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Cognitive archaeology/Objectives and theory/critics

How has human thought evolved? How is it possible to know what prehistoric humans thought? Is it possible that they resembled the primitive tribes of today? To what extent do these tribes serve as a model for understanding prehistoric symbolic thought? Cognitive archaeology

All these questions are the object of study of cognitive archeology , which tries to know how cognitive abilities developed, especially symbolic thinking, in the first Homo sapiens. Next we will see in more depth what this very interesting discipline is about and how it tries to find out these questions.

What is cognitive archeology?

Cognitive archeology is a discipline that tries to know, as far as possible, the way of thinking of prehistoric cultures . It tries to find out what kinds of characteristics the mental processes of the earliest non-graphic cultures in the evolution of Homo sapiens exhibited, including concepts such as space, time and the idea of ​​the self, us and them.

Basically it tries to understand how properly human cognitive processes have emerged in the history of evolution, and in what form they have appeared, relating it to anatomical aspects, especially the speech apparatus and the skull, in addition to analyzing the fossil record and archaeological remains of these same cultures.

Objectives and theory

The main objective of cognitive archeology is the archaeological study, relying on the psychobiological model. Try to understand the origin and development of human behavior throughout its history. Cognitive archaeology

The idea behind this discipline is that, if the remains are taken, especially trousseau, cave paintings and jewels from primitive cultures, they can be interpreted as behavior, a behavior that, behind it, had to be symbolic capacities , the product of everything. cognitive processing. This mental processing had to occur in response to external stimuli to the individual, both social (family, other members of the group and members of other groups) or environmental (changes in the climate, scarce food …) that are felt or they receive from the environment where they live.

Voluntary human behavior and thinking are two phenomena that are clearly related. This is an almost obvious idea for most of the population. When we are going to do something, as long as it is not something automated or the product of a reflex action, there is a procedure behind it. When we paint a picture or make a ceramic jug, we are not doing it automatically, we have to think about everything.

This same idea would be shared with cognitive archeology when studying the artistic remains of prehistoric cultures. When one of the first human beings was painting a wildebeest on a wall or making a necklace of bones, behind this behavior, there must necessarily be a cognitive process . In the first case, the artist had to paint the wildebeest to represent a reality, such as that in that area there were those animals or that they should be careful with them. In the second, the making of the necklace could have some religious meaning, or be a symbol of power.

Although cognitive archeology starts from the idea that you can know the type of thinking that prehistoric people should have, the truth is that this can never be known in a one hundred percent reliable way. Cognitive archaeology

What does this discipline take into account?

The current discipline of cognitive archeology uses the psychobiological model , that is, one that understands that the human being is an organism with a biological and cultural nature. That is why human behavior must be understood in an interdisciplinary way, combining knowledge of both health and social sciences, such as evolutionary biology, neurology, psychology and sociology.

When studying and making hypotheses about the evolution of human thought and symbolic capacity, the following aspects are taken into account:

1. Evolutionary level

At the evolutionary level, the anatomical characteristics of fossils of different Homo sapiens are taken into account .

The evolutionary process is progressive, rarely sudden. This means that overnight we did not go from Homo erectus to Homo sapiens, but there was a whole gradual process that involved changes in anatomical characteristics, including the speech apparatus and cranial capacity.

Our species has changed anatomically over the millennia, and that has been seen in culture. One of the hypotheses raised when analyzing the increasing complexity of human cultures has been that it has gone hand in hand with an increase in its cognitive capacities. Cognitive archaeology

2. Neurological characteristics

Related to the previous point, the human brain has been the result of a long and continuous evolutionary process, which has contributed to its having acquired a larger size and more folds to increase its surface area .

This, together with improvements in the speech apparatus thanks to bipedalism, has been what has been able to house the symbolic capacity, which is the basis for thought and language.

Thanks to this symbolic capacity, the human being has been able to create abstract concepts, in addition to getting out of the space-time immediacy, that is, to stop thinking only about the here and now.

3. Influence of external factors

The human being, both the current and the most primitive, has been determined by what was written in their genes . His basic intelligence, an aspect that we could well call quantitative, was something inherited.

However, the most primitive cultures, as with the children who go to school today, were influenced by external factors, that is their environment and society. This is what would give them a qualitative difference intellectually speaking. Cognitive archaeology

The members who grew up in a specific group received influences from it in the form of culture , actively participating in it: they participated in rites, buried their dead according to how the rest of their peers did, used paint and body accessories. ..

In cognitive archeology, an attempt has been made to see the regional differences between groups of primitive Homo sapiens from their remains , seeing the existence of different cultures, although most of them with a fairly similar level of development.

4. Psychobiological organization

Once the human being acquires the ability to create symbols with their meaning, as is the case with language, the human being is able to use his intelligence to solve cultural or social problems. Cognitive archaeology


As we have already seen, despite the fact that the study of cognitive archeology is quite exhaustive, there are doubts about whether it is possible to analyze and obtain information about the thought of the first humans from their fossil remains and tools . Is it possible to know in a totally safe way how human cognitive capacities evolved from what they left behind?

As we were already saying, the idea behind this discipline is that by analyzing both cultural remains and the bones of the first human beings, it is possible, through inferences, to know how their symbolic capacity should be. Furthermore, this is done by relating it to current primitive cultures, that is to say, tribal cultures, some of them non-graphic, which are presumed to live in a very similar way to how prehistoric cultures should have. It can also be said that this conception is somewhat prejudiced. Cognitive archaeology

However, there are those who consider that, while it is true that the art and objects left by the first human beings is a clue to how they might think , there is really no guarantee that they would give them the function that is modernly attributed to them.

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