Neanderthal man needed a brain to make tools. So why did he not
move on from his daily grind? Geoff Watts meets an archaeologist who is trying to find out Another day, another axe. A quick search for a few flints of the right size and shape, then into a shady spot for a bit of gentle napping. The outcome of this endeavour: a couple of serviceable hand axes. Just like father used to make ... and grandfather ... and great-grandfather, and so on back to the nth ancestral generation.
Life in Neanderthal times had a certain repetitive quality. Yet this is odd. It took a fair amount of skill to make good hand axes; these things were more than the products of an automaton with no intelligence.
So why did they go on making the same thing for tens of thousands of years when a moment's thought would surely have suggested the possibility of other and perhaps better technologies? Were these creatures utterly without imagination?
It was thoughts like this which drew Steve Mithen of the University of Reading to take an interest in the evolution of human consciousness. All sorts of disciplines have signed up to the study of the human mind: not just neuro-scientists but philosophers, mathematicians, engineers and computer scientists. Mithen is none of these; he is an archaeologist.
The raw materials of archaeology are artefacts, yet long-dead minds leave no direct, tangible remains. On the other hand, every human artefact is the product of a mind. It is even, some might say, a lingering extension of it. In that light, a study of human artefacts can also be a study of the minds that produced them.
Back to stone tools and the long failure to progress to anything better. "It's bizarre because we know the Neanderthals were under a lot of adaptive stress," says Mithen.
"From their skeletal remains we can see that many of them were suffering from injuries and disease. They were living under harsh environmental conditions in a highly competitive society, especially when modern humans started to encroach on their territories. But what do we see? No inventions, no innovation.
"If they could have reflected on their tool-making, if they could have talked about it in the way that modern humans would, they wouldn't have carried on doing the same thing year in, year out. This tells me something fairly fundamental about their minds and the type of consciousness they had. I think their knowledge about tool-making must have been largely isolated from any conscious reflection on that knowledge," says Mithen.
Mithen has been building on a suggestion put forward by the psychologist Nick Humphrey more than 20 years ago. Humphrey's idea was that consciousness, in the sense of an ability to reflect on one's own thoughts and behaviour, originated as a device for understanding the actions of others and so being able to predict them. The survival advantages of this are self-evident, and natural selection would have pushed it forward.
In addition to this type of "social intelligence", and also the technical intelligence required to make tools, Neanderthals and our own forebears must have had an expert knowledge of plants, animals and the environment - a natural history intelligence.
But in one way, claims Mithen, they were radically different from us. These various forms of intelligence occupied different domains of the mind. They operated independently of each other. The use of stone tools was not questioned because the consciousness required to reflect on such matters was devoted to people, not to things.
It has to be said that imagining what it must have been like to have several different kinds of intelligence rattling around in the same head, all functioning independently of one another, is not easy.
The closest parallel that Mithen can suggest is our ability to speak grammatically without having to think about the rules.
"Around about 130,000 years ago, modern humans appeared," he says. "Part of that development involved the breakdown of the separation of these different intelligences. From around 100,000 years ago we see some slight glimmers of a change in behaviour."
And with the advent of this new ability to apply self-reflexive consciousness to objects and processes, Homo sapiens began to take greater control of his destiny.
Mithen does not believe that this development should be seen as a purely biological change in the brain. A biological change may have triggered it; but once cross-domain thinking had begun, and consciousness had permeated the whole mind, cultural change rapidly overwhelmed biological development in its speed and power.
A lot of archaeologists now take an interest in ideas of this kind, but only a few are actively researching them. Thinking back to his own entry into what has now become known as cognitive evolution, it occurred to Mithen that a course offering the basics of psychology, philosophy and linguistics as well as archaeology would have been a useful preparation. Three years ago, with that in mind, he established a one-year master's degree covering precisely these topics.
Mithen is pleased with the way it has worked out. "It offers precisely the kind of intellectual excitement that universities are supposed to be all about," he says.