The Prehistory of the Mind: The Cognitive Origins of Art, Religion and Science

ISBN 10: 0500281009 / ISBN 13: 9780500281000
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"A truly pioneering work, perhaps the first by a practicing archaeologist to review coherently the evolution of human cognitive abilities." ―Colin Renfrew, author of Before Civilization and Archaeology and Language

Here is an exhilarating intellectual performance, in the tradition of Roger Penrose's The Emperor's New Mind and Steven Pinker's The Language Instinct. On the way to showing how the world of our ancient ancestors shaped our modern modular mind, Steven Mithen shares one provocative insight after another as he answers a series of fascinating questions:
  • Were our brains hard-wired in the Pleistocene Era by the needs of hunter-gatherers?
  • When did religious beliefs first emerge?
  • Why were the first paintings made by humankind so technically accomplished and expressive?
  • What can the sexual habits of chimpanzees tell us about the prehistory of the modern mind?
This is the first archaeological account to support the new modular concept of the mind. The concept, promulgated by cognitive and evolutionary psychologists, views the mind as a collection of specialized intelligences or "cognitive domains," somewhat like a Swiss army knife with its specialized blades and tools. Arguing that only archaeology can answer many of the key questions raised by the new concept, Mithen delineates a three-phase sequence for the mind's evolution over six million years―from early Homo in Africa to the ice-age Neanderthals to our modern modular minds. The Prehistory of the Mind is an intriguing and challenging explanation of what it means to be human, a bold new theory about the origins and nature of the mind. 70 illustrations

Review: Try an experiment: take a passenger along on a brief car trip--a jaunt to the supermarket, say. Have a nice conversation while you're driving, and take a scenic route. Now, the next day, try to reconstruct the details of both the conversation and the trip. Chances are, unless something unusual happened along the way, that your memory of both will be indistinct, for we tend to forget the mundane--an example of what the cognitive scientist Daniel Dennett calls "rolling consciousness with swift memory loss."

Steven Mithen, an archaeologist with an interest in psychology, believes that just such a consciousness obtained among early humans when they went foraging for food or made tools. The evolution of higher, more memory-laden consciousness, he continues, occurred only as a result of a cognitive trick that doubtless involved some trial and error. The trick, simply put, was to guess what the social behavior of some member of one's social group might be in a given circumstance--to step outside one's own mind, in other words, and enter another's. This guesswork underlies the famed cave paintings of Altamira, an attempt to predict the behavior of migratory animals. It underlies as well another experiment: the development of agriculture, with the requisite predicting of how plants and animals might behave under a wide range of conditions.

Mithen's reconstruction of the ancestral human mind, laid out in a clear and accessible narrative, is a fine intellectual adventure. --Gregory McNamee

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