In This Article Expand or collapse the "in this article" section Evolutionary Cognitive Archaeology

  • Introduction
  • Foundational Articles
  • Authored Books
  • Edited Volumes
  • Epistemological Issues
  • Evolutionary Psychology
  • Language
  • Memory
  • Neandertals
  • Neuroscience
  • Paleoneurology
  • Social Cognition
  • Technical Cognition
  • Miscellaneous Articles

Anthropology Evolutionary Cognitive Archaeology
Frederick L. Coolidge, Thomas Wynn
  • LAST MODIFIED: 26 February 2020
  • DOI: 10.1093/obo/9780199766567-0233


Cognitive archaeology may be divided into two branches. Evolutionary cognitive archaeology (ECA) is the discipline of prehistoric archaeology that studies the evolution of human cognition. Practitioners are united by a methodological commitment to the idea that archaeological traces of past activity provide access to the minds of the agents responsible. The second branch, ideational cognitive archaeology, encompasses archaeologists who strive to discover the meaning of symbolic system, primarily through the analysis of iconography. This approach differs from ECA in its epistemology, historical roots, and citation universes, and focuses on comparatively recent time periods (after 10,000 years ago). Evolutionary cognitive archaeologists are concerned with the nature of cognition itself, and its evolutionary development from the time of the last common ancestor with chimpanzees to the final ascendancy of modern humans at the end of the Pleistocene. Although ECA methods are primarily archaeological, its theoretical grounding is in the cognitive sciences, including cognitive psychology, neuropsychology, and cognitive neuroscience. It is by its nature interdisciplinary. ECA differs from the allied discipline of evolutionary psychology in several important respects. Methodologically, ECA is a macroevolutionary science that studies physical evidence of past human cognition, including archaeological and fossil remains. Evolutionary psychology relies heavily on reverse engineering from controlled experiments on living humans. Theoretically, ECA is more eclectic, drawing on a variety of cognitive and evolutionary models; evolutionary psychology is committed to a neo-Darwinian, selectionist understanding of evolutionary change. The two approaches tend to study different components of human mental life, but are not inherently contradictory. ECA practitioners reconstruct prehistoric activities using well-established archaeological methods and techniques, including morphological analysis of artifacts to identify action sequences and decision patterns, functional analyses (e.g., microwear) to identify use patterns, and spatial patterns within sites to recognize activity loci (e.g., hearths). An increasingly important method is the actualistic recreation of prehistoric technologies to identify features not preserved in the archaeological remains. Neuroarchaeologists enhance such actualistic research by imaging the brains of the participants (most typically using fMRI), an approach that also contributes directly to cognitive science’s understanding of the neural basis of technical cognition. ECA practitioners take two non-mutually exclusive approaches to documenting human cognitive evolution. The first approach enriches the understanding of specific hominin taxa (i.e., Homo sapiens and their direct ancestors since 6 million years ago) by providing accounts of their cognitive life worlds, or by contrasting two taxa with one another. This approach is famously exemplified by attempts to contrast the abilities of Neandertals with those of modern humans. The second approach traces the evolution of specific cognitive abilities from the first appearance of stone tools 3.3 million years ago to the emergence of city-states 5,000 years ago. The range of accessible cognitive abilities is limited by the nature of archaeological remains, but evolutionary cognitive archaeologists have been able to trace developments in spatial cognition, memory, cognitive control, technical expertise, theory of mind, aesthetic cognition, symbolism, language, and numeracy.

Foundational Articles

As is true in most sciences, the novel ideas and approaches of ECA initially appeared in journal articles. 1979 was arguably a pivotal year. Gowlett 1979, Parker and Gibson 1979, and Wynn 1979 are three articles of lasting influence, quite independent of one another, that argue for the importance of archaeological remains in documenting cognitive developments in human evolution But they did not arise in a vacuum, and indeed were foreshadowed by three earlier papers—Holloway 1969, by a paleoneurologist, and two by archaeologists, Isaac 1976 and Marshack 1972—though these had had little direct influence on archaeological practice. 1989 saw the first teaming of an archaeologist and a psychologist: Davidson and Noble 1989 uses an explicitly non-Cartesian model of mind to challenge the facile, and ungrounded, assumptions most paleoanthropologists had been making about the evolution of language. The 1990s saw a growing interest in the cognitive approach, especially Renfrew 1993 in the United Kingdom, and Ambrose 2001 in the US premier journal Science, demonstrating that by the early 2000s ECA had acquired sufficient momentum worldwide.

  • Ambrose, S. 2001. Paleolithic technology and human evolution. Science 291:1748–1753.

