5 Exciting Classes @CCA this Fall

The Center For Cognitive Archaeology at the University of Colorado, Colorado Springs will be offering the following five online classes during the fall 2018 semester. Stay tuned for more information!

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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.

Want to enroll now or have questions?

Contact: bglach@uccs.edu or jhicks@uccs.edu

Website: http://www.uccs.edu/cca/ or http://www.uccs.edu/lases





This extended abstract represents a summary introduction to a work in progress, which will culminate in a publication and exhibition at The Los Angeles County Museum of Art in 2018. It briefly outlines our discoveries and interpretations, which will be more fully presented, referenced and discussed in the forthcoming catalog.

This presentation is available for download in PDF format.


  • Tony Berlant, Artist
  • Evan M. Maurer, PhD
    Director Emeritus, The Minneapolis Institute of Arts
  • Christine VanPool, PhD
    Director of Undergraduate Studies and
    Associate Professor, Archaeology, University of Missouri
  • Thomas Wynn, PhD
    Distinguished Professor, Department of Anthropology and
    Center for Cognitive Archaeology
    University of Colorado, Colorado Springs

The Mimbres culture is named for the Mimbres valley of what is now New Mexico, where a relatively small pueblo social group developed a unique set of artistic traits that reached a “classic period” between AD 1000-1130. The hallmark of Mimbres art is black and white painted ceramic bowls of extraordinary aesthetic and artistic quality.

Primarily, the exhibition and catalog will focus on our interpretation of the paintings themselves. Paintings on Mimbres bowls have generally been divided into two categories: figurative depictions of their natural world (including narrative “story bowls”) and geometrics. However, our extensive research has allowed us to recognize that almost all motifs found on Mimbres bowls can be read as abstract references to trance-state visual experiences, some with direct reference to the natural world, others generated in the brain (entoptic). We thus argue that any of these so-called “geometric” bowls can be deciphered, either as abstractions of natural elements (such as flowers or moths), and/or as brain-generated entoptic shapes and visions experienced while in a trance state, which was in turn induced by the ingestion of psychoactive plants.

Of particular importance to this process was datura, a flowering plant with potent hallucinogenic properties that was utilized for vision quests throughout the Southwest and greater Mesoamerica. Datura still grows on Mimbres archaeological sites today, and was the most powerful mind altering drug used by the Mimbres. As we will demonstrate, Mimbres artists painted – in abstracted form – various aspects of datura, from its seedpods and first blossoming to the final withering of the flower. They also painted the principal pollinators of datura (hawk moths), and the visions associated with ingesting datura. Other plants with mind-altering properties are also depicted. However, datura is the only flower that is depicted in its various morphing configurations.

Significantly the central food plants; corn, beans and squash are never depicted. The reason for this omission could be that these basic food plants were not part of the trance state process that is the central theme of Mimbres painting.

Our findings are based on research supported by the Mimbres Foundation since 1976, as well as the Janss Foundation, the Rockefeller Brothers Fund, Thomas Weisel, Richard Fredericks and Laura Stearns. We have employed a variety of perspectives offered by distinguished scholars in our discussions, including Mesoamerican and Southwestern archaeologists, ethnographers, neurologists, artists and art historians. We also took high-resolution and time-lapse photographs of plants and blossoms to provide insights into datura’s significance as a major agent in Mimbres art.


Datura seedpod effigies have been found at archaeological sites throughout the Southwest (Figure 2). Datura flowers open at night, the white blossoms unfurling as if alive, until they are wide open and ready for pollination. Figures 5 – 12 illustrate how, especially when seen in sequence, even the most highly abstracted depictions of datura blossoms can be identified on painted Mimbres bowls.

