Ancestral thoughts

The Prehistory of the Mind - The Prehistory of Sex
November 1, 1996

As we have come to perceive the extremities of our universe, from the outermost galaxies to the most minute fundamental particles, and as an understanding of DNA is revealing the mechanisms of life itself, there remains no greater mystery than the workings of the human mind and the nature of consciousness. The mechanisms of the brain are still rather obscure: neurophysiology has made progress, but it cannot yet explain the capacities, let alone the experiences of the mind. Computer scientists and specialists in Artificial Intelligence have offered a number of insights, but hitherto the pace of discussion has been quickest among philosophers and scientists whose focus has been primarily upon the modern mind, even if they have not hesitated to speculate upon evolutionary questions.

Until now the one notable exception has been Merlin Donald, a psychologist who in his Origins of the Modern Mind: Three Stages in the Evolution of Culture and Cognition has given the first serious treatment of the development of human cognition within an evolutionary perspective. And now, for the first time, the archaeological evidence has been brought to good effect into the discussion by a professional archaeologist. He writes with time, as it were, on his side. Steven Mithen is a specialist in the archaeology of hunter-gatherers, and in The Prehistory of the Mind he breaks new ground by seeking to focus our admittedly limited evidence for what did happen upon the still mysterious question as to what might have happened to bring about the emergence of our own species, with its remarkable capacities for language, art, science and indeed for progress. His well-written book sets the discussion in a new light. Even if, like all the other studies in this field, it is still some way from bridging the gap between our knowledge of the physiology of the brain and our understanding of human behaviour now and in the past, at least it introduces the evidence for that past behaviour in an informed way. In this respect it makes many recent writings on the subject seem now as speculative as those of the philosophes of two centuries ago. But if his grasp of the archaeology is secure, his account of the evolution of human faculties remains a schematic one, which will prove controversial.

Mithen begins, after an introductory chapter "Why ask an archaeologist about the human mind?", with an outline of "The drama of our past", sketching what is known of the evolution of our species, from our African origins six million years ago and the emergence of Australopithecus to the marked increase in brain size and the appearance of the first stone tools associated with Homo habilis ("Acts l and 2"). Act 3 is marked by the development of the hand-axe-making Homo erectus and the hominid dispersal out of Africa and into Asia and Europe (as well as the development of Neanderthal man), and Act 4 by the appearance of our own species Homo sapiens sapiens and its ensuing population of the world.

In chapter 3, "The architecture of the modern mind", he draws heavily upon the work of the evolutionary psychologists Leda Cosmides and John Tooby, who liken the mind to a Swiss army knife with its numerous highly specialised blades seen as equivalent to the mind's multiple mental modules. Developmental psychology indicates that young children seem to have intuitive knowledge about the world in at least four domains of behaviour relating to language, psychology, physics and biology, and Mithen notes that their intuitive knowledge within each of these domains "appears to be directly related to a hunting and gathering lifestyle long, long ago in prehistory". But he draws also on the notion of the cognitive scientist Dan Sperber, that in the course of evolution the mind has evolved another and rather special module (the "module of metare presentation") which holds only "concepts of concepts", and which, as Mithen later argues, can be equated with the development of generalised language capabilities and perhaps of self-consciousness.

He reaches the nub of his argument in Chapter 4, "A new proposal for the mind's evolution", in which he proposes three "architectural phases" for the evolution of the mind: "Phase l. Minds dominated by a domain of general intelligence - a suite of general-purpose learning and decision-making rules.

Phase 2. Minds in which general intelligence has been supplemented by multiple specialised intelligences, each devoted to a specific domain of behaviour, and each working in isolation from the others.

Phase 3. Minds in which the multiple specialised intelligences appear to be working together, with a flow of knowledge and ideas between behavioural domains."

He introduces here his dominant image of the mind as a cathedral, with a "nave" of general intelligence, and multiple "chapels" - initially isolated from each other and from the nave - of specialised intelligences: technical, linguistic, social, and natural historical.

In succeeding chapters he deals with the general intelligence of the early hominids, whose nearest modern equivalent is perhaps the chimpanzee ("Apes, monkeys and the mind of the missing link"), with "The mind of the first stone toolmaker", with "The multiple intelligences of the Early Human mind" (relating to Homo erectus), with "Trying to think like a Neanderthal", and then, crucially, with "The big bang of human culture: the origins of art and religion". It was with the transition to the Upper Palaeolithic more than 40,000 years ago that "the final major re-design of the mind took place. It is when the doors and windows were inserted in the chapel walls, or perhaps when a new 'superchapel' was constructed." He suggests that art - representation - is dependent upon the "cognitive fluidity" which now allows the different cognitive domains to operate upon each other and together: the social intelligence which permits intentional communication coming together with the technical intelligence of producing artefacts from mental templates, with the natural history intelligence which can interpret "natural symbols" such as hoof-prints, to create artefacts/images with symbolic meanings as a means of communication - ie art. He offers a comparable analysis for the rise of religion.

In the penultimate chapter, "So how did it happen?", he seeks to explain the rise of the "flexible mind" at this time, using again the image of the "superchapel" and introducing the role of consciousness. Finally in "The evolution of the mind" he ends in grand style with "The cognitive origins of science", and a consciousness-raising stroll through the cathedral of Santiago de Compostela: "My guide book to this cathedral and the other churches of Santiago tells me that walking within and between them will be like walking though history. But for me, it has been like walking through the Prehistory of the Mind."

