A Look Forward at the Study of the Mind in the Past

Posted on February 26, 2020


This part of my series of posts on conference presentations, that I have filmed. This is another one from the TAG conference:

Session Info

The views and approaches for conducting mind-related research in archaeology have gone through a number of transformations over the past few decades – enough to give us pause to see that the field of cognitive archaeology in particular has come full circle. Cognitive archaeology emerged in part as a response to the logical positivist claim that the mind could not be studied by scientific-inclined archaeologists. Underlying the positivist claim was behaviourism which explained away a role for the mind; at most, the mind was envisaged as a simple, rational response system that was universally employed. With the most recent trend in cognitive archaeology, which advocates radical enactivism and envisions human engagement with the material world as affordances and cognitive scaffolding, we seem to have returned to a position that is effectively similar to behaviourism in certain key respects. Having the benefit of hindsight and utilizing what we have learned over the past few decades, this session seeks to rediscover the mind’s role in the past by revisiting tried-and-true approaches, as well as exploring new approaches by which the mind can be revealed to archaeologists.

Organiser: Marc A. Abramiuk (California State University Channel Islands)

Space: The final frontier?


Spatial cognition may be one of the most intuitive avenues for studying the prehistoric mind. Archaeologists are accustomed to studying human behaviour in a spatial context. Furthermore, landscape archaeology has accustomed us to thinking about how humans perceive(d) the landscape and conversely, how the landscape shapes (or has shaped) human perception. This paper explores what the archaeological record can tell us about human perception of the landscape in the past and how this informs us about spatial cognition.

Ariane Burke (Universite de Montreal)

Cognitive Archaeology and the Evolution of Geometric Cognition


Philosophy of mathematical practice proposes a triple approach regarding the genesis and development of knowledge: cognitive, pragmatist and historical. Summing up, it depends on biological and cultural constraints, it is oriented to human actions, and its historical essence is assumed. To understand the cognitive abilities that helped the development of geometric thought, we need to take back our analysis to the material archaeological record, cognitively interpreted. There is a huge amount of material record that has to do with proto-geometry, such as cave art, personal ornament, constructions with a special relationship with the landscape – like buildings that have some relation with timekeeping and some kind of proto-astronomy and so on. All these practices foment in some way the improvement of our cognitive abilities related to our geometric thinking and, thus, a systematic analysis of these practices would have to be carried out.

Manuel J. Garcia-Perez (University of Seville)

In the Mind of the Maker: Using lithic reduction sites to trace the development of planning and forethought in the human evolutionary past


This paper explores the use of lithic reduction sites and their assemblages as markers of the progression of forethought and planning, in particular mental time travel (MTT), throughout the Palaeolithic. MTT is the ability to move backwards and forwards in time through engagement of episodic and prospective memories. As a field, cognitive archaeology often fails to unite cognitive evolution models, such as MTT, with Palaeolithic research. The significance of forethought and planning is widely discussed but little attention is actually given to their development. A novel approach was trialled in a diachronic pilot study of two lithic case sites. Each site was analysed through its specific chaîne opératoire and each stage was placed in a distinct planning level. The results were then compared to determine if any progression of forethought and planning could be traced. The findings of one case site are presented here. These results, when placed in a wider archaeological and cognitive context show the nuance of cognitive evolution. It is clear when layered with cognitive models; the approach developed is sensitive to cognitive subtleties. By using this approach, we can move away from the traditional ‘has or has not’ understanding of forethought and planning capabilities of toolmaking hominins.

Esther Fagelson (University of York)

Mind over Matter, and Matter over Mind: An archaeology of object attachment


From a precious wedding ring to an old battered teddy bear, it is widely accepted that humans are capable of forming strong emotional bonds with objects which can last a lifetime. This phenomenon should be of great interest to archaeology, a field based around the study of material culture. Yet, current archaeological analyses demonstrate little, if any, understanding of the emotional significance of everyday objects, giving the impression that past populations had no emotional connection to material culture. However, by drawing on recent work in psychology and neuroscience, we can gain fascinating insights into the relationship between the mind, emotion and material culture. This paper will discuss the cognitive mechanisms of object attachment, explaining why we grow attached to certain objects and why this is an important avenue of research for archaeologists. It will focus on the impact of object attachment upon human prosociality and exploration, as well as discussing how an object attachment framework might be incorporated into existing approaches to material culture. An understanding and appreciation of object attachment provides a new way of studying the mind in the past, realising the complicated emotional nature of our attachments to objects.

Taryn Bell (University of York)

Middle Stone Age Problem Solving: Examining the evidence for working memory in the development of projectile weaponry


The development of projectile technology is hailed as a marker of modern human behaviour; however, despite extensive research its origins remain unresolved. This study aims to demonstrate the role of the mind in the development of projectile weaponry. Working memory, a psychological term that describes the processes by which problems are solved, can be viewed in the archaeological record using conigrams (Haidle 2010). Understanding the cognitive process of problem solving allows us to examine artefacts as solutions, shifting the focus onto what circumstances required the development of new technology. If projectile technology was the solution, what were the problems encountered by early humans that led to its development? To explore this, the Still Bay and Howiesons Poort sequences at two MSA sites, Blombos Cave and Sibudu Cave, are reviewed. Links between the lithic assemblages and Palaeoenvironmental evidence indicate humans at this time were subjected to extreme climate pressure and demographic change. This paper explores the possibility that the emergence of projectile technology at these sites was the result of the application of working memory to environmental pressures. The concept of working memory provides a new angle to the origins of projectile technology debate, and demonstrates the need for cognitive consideration in archaeological investigation.

Charlotte Burnell (UCL)

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