Figures 1 – 4. (click to enlarge)


Figure 5 shows a datura blossom that is just beginning to unfurl. Figure 6 depicts this early stage of the opening flower and surrounding leaves. The circular shape of the flowers simultaneously reference the spiral, a basic entoptic 4 form. It is significant that the bowl is not circular. Most bowls are only slightly off center. However, many Mimbres bowls seem constructed as if mimicking both the floppy and irregular shape of the datura blossom and the morphing trance state portal. The painting in these vessels are carefully conceived to fit the irregular shape of the bowl.)

Figures 5 – 9. (click to enlarge)



In addition to many other stages of the datura flower’s life cycle, we have also identified representations of the datura stamen, and a number of other plants/flowers including: desert tobacco, evening primrose, sunflowers, agave, prickly pear, and cotton. These will be illustrated in the forthcoming publication.

Figures 10 – 12. (click to enlarge)


Fig. 12 demonstrates how the abstraction of the datura blossom is often used as a format, in this case for the depiction of two deer.

Hawk moth elements

Hawk moths are the principal pollinators of datura, furthermore; their entire lifecycle (from egg, larva, and pupa-stage through to fully developed adult moth) may be spent with the datura plant. There is no doubt that Mimbres people were keen observers and were fully aware of the symbiotic relationship between datura and hawk moth and associated the moth with the powerful effects contained in the plant. This key insight has allowed us to recognize many painted Mimbres “geometric” motifs as abstracted depictions of patterns seen on hawk moth bodies (whether in the larval, pupal, or moth state).

Figures 13 – 14. (click to enlarge)


Figure 13 shows a five-spotted hawk moth with its proboscis extended to feed on the nectar of a datura flower. We believe that the distinctive pattern on the side of its body was interpreted and abstracted by Mimbres artists to become a checkerboard pattern, a common motif in Mimbres painting (as seen on Figures 14 and 18). In Figure 14, the overall appearance of the hawk moth is abstracted. Using a particular pattern in a different location in abstracted images is a common occurrence, as shown on this bowl where the checkerboard pattern is moved from the body onto the wings. Elongating the wings is another recurring convention as seen in Figure 18.

Entoptic shapes

Some painted patterns are representations of commonly experienced entoptic shapes (Figure 16). We specifically argue that the association between hawk moth and datura would have been reinforced by the fact that certain patterns found on hawk moths, in particular zigzag lines (Figure 15), are themselves entoptic shapes commonly seen while in a datura-induced trance state.

Figures 15 – 16. (click to enlarge)


The literature on psychoactive substances and hallucinatory experiences (which we explore in greater detail in the forthcoming catalog) show that many of the most widely reported entoptic hallucinogenic effects and visions produced by ingesting datura are consistent with the motifs seen on the bowls; most importantly a white circular tunnel, a spinning field of vision, entoptic shapes such as zigzag lines, triangles, nested squares, and concentric circles.

Story bowls: new interpretations through the lens of datura

To clarify how our interpretations differ from existing scholarship, we here present some examples that are representative of the type of analysis we will present in the exhibition catalogue.

Figures 17 – 19. (click to enlarge)


The bowls in Figures 17 and 18 appear to portray transformative shamanistic experiences. The painting in Figure 18 incorporates hawk moth wings (compare to Figure 14) and the pointed end of the hawk moth abdomen into a recognizable human figure. The painting in Figure 17 depicts a hawk moth with its proboscis extended and a small human riding on its back. The moth and its rider are off-center, giving the impression that they are in flight. Shamans traveling in the spirit world commonly report flying, and often have a tutelary creature that will help them navigate the dangers of the spirit world. This may be a depiction thereof.

Aside from decoding many of the “geometric” designs in Mimbres art, our insights also allow a new deeper interpretation of figurative Mimbres paintings, including the narrative scenes on so-called “story bowls”. On the basis of our interpretation, these figurative scenes are likely to be both individualized and culturally mandated trance state visions, taking place in a white circular space which, as will be explained in the forthcoming publication, is so often reported in trance state visions (the “trance state tunnel”). We also explore in more detail the role the bowls themselves would have played in structuring and dictating the Mimbres trance state experience. Once we had settled on a neuroaesthetics approach, we invited one of the founders of the perspective, renowned cognitive neuroscientist Prof. V Ramachandran of the University of California, San Diego, who visited with us in Santa Monica on numerous occasions, and confirmed the appropriateness of our approach.