    DOI: 10.1126/science.1059487

    Very much in the tradition of Glynn Isaac and John Gowlett, Stanley Ambrose relies on dramatic changes in the archaeological record itself as the starting point for a discussion of important developments in hominin cognition. And, like Isaac, he privileges language as a component of hominin cognitive success. Ambrose’s article was especially important because it appeared in Science, the leading US journal of general science.

  • Davidson, I., and W. Noble. 1989. The archaeology of perception: Traces of depiction and language. Current Anthropology 30:125–155.

    DOI: 10.1086/203723

    This was the first direct collaboration between an archaeologist and a psychologist. Grounding their analysis in the perceptual psychology of James Gibson and the philosophy of Ludwig Wittgenstein, the authors make an explicit, archaeologically based argument for the role of depiction in the evolution of language. The article is also significant in its advocacy of a non-Cartesian view of the mind.

  • Gowlett, J. 1979. Complexities of cultural evidence in the Lower and Middle Pleistocene. Nature 278:14–17.

    DOI: 10.1038/278014b0

    Here John Gowlett argues that developments in lithic technology early in the Stone Age can best be understood as reflecting evolutionary developments in hominin cognitive abilities. This was the first explicit shift away from the materialist/ecological interpretation of artifacts that had dominated Paleolithic studies throughout the decade of the 1970s.

  • Holloway, R. 1969. Culture: A human domain. Current Anthropology 10:395–412.

    DOI: 10.1086/201036

    Ralph Holloway pioneered the study of hominin endocranial casts, and in this 1969 article in Current Anthropology expanded his discussion of hominin brain evolution to include consideration of the archaeological record. His suggestion that standardization in the archaeological record reflected rule-governed behavior, and was thus similar to language, was in keeping with the structuralist/linguistic theoretical orientation of American anthropology at the time.

  • Isaac, G. 1976. Stages of cultural elaboration in the Pleistocene: Possible archaeological indicators of the development of language capabilities. In Origins and evolution of language and speech. Vol. Annals 280. Edited by S. Harnad, H. Steklis, and J. Lancaster, 275–288. New York: New York Academy of Science.

    In the early 1970s, Glynn Isaac was largely responsible for the development of the ecological approach to early archaeological sites in East Africa that prevailed for the next thirty years. But in 1976, in response to an invitation from Steven Harnad, Isaac addressed possible archaeological evidence for the evolution of language. Though very cautious, he suggested that patterns in lithic variability might reflect rule-governed behavior, and thus language.

  • Marshack, A. 1972. Cognitive aspects of Upper Paleolithic engraving. Current Anthropology 13:445–477.

    DOI: 10.1086/201311

    In an article that was variously vilified, mocked, or ignored by archaeologists, Alexander Marshack had the temerity to suggest that engraved bones from European Upper Paleolithic sites might tell scholars something about how prehistoric people organized time. Three decades later, Francesco d’Errico and colleagues largely confirmed Marshack’s conclusions. The notion that certain kinds of objects could have enhanced cognition is now taken very seriously.

  • Parker, S., and K. Gibson. 1979. A developmental model for the evolution of language and intelligence in early hominids. Behavioral and Brain Sciences 2:367–408.

    DOI: 10.1017/S0140525X0006307X

    In the late 1970s Sue Parker and Kathleen Gibson took what at the time was an unprecedented step for paleoanthropological scholarship—they turned to the psychological literature to search for theories of intelligence. Their application of Piagetian developmental psychology to the fossil and archaeological records demonstrated convincingly that psychology had much to offer both archaeologists and human paleontologists. Their emphasis on extractive foraging of embedded foods remains an important component of models of ape and hominin cognition.

  • Renfrew, C. 1993. Cognitive archaeology: Some thoughts on the archaeology of thought. Cambridge Archaeological Journal 3.2: 248–250.

    Renfrew was one of the first to use the term “cognitive archaeology.” In this article, Renfrew established his understanding of the cognitive-processual approach, grounded in the methods of processual archaeology and focusing on how people think in the ways they do. He also distinguished between pre-sapient cognitive archaeology and modern humans’ cognitive archaeology, and he recognized the distinctiveness of ECA from other approaches.

  • Wynn, T. 1979. The intelligence of later Acheulean hominids. Man 14:371–391.

    DOI: 10.2307/2801865

    Wynn applied developmental psychologist Jean Piaget’s scheme of cognitive development in the analysis of stone tools from the Isimila prehistoric site in Tanzania. He used the scheme to identify attributes of spatial thinking that could be recognized in the geometry of stone tools, and then used the general theory to construct an argument about the general intelligence of the hominins responsible.

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