The mind is best understood by examining what people actually did at different points in human evolution. Anthony Gottlieb finds that archaeologists are the most useful guides to consciousnessby Anthony Gottlieb / December 20, 1996 / Leave a comment
Published in December 1996 issue of Prospect Magazine
How archaeologists must sometimes long to be asked to find a needle in a haystack. Such a task is simple compared with the grind of completing jigsaws within jigsaws, in which the pieces of one puzzle cannot even be identified without solving another. Given the difficulties of reconstructing something as relatively simple as a 3,000-year-old vase, can an archaeologist reconstruct a 30,000-year-old mind? Steven Mithen does not merely claim that this is possible. He does it.
In fact he goes even further back. In the course of explaining what produced the first stabs at art and religion, roughly 30 millennia ago, he treks backwards past the emergence of homo sapiens sapiens about 100,000 years ago, to the use of the first stone tools 2.5m years before, past the time of the last known ancestor shared by man and the non-human apes 6m years ago, all the way to the first blobs of evolving life. The point of this journey, however, lies in the present. The moral of Mithen’s tale is that “if you wish to know about the mind, do not ask only psychologists and philosophers: make sure you also ask an archaeologist.” He exploits the ideas of psychologists (Howard Gardner), philosophers (Jerry Fodor) and theories from other disciplines to construct hypotheses about the mind that can be put to the archaeological test. The results are often more revealing than those obtained by the standard method of examining mentality from the questionable vantage point of the here and now.
Mithen’s method is simple. Find out what man made and did, then see what can be inferred about the mental equipment that such achievements would require. A large part of this exercise consists in noticing contrasts between different stages of evolution. The limitations of early man are often as striking as his capabilities. Why did the tool-making Neanderthals never use the eminently suitable materials of bone, antler or ivory? Why did it take early humans 1.5m years to decide to become painters…