Figures 20 – 23. (click to enlarge)


As mentioned, Mimbres artists represented several life stages of the hawk month’s development. The death and rebirth-like process of the hawk moth as it emerges after pupating, transformed from its caterpillar form into a moth, would have been important. In Figure 20 we see the hawk moth larva (“horn worm”) with its segmented, tube-like body and what appears to be a head with mouth, horn, and eye, but which is actually its tail end. Figure 21 shows the adult hawk moth emerging from the chrysalis, its front legs kicking as it breaks free of the hard shell.

Many details in the painting on the bowl in Figure 22 have clear visual connections to the hawk moth in its larval and chrysalis stages, and we thus interpret the central figure of the painting as a large, mythic hawk moth larva, likely involved in a ritual of shamanic transformation, aided by two helpers. The tail of the chrysalis is suggestive of the end of a rattlesnake’s tail, however, the ovoids with dots on the neck reference the shapes that appear on the lower abdomen of the hawk moth’s body. (see Figures 19, 22 and 23). Ambiguous depictions with possible multiple meanings are often present. The usual forward curving horn of the larva (see Figure 20) is here paired with another that curves backwards. This may depict the moment when the antennae of the hawk moth break out of the hard chrysalis case as seen in Figure 21.

Our interpretation of this scene is that the ingestion of datura transported a shaman into trance state, where he merged with the mythic hawk moth larva. The transformative power of the hawk moth (to transform itself from a caterpillar into a moth) would have been central to the Mimbres conceiving of and painting this scene.

A fourth enigmatic figure below the larva lies in a static pose. He may be dead or in a transformative state that fits the whole narrative. We may be seeing four different figures, or more likely, one figure shown in sequential narrative action. Multiple images of one figure in different stages seems to be a recurring depiction in Mimbres narrative story bowls.

The painting in Figure 23 depicts another combination hawk moth larva and shaman. While this creature has often been associated with the plumed serpent of Mexican mythology, we argue that the forward turning horn is that of a hawk moth larva (Figure 20), and the tail with six ovoid forms with a dot in the middle is a direct reference to the dotted ovoids on the bottom of the hawk moth’s body. These dots are also referenced between the legs of the Shaman in Figure 18.

In both Figures 22 and 23, the fact that the figures are painted within a white circular space with concentric circles at the periphery – a very common entoptic manifestation of being in a trance state – emphasize the supernatural character of the scene. We argue that the white circular space of the bowl’s interior is the opening of the trance state portal between the spirit world and the mundane world. The open portal allows the shaman to safely return from his interaction with the mythic hawk moth larva.

After we recognized the centrality of datura, we found that three individuals, the late Paul T. Kay, Lisa Huckell and Christine VanPool had earlier made this connection. In 2005 Paul T. Kay presented a poster presentation that recognized the presence of datura at Mimbres, Casa Grandes and Sityakti pueblos. He was the first to publish a datura related image, in this case a representation of a hawk moth larva. We found that Huckell and VanPool had come to appreciate the importance of datura in 2006, and identified a bowl as depicting the exploded datura seedpod. Although she did not publish a photograph of this bowl, it was the first recognition of the depiction of the datura seedpod.

Another aspect of the catalog will expand upon an idea that Berlant first published in 1973, which is that certain groups of bowls can be assigned to individual Mimbres artists. There is in our minds no doubt that there were a very small number of Mimbres master artists. Figures 11 and 12, for example, we believe are two works by the same painter.

In all native cultures of the Americas, art is rarely art for art’s sake: each motif and painted element has meaning. The forthcoming publication begins to decode the visual information on Mimbres bowls. Beyond our realization that Mimbres art is the world seen through the lens of datura, the most significant and unexpected insight is the realization that the so-called “geometrics” were not non-objective inventions, but rather abstracted depictions of flowers, most commonly datura, and the brain-generated entoptic forms associated with its ingestion.

