False trails into the mists of time

May 1, 1998

Real understanding of the mind is being hindered by a simplistic link to the human race's hunter-gatherer past, argues Steven Mithen.

These are heady days for archaeology. Not only has the past decade seen a succession of remarkable fossil discoveries about our human ancestors but philosophers, linguists and psychologists are showing a flattering and new-found interest in our evolutionary past as they come to realise what archaeologists have always known, that we can only understand the present by understanding the past.

The present these pioneers wish to understand is that of the human mind. Powerful arguments have been made by the likes of Steven Pinker, Leda Cosmides and John Tooby for the development of an evolutionary psychology, a psychology which would enable us to understand how our minds, even today, are still essentially adapted to coping with conditions prevalent in the Old Stone Age; how late 20th-century minds are structured and may have evolved.

Seemingly paradoxical features of past behaviour, such as how Neanderthals can at times appear so modern and at others so primitive, can apparently be resolved by applying the theories of evolutionary psychology. The subject also claims to explain the transformation in human thought that happened between 30,000 and 100,000 years ago.

The problem is that the psychologists are presenting a rather simplified view about our hunter-gatherer past. From books such as Pinker's Language Instinct and How the Mind Works a curious figure has been resurrected that archaeologists laid to rest many years ago: the ancestral pristine hunter-gatherer living outside of history in that mythical land called the environment of evolutionary adaptedness (EEA). These are the hunter-gatherers we supposedly need to find in the archaeological record to tell us all about the modern mind; these are the ones whose minds were moulded by natural selection to solve their problems of survival and reproduction; these are the ones whose minds we still possess today.

Well, where did they live? When did they live? What exactly were the problems of survival and reproduction their minds evolved to solve? Such are the questions that now too frequently arrive on email from enthusiasts of evolutionary psychology, especially undergraduates writing their dissertations. Psychologists do not have the answers - why should they? Is it archaeologists' responsibility to actually reconstruct the past? Well, we do not have the answers either. And we rather doubt the value of such questions.

Forty years ago we might have been more sympathetic. That was when all hunter-gatherers, whether in prehistory, the recent past or still living were thought to share similar features: they lived in small groups, were highly mobile, and egalitarian. One could seriously talk about "a hunter-gatherer lifestyle", one outside of history and to which we remain adapted. But no longer. First, archaeologists began to take greater note of the diversity of hunter-gatherer lifestyles represented in the ethnographic record. Some of these were indeed, small, mobile and egalitarian. But others were different, such as those of the stratified societies of the north west coast of America. And then new discoveries were made, or old material re-interpreted, to show an even greater diversity of hunter-gatherer lifestyles.

Indeed, if there is any single trend in the archaeological study of hunter-gatherers during the last few decades it has been the documentation of this remarkable diversity. It ranges from those "classic" small mobile communities to sedentary hunter-gatherers using symbols and cemeteries to mark territories. Prehistoric hunter-gatherers have had egalitarian societies, stratified societies and those based on inherited status. They have been specialised big game hunters, generalised foragers, and resource managers. They have lived in large groups and small groups, had rich artistic material culture and a Spartan existence, been creative and traditional, exotic and mundane. Moreover, they were always changing: each and every hunter-gatherer society has its own history.

And if we move away from the hunter-gatherer societies of anatomically modern humans: if we start to include those hunter-gatherer societies created by our ancestors and relatives, such as the Neanderthals, Homo heidelbergensis and Homo erectus, we find even greater diversity. We find societies in which meat was probably acquired by scavenging, societies in which males and females may have lived largely separate lives and in which tool-making traditions continued for thousands of years. The new discoveries are illustrating new types of human behaviour: at Atapuerca, bodies appear to have been deliberately disposed of, but with no trace of ritual or symbolism.

Moreover the variety of hunter-gatherer lifestyles we can infer from the archaeological record is likely to be just a tiny portion of that which once existed. Why? Well, because the past 30 years has also shown us that Old Stone Age environments were vastly more variable than had once been assumed: and so too must have been the behaviour of the human groups that occupied them.

What common features survive among these hunter-gatherers? Just the need to fulfil basic human needs: finding food and mates, avoiding predators. But of course these are needs faced by all animals and it seems unlikely that we will extract from their study that "thing" about the human mind that makes it so remarkably different to the minds of all other animals. And while evolutionary psychology has helped us understand our continuities with the animal world, such as the patterns it has found in human mate choice or interpersonal violence, it has yet to make an impact on telling us how the human mind is so unique.

But these are early days. If evolutionary psychology can rid itself of the belief in the mythical Pleistocene hunter-gatherer living in the mythical EEA, a belief which is equivalent to an archaeologist believing that the human mind should still be studied as a Skinnerian Black Box, then progress will be made. For no one should doubt that the human mind did evolve - it is not a product of one EEA but of a whole multitude, stretching back not just into the Old Stone Age, but further to the first primates 60 million years ago, and perhaps more.

Steven Mithen is a lecturer in the department of archaeology, University of Reading.

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