What were the intellectual roots of evolutionary cognitive archaeology?

What were the intellectual roots of evolutionary cognitive archaeology?

(Idiosyncratic musing by Thomas Wynn on the recent history of evolutionary cognitive archaeology)

In my online course on the history of cognitive archaeology I begin with a classic 1969 paper in Current Anthropology written by Ralph Holloway, who was and is the dean of American paleoneurologists. But that paper did not emerge from a vacuum, and I thought it appropriate to briefly exam the intellectual trends in (mostly) American anthropology that set the stage.

Interest in prehistoric minds stretches back, in Europe at least, to the initial acceptance of deep antiquity in the Nineteenth Century. However, early speculations were not informed by formal theories of cognition, largely because there were few, if any, formal theories of cognition; the psychological science of the time was also in its infancy. Instead, understandings of prehistoric minds were derived largely from the ethnological literature, which at the time was influenced by unilineal evolutionary thinking of the “savagery, barbarism and civilization” variety, and an unexamined assumption of European ascendancy. This bias played out in a way that had unfortunate long term consequences for our understanding of Neanderthals in particular, who were assigned to a lower mental grade based on their robust anatomy, their less diverse range of artifacts, and the chronological accident of having their remains stratified below more European-looking people. After establishing the fact of deep antiquity, archaeologists focused on the basic questions of what and when; what artifacts did Palaeolithic people make, and when did they make them. To do this they borrowed heavily from geology (for chronology) and paleontologyy (for classifying artifacts and assemblages).

In the early Twentieth Century the combination of behaviorism in psychology, and historical particularism in anthropology combined to all but banish serious interest in prehistoric mental life, at least among American archaeologists. In psychology behaviorism treated minds as essentially tabula rasa, blank slates, upon which more complex learning contexts would inscribe more complex mental responses. In anthropology the historical particularism of Boas and students viewed cultural differences as reflecting only different local histories, and not any universal stages of development. This was a backlash to the racist and Eurocentric stance of most Nineteenth Century anthropology. The development of cultures became the only topic of importance; there was no need invoke anything about prehistoric minds. Archaeologists were quite comfortable with particularism because it encouraged them to describe local developmental sequences, without any need to explain how or why. The local sequence was king. When Gordon Willey and Philip Phillips famously averred that American “…archaeology is anthropology or it is nothing…” (1958 Method and Theory in American Archaeology) they were operating within a historical particularist context, with a goal of tracing culture historic sequences in the New World.

In the 1950s and 1960s many anthropologists eschewed particularism, and embraced a new kind of general theory about the nature of culture – and mind – structuralism. The underlying principles that people used to structure social and religious life must at some point be mental structures, though at the time anthropologists shied away from specifying just what these structures might be in a neurobiological sense. At the same time psychology was beginning to reintroduce minds into the study of mental life. Cognitive psychologists, in response to failures of behaviorism, began to argue that the mind was not a blank slate, but in fact came with an inherent structure that guided or predisposed people to certain behaviors.

However, instead of embracing structuralism or cognitivism, most archaeologists in the 1960s either stuck to particularism, or embraced materialist theories of culture, which had experienced only limited popularity in anthropology as a whole. Materialist theories, in which the productive system is seen to dictate other aspects of culture, were almost ideal for archaeologists, especially archaeologists of the deep past where technical and economic data were just about the only data ever recovered. This was not a particularly friendly environment for the development of cognitive archaeology. Minds, even individuals, were considered by most Palaeolithic specialists to be impossible to study, but more significantly, brains and minds were thought to have had no power to influence the evolution of hominins or hominin culture.

In his 1969 article in Current Anthropology (1969) Holloway specifically addressed the significance of stone tools associated with early hominin fossils. Given the prevalence of structural and linguistic models in American anthropology, it is perhaps not a surprise Holloway applied this perspective to the early stone tools. He had done his graduate work at University of California, Berkeley, where Sherwood Washburn had developed a more holistic and dynamic physical anthropology that incorporated perspectives from primatology and ecological theory. The result was less emphasis on anatomical minutiae, and more interest in adaptation. Holloway was interested in the evolution of brain as reflected in endocasts. For Holloway it was a given that changes in hominin brains must have been accompanied by changes in behavior. He linked hominin endocasts to adaptive behavior by constructing an argument about minds, suggesting that the patterned action required to make stone tools was akin to the regularities of syntactical communication, and that therefore structurally-patterned culture must have been a leading element in the evolution of the early hominin brain and cognition. This was a landmark paper for human paleontology and for the thread of research that became evolutionary cognitive archaeology. In retrospect, two components of Holloway’s argument stand out: 1) the explicit use of archaeological remains as evidence of cognition, and 2) the use of an established theory, in this case a linguistic/structural model of culture. Unfortunately, while Holloway’s conclusion was well-received, his method had little influence on archaeological practice, which was then entering the chaotic days of the “New archaeology,” out of which a decidedly materialist/ecological perspective came to dominate Palaeolithic research.

NEXT TIME: Thoughts on the “New Archaeology” and Palaeolithic archaeology in the 1970s



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