Furthermore, the overtly figurative aspect of Mimbres painting has no parallels in any of the surrounding traditions. Painting datura flowers in carefully observed sequence, may have led to a naturalistic narrative style in the depictions of animals and people.

Scholars have long recognized parallels in the motifs and patterns of painted ceramics between Mimbres and surrounding cultures. Our identification of these motifs as abstracted but readable images thus extends beyond the Mimbres tradition itself, and allows us to interpret some of the art of other SW cultures as datura-related.

Beyond what is addressed in this paper the “Decoding Mimbres” exhibition catalog will include our exploration of Mimbres painting as art.

Mimbres Project Consultants

  • Julia Burtenshaw Postdoctoral Curatorial Fellow Art of the Ancient Americas LACMA
  • Damon Cirulli Director – Cinematographer
  • Jared Diamond Professor of Geography UCLA
  • Christopher Donnan Professor Emeritus, Anthropology, UCLA
  • Richard Ehrlich Fine Art Photographer Professor Emeritus, UCLA
  • John Gowlett Professor, Archaeology, Classics and Egyptology University of Liverpool
  • Alan Grinnell Distinguished Professor, Integrative Biology and Physiology, Brain Research Institute, UCLA
  • John Hirx Senior Objects Conservator and Head of Objects Conservation, Los Angeles County Museum of Art
  • Siegfried Lodwig, Los Alamos, NM
  • Peter Nabokov Professor, American Indian Studies and World Arts and Cultures, UCLA
  • V.S. Ramachandran Director of the Center for Brain and Cognition and Distinguished Professor with the Psychology Department and Neurosciences Program at the University of California, San Diego, and Adjunct Professor of Biology at the Salk Institute
  • Matthew H. Robb Chief Curator, Fowler Museum at UCLA
  • Bill Schenck Artist
  • Lili Singer Director of Special Projects and Adult Education, Payne Institute for Native Plants and Seeds
  • Laura Stearns Art Historian

Research Assistants:

  • Aisha Ayers
  • Jacqueline LaPierre
  • Asher Price


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Vitebsky, P. 1995: Shamanism. University of Oklahoma Press.

Weil, Andrew, T. 1977. Some Notes on Datura. Journal of Psychedelic Drugs 9(2): 165–69.

Why Chomsky Is Wrong About the Evolution of Language

Recently, Chomsky and colleagues (Bolhuis, Tattersal, Chomsky, & Berwick, 2014) published an article entitled How Could Language Have Evolved? The chief irony of the title is that its authors essentially argued that language did not evolve. According to their Strict Minimalist Thesis, language appeared suddenly about 70,000 to 100,000 years ago, and they claim it does not appear to have been modified since. In their minds, modern human language is so special and so unique that animal communication studies are useless in understanding the human faculty of language and also useless are studies of auditory and vocal learning. As they reason, auditory and vocal studies may be useful for understanding speech, but not language. Hauser, Chomsky, and Fitch (2002) define language in two ways: FLN = faculty of language in the narrow sense (only humans have it), and FLB = the faculty of language in the broadest sense. The latter may be used to refer to animal communication. Thus, FLN is a subset of FLB.