This book has several great merits. It is written with pace and verve: it is easy to read, it is intelligent, it is well informed. Moreover it takes a relatively simple idea (of domain-specific mental modules) from developmental psychology, and applies it to the succeeding phases of the archaeological record. The result is a readable and persuasive account, even if perhaps a slightly simplistic one, which allows a whole series of other archaeological and developmental problems to be discussed in a coherent context. In this sense it makes a contribution comparable to that of Merlin Donald.

At the same time, there is no hint of an explanation as to how and why the "cognitive fluidity" associated with the "Big Bang" came about when it did. Moreover there is no discussion of the underlying physiological reality: there is as yet little indication from the biological anthropologists and the anatomists of any fundamental restructuring of the actual brain at this time: Mithen's "windows" are metaphorical. If there was a new "superchapel" in the physiological brain its appearance has not yet been recognised by the physiologists or palaeoanthropologists. This is hardly a reproach, but it is a limitation.

L-4drop = /It would, moreover, be an error to imagine that all archaeologists would be at one with the now rather fashionable notion of the "Big Bang" - the supposed quantum leap in human capabilities around 40,000 bc, supposedly associated with the emergence of our species Homo sapiens sapiens. In fact the physical transition (increase in brain size, changes in skull shape) appear to have taken place in Africa and perhaps in Asia tens of thousands of years earlier. On the other hand many of the significant behavioural developments which we associate with our own species took place later (and Mithen concludes with an epilogue on the origins of agriculture, which had to wait some 30,000 years after the "Big Bang"). Nor is it in any way clear that the human faculty of language emerged at that time: there are specialists who would associate it rather with Homo habilis some two million years earlier. The argument at this point, although widely accepted, is a circular one: the main case for placing language development at this period is to associate it plausibly with the other developments. There are times when the "Big Bang" enthusiasts, of whom Mithen is the most recent, sound almost like neocreationists, placing the key moment of divine intervention some 40,000 years ago.

The Prehistory of the Mind is likely to prove a controversial work. But it is a real contribution. It brings together the archaeological evidence and the arguments from developmental psychology in a way not hitherto undertaken. It offers a clear, simple and coherent account with which specialists are free to agree or disagree. Above all it is so readable that it makes the approach to this great subject a real intellectual adventure. It will have numerous readers, and it deserves to. If they take it as an established and authoritative text they will be mistaken: if they view it as a fresh and pioneering account of human origins certain to generate controversy and to stimulate further research they will be well rewarded.

Prehistory is clearly having a good month, and doubts about mind need not impede corporeal pleasures. If the spirit may sometimes be weak, the flesh is willing. Or that at least is the impression offered by The Prehistory of Sex. The title is undoubtedly eye-catching, and bestseller status can readily be predicted for a work which, even before you have opened it, may conjure up images of troglodytic orgasms and palaeolithic perversions. The author has certainly not, with his chapter headings, avoided such initial responses. His introduction to the Old Stone Age is headed "Meet the real Flintstones", and the art of the period is discussed under the rubric "Venus in Furs". But, with perhaps one exception, there is nothing unduly sensationalist in Timothy Taylor's approach. This is a tour through the highways and byways of human fertility, reproduction and sexual behaviour as documented, or hinted at, in the prehistoric archaeological record. Taylor is not judgmental about such matters - as he remarks, what was once viewed as "perversion" has become "deviation", and "deviation" is now "diversity".

The emphasis is upon Europe and Western Asia: the archaeology of India or the Far East hardly figures, nor are the rich resources of the archaeology of Pre-Columbian America significantly exploited: although he illustrates two Moche ceramic vessels (depicting male homosexual intercourse), the rich available iconography is unexpectedly neglected. So too, to a large extent, is the evidence from early Greece: Kenneth Dover's standard work on Greek homosexuality is unaccountably missing from the bibliography, yet Roman brothel tokens are represented (in George Taylor's elegant drawings). Yet if Taylor's presentation of the archaeological material is not comprehensive, his view of sexuality is wide ranging and not without humour. Even the tolerably well-informed reader may find something unexpected, whether concerning female ejaculation, transvestite shamans or divine masturbation.

Taylor's rather cheerful style only occasionally lets him down: the sensationalist exception mentioned above is his treatment of the Copper-age "Iceman" from the glacier in the tztal Alps ("tzi"), where he peddles some fanciful stories from the sensationalist press. In the notes he observes: "The report that Austrian women wanted to be inseminated with tzi's sperm was broadcast on the British news comedy quiz Have I Got News for You: the European paper from which the story purported to come was not identified, but I suppose it to have some degree of truth behind it." It is a supposition not everyone will share.

Those who read this book hoping for a reasoned account of the origins of human sexuality, building perhaps on the insights of Foucault, will be disappointed, nor does Taylor deal at length with the relatively recent developments of gender archaeology and feminist archaeology. His treatment of the Mother Goddess theory of Marija Gimbutas seems uncritical. But on the other hand his emphasis on the so-called btons de commandment of the Upper Palaeolithic, which he views as dildos, seems altogether reasonable, and some earlier discussions of them would have benefited from Taylor's candour.

In some ways it is surprising that this book has not been written earlier: the field is large (although the claim in the subtitle for "four million years" is not supported by any evidence more than 50,000 years old). Perhaps Taylor should now embark on The Joy of Prehistoric Sex on a continent-by-continent basis. The present volume is an informative and unstuffy beginning: a seminal work indeed.

Lord Renfrew is professor of archaeology, University of Cambridge.

The Prehistory of the Mind: A Search for the Origins of Art, Religion and Science

Author - Steven Mithen
ISBN - 0 500 050081 3
Publisher - Thames and Hudson
Price - £16.95
Pages - 288

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