Stone Age man was a touchy feely type

Inside the Neolithic Mind - The Singing Neanderthal
March 3, 2006

Archaeology can, and should, ask some of the big questions.

Questioning the nature of human experience or our ability to understand and to represent the world definitely falls into this category.

These two important books, Inside the Neolithic Mind and The Singing Neanderthals , take slightly different routes into the history of human being. They are both situated within a fast-changing area of thought: that concerning human intelligence. Many disciplines have been inspired by recent developments in neuroscience using various successful approaches to the scanning of the human brain as a jumping-off point, although attempts to correlate brain activities with experience are proving more tricky. Such work is helping to link the brain more intimately to the body by showing that the brain monitors the processes of the body, including its biochemical and its emotional states. The old dichotomies between thought and emotion are starting to break down to be replaced by a more holistic view of human experience. Also, emphasis on links between the brain and the rest of the body takes the search for human intelligence out of the body and into the world. Artefacts and landscapes represent a series of activations for the skills of the body, so that links between human muscles and the objects that they deploy become crucial. The embodied human being works in partnership with the material world to create actions that are socially salient and effective.

To get a sense of how this partnership between people and objects might work, try a small experiment. Reach out your hand to pick up an everyday object such as a pen or mug. Stop just before your hand makes contact with the object. You will notice that your hand has taken on the shape of the object without your consciously willing it to do so. Our hands are educated by objects, and it is hard to exactly say where cause and effect lie, whether it is within the reaching hand or the shape of the object. Such trivial examples are powerful because they form the bedrock of everyday life. For the archaeologist, who is interested in the long-term history of material culture and of human intelligence, this complex relation between people and things is a great spur to thought, as is the possibility that objects are active agents helping to shape us.

It is this body-world combination that may be integral to forms of human intelligence, throwing new emphasis on the link between the human senses, the forms of artefacts that appeal to the senses and the social values attached to people and things. Such an emphasis on the combination of the body and the rest of the material world as the locus for intelligence reformulates notions of mind. The mind has long suffered from an uneasy relationship with the brain - the material brain being seen as the locus of the immaterial mind, which had the effect of subtly dematerialising the brain. But now that the brain is newly enfolded back into the body and the body is reconnected with the artefactual world, where is the mind? These are issues to which I shall return.

Another key issue is that of human universals. How far are human capabilities hard-wired into our organisms and hence likely to derive from our long-term evolutionary history? Or how far do human capabilities take shape through specific local cultural histories? Slightly more specifically, we could ask whether all human groups have the same set of basic emotions and responses, or whether what people feel derives from the fine details of their social lives?

Both these books raise such large issues, although they differ in other ways. Inside the Neolithic Mind concerns the nature of religious experience, its neural basis and material expression; The Singing Neanderthal is about the social communication of emotion, thought and information, as well as the evolutionary history of music and language. But both books, which are clearly written, have core arguments that attempt to win over readers; and both, rather than addressing a purely specialist audience, try instead to engage a wider public with information drawn from archaeology, together with that from a range of other disciplines.

Inside the Neolithic Mind , as the title implies, looks at the moves to farming, first in the Middle East and then in Western Europe. Older views of this transition saw it mainly as an economic shift, with the farming way of life guaranteeing basic security of food production in a way that hunting and gathering could not. More recent views have focused on the outburst of symbolism that accompanies settled life, and this is very much the direction that David Lewis-Williams and David Pearce follow. They have a number of specific hypotheses, the first of which is that religious symbolism worldwide derives from a set of neurologically generated experiences created in states of heightened consciousness. Because these experiences are generated by the workings of our brains, they are definitely seen to be human universals. The exact nature of religious symbolism, according to the authors, will derive from an interaction between these general experiences and the specifics of local cultural experience.

The domestication of animals, in this view, derives from the fact that some species are evoked in religious trances and dreams, so that it becomes likely that these can be corralled and controlled physically. At spectacular early archaeological sites - such as Gobekli Tepe in Turkey, where large carved stones are found with a combination of animals and people - much of the symbolism indicates in the authors' view a close spiritual interaction between people and animals. Further to the west, in large Neolithic chambered tombs in Ireland or Brittany, the symbolism of spirals and lines predominates, deriving from hallucinatory experiences occurring in states of heightened consciousness.

Much of the book is a complex and thought-provoking account of a series of archaeological sites and finds, complemented by an understanding of ethnographic instances of religious practices that develops the main argument. Although I am not totally sympathetic to the argument that religious experience and practice in all times and places has a common core, this book represents a sophisticated attempt to work through this hypothesis. At the beginning and the end of the book, the authors point out that it is an interaction between experience, belief and practice that makes human religions what they are. Had this subtle interaction been pursued a little further, the book might have had even more range and substance to it.

Steven Mithen's book concentrates on the earlier history of humanity, looking at the interaction of language and music since the earliest hominids appeared. The book contains two different hypotheses that are later linked. The first concerns language. Following Alison Wray, Mithen argues that so-called holistic language, which transmits general messages, long precedes "compositional language" made up of words and syntax.

Compositional language comes about when more holistic utterances are segmented to form words. Music is also a holistic form in that meaning derives from a whole phrase or passage rather than from an individual note.

Thus Mithen's second hypothesis is that the origins of language and the origins of music are one and the same. Holistic forms of language and of music are good at evoking and transmitting feeling. Only compositional language can effectively transmit meanings, and this has evolved over the past 50,000 years in a dense social landscape, where regular encounters with novel situations and people necessitated the creation and transmission of new but vital meanings. Mithen links these ideas to a previous notion of his, that of cognitive fluidity. Syntactical language allows different areas of thought to be connected, which can foster much greater creativity.

Mithen's book is an interesting attempt to probe the long-term history of feeling as well as of thought. But the dichotomy between language, which transmits information, and music, which evokes emotion, is somewhat overdrawn. Poetry exists in language as well as in prose, and all language may have emotional force as well as information content. It would have been nice to see Mithen's hypothesis worked through in terms of the artefactual evidence. Nevertheless, this book represents a departure from his previous approaches in emphasising the emotions and the body as well as a reasoning mind.

Although each book has a different subject matter and approach, the two are unified by the fact that they both work inside out. They both start with an internal state of the mind or body of a human or a hominid and then work towards its external consequences. Thus, for Lewis-Williams and Pearce, images that appear in the mind of a shaman are later recreated as carvings on the lintel of a chambered tomb. Those who emphasise a balanced partnership between people and objects might well be more inclined to feel that the act of carving helped create images in the mind's eye and that the regular sight of such images, particularly in a context where many of the senses might have been stimulated, reinforced mental impressions. The mind is dependent on the actions of the human body, as much as it is able to guide those actions. In such views, perception is part of the flow of action, and representations of an object are derived from perception. A more object-centred view is also consonant with the nature of archaeological evidence, which, for the prehistoric period, is purely material. Starting with such material evidence and looking at its impact on the human body, its skills and its senses, grounds the approach from the word go in archaeological empirical detail.

Although other views of these difficult issues are possible, these books are intelligent, important and clear. Anyone who likes to ask broad questions about intelligence, religion and experience, as well as anyone interested in long-term human history, will be able to read and argue with these books with enjoyment and profit.

Chris Gosden is lecturer in prehistory/curator, Pitt Rivers Museum, Oxford University.

Inside the Neolithic Mind: Consciousness, Cosmos and the Realm of the Gods

Author - David Lewis-Williams and David Pearce
Publisher - Thames and Hudson
Pages - 320
Price - £18.95
ISBN - 0 500 05138 0

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