Piaget and archaeology

This post is more autobiographical than most.

I mentioned in an earlier post that my avenue to cognitive archaeology was opened by a bit of bad luck, and a bit of good luck. My initial doctoral research proposal centered on measuring the edge angles and weights of Sangoan core axes in order to get some idea of what their function might have been (microwear analysis on most of them was impossible because of weathering). Unfortunately, when I requested access to the crucial collections from Kalambo Falls, I was denied; Desmond Clark himself had planned to work on the collections at the same time I wanted to. That was the bit of bad luck. But I had an idea that I’d been mulling over for almost a year, and which had its nascence in a graduate seminar on primitive technology led by Charles Keller. He took a rather unconventional approach to the topic. Instead of asking us to develop our own research topics, he assigned each participant an important twentieth century thinker/theorist and sent us off to find out if that person had written or said anything that might help anthropologists understand how people make and use tools. My friend Mike Michlovic (Minnesota State University, Moorhead) was assigned philosopher Michael Polanyi, another was assigned sociologist Talcott Parsons, and so on. I was assigned Jean Piaget. This was the bit of good luck (I could have been assigned Wittgenstein…). I had barely heard of Piaget, and at that point knew nothing about his field of study or about his theoretical orientation.
The University of Illinois research library consisted of ten floors of book stacks, over ten million volumes in all. I had a carrel in the stacks, which allowed me freedom to wander around. The experience was quite different from googling. The major danger was stumbling across some ancient tome of wisdom on a remote subject, and distracting oneself for hours. All of Piaget’s books were shelved together, and there were a lot of them, in the original French and also in English translation. I initially read The Origins of Intelligence in Children, which was a summary of his early work in child development. At first it struck me as all rather tangential to tool use. Piaget observed his own children, especially as infants, as they came to understand the world they lived in. Based on these observations he developed a stage model for child cognitive development that became the most influential theory of child development in the twentieth century. It was qualitative research; Piaget was not very interested in samples or distributions or variance. But there was something quite fascinating about his accounts of how infants and young children appeared to understand the world. I next read several of his more narrowly focused studies, including The Child’s Conception of Space (co-authored with Bärbel Inhelder). Because none of these mentioned tool use at all, I turned to his more philosophical studies, Structuralism, and The Biology of Knowledge. I had received a heavy dose of structuralism as an undergraduate, so the learning curve was not too steep. The Biology of Knowledge turned out to be a real eye opener. Piaget had been trained in 19th century French evolutionary science, which was markedly non-Darwinian. Indeed, Piaget’s first publications were on intergenerational changes in the shape of fresh water mollusks living in turbulent water (still cited today as an example of the Baldwin effect). Thus his entire perspective on evolution was very different from the Synthetic Theory version that prevailed in American academia at that time. Piaget’s perspective was thus provocative, even maddening, but it didn’t seem to have much to do with tool making and tool use. I dutifully wrote up as much and reported back to the group.
But Piaget had managed capture my imagination. I recall very clearly the ‘aha’ moment when it dawned on me that Piaget’s scheme could be applied more or less directly to the Palaeolithic record through the avenue of spatial cognition. In hind sight this should have occurred to me from the beginning, but my initial charge, if you recall, was to ferret out insights about tool making and tool use, not spatial cognition, and I had focused more on Piaget’s proposed mechanisms of assimilation accommodation, not his stage scheme. Paget had himself contemplated the relevance of his theory for human evolution:

“The fundamental hypothesis of genetic epistemology is that there is a parallelism between the progress made in the logical and rational organization of knowledge and the corresponding formative psychological processes. Well, now, if that is our hypothesis, what will be our field of study? Of course, the most fruitful, most obvious field of study would be reconstituting human prehistory – the history of human thinking in prehistoric man. Unfortunately, we are not very well informed about the psychology of Neanderthal man or about the psychology of Homo siniensis of Teilhard de Chardin. Since this field of biogenesis is not available to us, we shall do what biologists do and turn to ontogenesis…”(Piaget 1970 Genetic Epistemology, p. 13).
Piaget may have thought that a cognitive archaeology would be the most fruitful approach, but members of my thesis committee were not as sanguine. The task was now to convince them that my ‘aha’ moment could be operationalized in an analysis of stone tools. I settled on a typological approach, defining analytical types based on Piaget and Inhelder’s study of spatial cognition. Thus my attributes included topological (e.g., inside vs. outside a boundary), projective (e.g., artificially straight edges), and Euclidean features (e.g., regular cross-sections). I was ultimately able to convince my committee that was possible. I then applied for and was awarded an NSF dissertation improvement grant, and headed off to Dar es Salaam, Tanzania, to examine collections.

Next: Critiques of the Piagetian approach


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