontier of archaeology, anthropology, and cognitive science are culminating in speculative but nevertheless increasingly sophisticated efforts to unravel how modern human cognition came about. By considering objects within their archaeological context, we have begun to piece together something of the way of life of people who inhabited particular locales, which in turn reflects their underlying thought processes. Comparing data between different sites or time periods tells us something about the horizontal (within generation) or vertical (between generations) transmission of material culture. In addition to patterns of transmission of existing kinds of artifacts, we are also interested in novel artifacts that might be indicative of new cognitive abilities, belief structures, or levels of cooperation. An archaeological period marked by the sudden appearance of many kinds of new objects may suggest the onset of enhanced creative abilities. By corroborating archaeological findings with anthropological data (evidence of sudden change in the size or shape of the cranium, for example) with knowledge from cognitive science about how minds function, we can make educated guesses as to what kinds of underlying cognitive changes could be involved, and how the unique abilities of Homo sapiens arose. In this chapter, we consider three questions about human cognition that can be addressed through archaeological data: (1) How did human culture begin? (2) Where, when, and how did humans acquire the unique cognitive abilities of modern Homo sapiens? and (3) What role do artifacts play in the evolution of these cognitive abilities?



About Giorgio Bertini

Director at Learning Change Project - Research on society, culture, art, neuroscience, cognition, critical thinking, intelligence, creativity, autopoiesis, self-organization, rhizomes, complexity, systems, networks, leadership, sustainability, thinkers, futures ++
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