Chomsky and colleagues are clever and slippery, in my opinion. Chomsky’s colleagues rely on Chomsky’s absurd contention that language appeared “whole-cloth” in one human presumably by one gene (or genetic combination?) about 70,000 to 100,000 years ago. This resulting unique form of communication was so amazing and so wonderful that it swept through the extant human race, and voilà, here we are with a hierarchically structured, cognitive system that unites us all. First, Chomsky’s contention has little or no genetic support. One gene does not suddenly cause hierarchically structured language. But that is one of their clever and slippery arguments: It is possible that some genetic mutation altered FLB at that time, but these authors rarely, if ever, invoke anyone else’s cognitive theory (e.g., working memory, a predominant cognitive model for over the past 4 decades). Further, because Chomsky has pronounced that language did not evolve, then it logically follows that it could not have been subject to natural selection. Note well that Chomsky has not elaborated upon why language was not subject to natural selection, and further, he proffers the cryptic argument it did not evolve for communication purposes. Chomsky and his colleagues do propose that it might have developed for spatial navigation but with little or no elaboration (see Hauser, Chomsky, & Fitch, 2002, and Fitch, Chomsky, & Hauser, 2005).

Of course, another major irony of Chomsky’s reasoning is that part of his fame developed in the early 1970s for criticizing Skinner’s theory of behaviorism and for the latter’s reliance on empirical studies and observations. Meanwhile, Chomsky eschews empirical studies of childhood language acquisition and ignores virtually all neurophysiological studies of language’s foundations. Interestingly, at that time, he endorsed the use of neurophysiological evidence for which he said Skinner lacked while his current hypotheses lack such evidence. In fact, in the Bolhuis et al. article, Figure 2 (“A crude plot of average hominid brain sizes over time”) combines in a single form, Neandertal brain size with Homo sapiens. I suppose we must forgive such a superimposition because the figure is labeled “A crude plot….,” but nonetheless, it seems unforgivable since paleoneurologists have repeatedly shown not only about a 10% bigger brain in Neandertals than extant Homo sapiens but also parietal enlargement in the latter but not the former (e.g., Bruner, 2004, 2010). That there is empirical ‘neurophysiological’ evidence for the parietal lobe involvement in spatial working memory, number appreciation, sense of self, and many other higher cognitive functions seems to me very consequential.

Even the Bolhuis et al. evidence for symbolic behavior about 80,000 years ago is questionable.  Beads and engraved ochre may indicate symbolic thinking but a simpler hypothesis is that they marked something. Whether they were used in a one-to-one correspondence to count something or the beads signified a group allegiance, they are provocative but to claim they are ‘indirect’ evidence for language’s sudden appearance is misleading and disingenuous.  However, my arguments would be disingenuous if I simply criticized instead of offered alternatives. They are as follows:

There once was FLB. This broad form of communication probably evolved for social purposes, especially in primates about 80 million years ago. Their vocal communications probably helped them compete with other animals for nutritious fruits, which helped fuel bigger brains. When the australopithecines (“Lucy”) made the transition to full terrestrial life about 2 million years ago (becoming Homo erectus), bigger brains were again naturally selected for their social uses in bigger groups (i.e., the social brain hypothesis) and for extracting more resources from the environment (i.e., the extractive foraging hypothesis). Then, a genetic event (epigenetic or otherwise) did occur in the recent ancestors of Homo sapiens such as Homo idaltu around 200,000 years ago. This genetic event was small but significant and may not have occurred directly in the faculty of language per se but in some important and related cognitive mechanism, such as working memory capacity (see Baddeley, 2002; Wynn & Coolidge, 2010). My colleague Thomas Wynn and I called the result of this genetically influenced event ‘enhanced working memory (EWM).’ However, admittedly here’s where we get slippery. We have proffered a number of possibilities about its nature. For example, did EWM occur because phonological storage became larger, i.e., we could hold more in our acoustic memory? What would be the latter’s advantage? For one, it might allow for recursion, that is, embedding a phrase within a phrase. Second, it might have occurred in the visual-spatial component of working memory. Given that there’s empirical evidence for recent parietal lobe expansion and the latter’s demonstrated role in visual spatial working memory, this hypothesis also makes sense. Or did this small but significant genetic event about 200,000 years ago affect general, non-domain specific working memory capacity? Unfortunately, it seems very difficult to measure working memory capacity outside a specific domain. But that’s another story….

