Making utensils provided man tools of thought

May 1, 1998

A news round-up from the third conference on consciousness in Tucson, Arizona

The making of artefacts by early man played a key role in the emergence of human consciousness, an archaeologist claims.

The process of thinking through problems involved in making tools and creating images such as cave paintings externalised and, therefore, fostered conscious thought, argues Steve Mithen, a senior lecturer in archaeology at Reading University who spoke at the Tucson III conference.

Other scientists contend that the creation of artefacts was the result of emerging consciousness, not an integral part of it, Dr Mithen notes.

He has been examining the extent to which our early ancestors were conscious of themselves and their world by considering how they developed tools and utensils and represented their thoughts creatively.

The technical demands of making a stone hand axe more than a million years ago are likely to have involved early man's talking to himself about ways of applying knowledge. "My argument is that they were probably using this private speech as they talked themselves through the tasks, so directing language into consciousness. Through cave paintings they were able to expand and explore the nature of their minds," Dr Mithen said.

The images and objects created acted as a cue for recalling the knowledge used to create them, helping to build a collective consciousness. "Ideas about ourselves and the world around us were externalised in art and tool-making. That is how I see consciousness: a growing understanding of what knowledge and understanding we have in our minds. It is no good just looking at brains and how they work. We have to take a holistic view of how consciousness developed," Dr Mithen said.

See Perspective, page 20

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