All posts by James Hicks

Graduate student of psychology and senior teaching assistant at University of Colorado Colorado Springs. Senior technical advisor to the Center For Cognitive Archaeology at UCCS.

BOOK NOTICE: The Forgotten Transition by John Gilbert

The Forgotten Transition: From event to object and from tool to language. By John Gilbert (2018). Gompel & Svacina, Oud-Turnhout, Belgium. 336 pp.

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In The Forgotten Transition, John Gilbert (Gilbert, 2018) has taken a novel and provocative look at two components of early hominin cognitive evolution, drawing on philosophical, psychological, and archaeological sources. His primary insight concerns the emergence of a true object concept, in the sense of an ontological category that dramatically changed hominins’ relationship to their tools. His argument is actually two-fold. He first presents his reasoning for singling out object concept as a critical development in cognitive evolution (the ‘forgotten transition’ of his title). He then follows this with a second argument that links the evolution of language to the referential resources enabled by a true object concept.

Gilbert organizes the text in an unusual way – at least it was unfamiliar to me as an archaeologist. He first states his theoretical orientation and biases, followed by a succinct presentation of his two arguments. He follows this with a series of chapters that present and discuss the major sources of his ideas. There is, for example, a chapter that discusses Holloway’s seminal 1969 article in Current Anthropology that introduced the idea of the imposition of arbitrary form. There is also a chapter on the ideas of Tim Ingold, and a discussion of Davidson and Nobles’ important contribution to understanding the origin of language. I personally found this organization to be very helpful for understanding Gilbert’s argument, and now wish that more authors would follow the format!


Gilbert’s argument for the emergence of an object concept is persuasive. He marshals philosophical and psychological evidence to support his case, but it was his use of the archaeological record that I found most effective. My only disagreement with him is on the timing. He associates the emergence of the object concept with the first stone knapping; I think that it emerged later with the first bifaces, and that the experience of stone knapping for almost two million years was the scaffold upon which hominins constructed the object concept. I consider this disagreement about timing to be minor, and resolvable. The important issue is Gilbert’s nuanced and subtle discussion of object concept itself. I believe that he has, in fact, identified an important, missing piece in the puzzle of hominin cognitive evolution.


I have always been skeptical about the potential of archaeology to inform us about the evolution of language (Wynn, 1991), so I was perhaps not as open to Gilbert’s discussion of this issue as a neutral observer might be. I did like that he put great emphasis on the inherent indexical power of objects and tools (he cites the sadly overlooked work of A. Martin Byers, for example (Byers, 1994)), and I am in general agreement about the possible development of referential ability. This strikes me as the most productive avenue for archaeologists interested in language evolution. Gilbert’s argument about syntax/grammar did not overcome my doubt – though it is a well-reasoned attempt. However, one can now add Gilbert’s discussion to the very short list of archaeologically sound attempts.

In sum, The Forgotten Transition is a well-reasoned, archaeologically informed argument for a hitherto underappreciated development in hominin cognition. I recommend it highly for anyone with a serious interest in evolutionary cognitive archaeology.

Thomas Wynn

Byers, A. M. (1994). Symboling and the Middle-Upper Palaeolithic Transition: A theoretical and Methodological critique. Current Anthropology, 35(4), 369-399.

Gilbert, J. (2018). The forgotten transition: From event to object and from tool to language. Oud-Turnhout, Belgium: Gompel & Svacina.

Wynn, T. (1991). Tools, grammar, and the archaeology of cognition. Cambridge Archaeological Journal, 1, 191-206.


Summer 2018 Courses at The Center For Cognitive Archaeology

Courses offered for the Summer 2018 Semester (June-August)

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The Center for Cognitive Archaeology (CCA) provides both undergraduate and graduate students the opportunity to study the evolutionary development of cognition in humans and other primates. The CCA offers 12 different online courses, which are taught by professors from the University of Colorado, Colorado Springs and by experts from all over the world. Upon successful completion of any four courses, the University of Colorado will award an official Certificate of Cognitive Archaeology at the undergraduate or graduate level.

Sign up through the College of Letters, Arts and Sciences Extended Studies which extends the resources of the University of Colorado, Colorado Springs in non-traditional ways by providing high quality educational training, and professional development opportunities to the community, state, nation and internationally.

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Welcome to the official blog of the University of Colorado Center for Cognitive Archaeology!


Our hope is that this blog will provide a venue for contributions and discussions on topics related to the evolution of hominin cognition. Scholars specializing in evolutionary cognitive archaeology are still relatively few and spread far apart geographically. Finding informed criticism is a challenge, not to mention keeping track of developments in fields as disparate as cognitive neuroscience, semiotics, primatology, and hominin paleontology. We thus hope that this blog will help create and maintain a community of scholars with related interests.

A parallel goal of the blog will to provide a point of access for anyone in the general public interested in cognitive evolution or Palaeolithic archaeology.

Among the resources the blog will provide are:

  • Links to current and past articles and book chapters
  • Links to related sites such as paleoneurology and neuroaesthetics
  • Blog posts that call attention to developments in related fields
  • Drafts of work in progress with opportunities for comments and suggestions
  • Announcements of upcoming conferences and events
  • Contact information for scholars currently active in evolutionary cognitive archaeology
  • Contact information for academic programs with opportunities in hominin cognitive evolution

As this is a new endeavor, guided by aging, social media naïve editors, we encourage suggestions about how to improve the site to make it a more effective tool for communication.

As an initial offering, I will soon make available a series of blog posts that present my recollections of the history of evolutionary cognitive archaeology.

Thomas Wynn