By Frederick L Coolidge

Critique of Piagetian Approach

Although the Piagetian approach provided useful insights into cognitive evolution (see previous post), it ultimately proved to be limited in its applicability.

Why Piaget’s genetic epistemology was a useful tool:

  • Piaget intended that the theory apply to all developmental sequences, and thus it was a general theory of development based on a study of children. Piaget himself even argued that it applied to the development of scientific theories themselves (recursion, anyone?). If the theory was truly general, it would apply in all circumstances, including the evolution of hominin cognition. When I applied his theory, I argued that I was applying a general theory of cognitive development to stone tools, not a model of children’s thinking. As you might imagine, no one paid attention to this assertion, and I was accused of comparing Homo erectus to modern eight-year olds, something I never actually did.
  • Genetic epistemology identified and described styles of thinking that were less powerful than those used by modern adults. Several of these styles of thinking appeared to apply to non-human primates, and the Piagetian approach gained considerable traction among primatologists, beginning with Susan Parker and Kathleen Gibson’s classic 1979 article in Behavioral and Brain Sciences. Piaget’s stages could, in fact, be used as hypotheses for phylogenetic stages. I was able to point to specific characteristics of stone tools as reflecting abilities typical of specific stages of development. In other words, Piaget’s scheme could operate as an independent scale of cognitive development.
  • As the most influential theory of cognitive development of the twentieth century, Piaget’s theory carried a lot of weight. Bringing it to bear on Palaeolithic remains provided me with a very powerful tool. Indeed, it was more like a bludgeon when talking to paleoanthropologists who had little or no background in psychology.

Some of the insights provided by genetic epistemology remain sound, especially the basic sequence in the development of spatial cognition. But eventually, I abandoned use of the theory, and it is perhaps instructive to examine why.

Why I abandoned the approach in the 1990s:

  • My first inkling that all was not rosy came in a review of my work in the French journal l’Homme by Scott Atran. He commended my method, i.e., using an explicit cognitive theory to interpret stone tools, but condemned my choice of Piaget, referring to it as a ‘theoretical motley.’ I was a bit shocked, but shouldn’t have been. My strategy had always been to read Piaget as a primary source, and not refer to the secondary literature, including any criticism. When I looked seriously at the critical literature, I found that all was not well in Piagetian developmental psychology. Indeed, to put it frankly, Piaget was on the way out, for a number of reasons. Among others, it turned out that children did not all pass through his stages in the same order, let alone at the same time. Piaget himself knew this, but did not think it important. But it was. Interestingly, Atran’s review remains the single most intelligent and useful piece of criticism I have ever received.
  • But more important for me was the fact that the theory did not ultimately work for human evolution, either. Even from the beginning I was troubled by some of the conclusions entailed by the theory. For example, the evidence from spatial cognition indicated adult level intelligence by probably half-a-million years ago. Very little about the 500,000-year-old archaeological record appears modern. I fell back on a kind of ‘unexpressed potential’ argument, with culture change accounting for all subsequent developments. But it was weak, and I knew it.
  • Theories of general intelligence had fallen out fashion in favor of modular models of mental life (still strangely enshrined in popular literature, as when a failing student claims to have great emotional intelligence…). It did look as if many human cognitive abilities were not manifestations of a single general intelligence, but instead needed to be treated separately. Piaget’s theory did not match up well.
  • The theory more or less ignored the brain. Of course, most psychological theories at the time did, too. But things were changing rapidly. First information processing theories set out to duplicate neural functioning, and none of these approaches could be reconciled with Piagetian development. In the 1980s and 1990s the brain sciences saw dramatic developments; science finally began to understand a little about how the brain worked, and Piagetian development again did not fare well.
  • Finally, the Piagetian approach did not itself generate any further useful questions. I could sit back and defend my initial formulation, continue to tweak it through more precise chronologies, or look for a more defensible and productive theory. This sounds very clear and straight-forward in retrospect, but at the time it was not, and I floundered about a bit in the late 1980s before settling on cognitive neuroscience.

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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