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The Foundations of Cognitive ArchaeologyReview - The Foundations of Cognitive Archaeology
by Marc A. Abramiuk
MIT Press, 2012
Review by John Bolender
May 7th 2013 (Volume 17, Issue 19)

The book has two stated major aims.  One is to reconcile contrasting approaches and schools of thought within paleoarchaeology.  The author distinguishes six such approaches.  There is the general comparative approach in which one infers prehistoric thoughts from the thoughts of people who today live in a society similar to the prehistoric one, e.g. organizationally similar.  There is the direct historical approach in which one infers prehistoric thoughts from the thoughts of direct descendents.   There is the structural approach (Structuralism), which assumes that the human being is innately predisposed to conceive of the world in terms of binary opposites; one thus looks for evidence in the archaeological record for such opposites.  The remaining approaches, materiality, associative and conditional, will be discussed as we go along. 

The book also has a cross-disciplinary aspect, which will be my main concern here.  The cross-disciplinary aim is to show "that most mind-related archaeological research is built upon empirically and logically substantiated principles derived from relevant disciplines" (p. vii).  Unfortunately, the author often misunderstands or overstates such connections.  Consider, for example, Abramiuk's discussion of what he calls "the conditional approach," which he defines as the attempt to infer cognitive capacities from archaeological remains.  He defends the "conditional approach" by arguing for the extended-mind hypothesis of Clark and Chalmers, i.e. thought processes are literally extended into the external environment through, for example, the manipulation of tools (pp. 27-9).  When I use paper and pencil to perform long division, my scribbling is literally part of my mental computation.  (One wonders how this is to be reconciled with Abramiuk's characterization of perception as "a process in which stimulus information, originating in the environment, is channeled through the sensory organs and revealed to us in the mind" (p. 95).)  The conditional approach is reasonable because the extended-mind hypothesis is true (p. 258).  But even someone who insists that mental processes are wholly within the cranium could hardly deny that archaeological artifacts throw light on mental capacities.  Defending the extended-mind hypothesis, in this context, would only appear necessary to someone who is not distinguishing evidence for a given mental process from the process itself.  It is analogous to saying that one must first argue that the vapor trail in the cloud chamber partly constitutes the electron before feeling confident in inferring the presence of an electron from a vapor trail.  More broadly, Abramiuk does not need to defend a relatively uncontroversial position by appealing to a more controversial one. 

The example illustrates a pervasive feature of the book, namely supporting fairly obvious or elementary points with unnecessarily complex arguments.  To take another example, Abramiuk engages in a lengthy discussion of modus ponens and modus tollens to elucidate the use of conditionals in the "conditional approach."  He notes, for example, that Steven Mithen might be hasty in inferring from the absence of carvings made from animal parts to a rigidly modularized Early Human intelligence (pp. 148f).  A brief discussion of modus tollens might have been useful here, but Abramiuk's lengthy analysis of it seems like overkill.  He even includes a discussion of the Wason selection task, the relevance of which is not explained.  The only point really needing to be made is that Mithen might be too hasty in treating the following conditional as having no exceptions: "If Early Human intelligence exhibited cognitive fluidity (specifically, information flow between natural history intelligence and technical intelligence), then there is evidence of Early Human carvings made from animal parts."  In other words, not all conditionals are truth-functionally defined.  One could thus caution other cognitive archaeologists against construing their own conditionals too rigidly. 

Furthermore, it is not clear why the use of conditionals in this approach merits so much emphasis in the first place.  Every archaeological approach crucially employs conditionals, because the inference from the known to the unknown always requires them.  Even staunchly positivist attempts to reconstruct science always construed scientific generalizations in terms of conditionals.  This includes psychological behaviorism, which Abramiuk compares to classic processualism and which he clearly distinguishes from the "conditional approach" (p. 10); the supposed "stimulus-response laws" of Skinner were understood as conditionals.  The only important difference between the "conditional approach" and others is that the former is more greatly concerned with inferring underlying cognitive architecture and mechanisms.  So Abramiuk's discussion of the logic of conditionals is not only unnecessarily detailed but out of place in the context of discussing just this one approach. 

Another attempted cross-disciplinary connection concerns the supposed links between different forms of materiality and various positions on the metaphysics of mind, perhaps even the cosmos.  The materiality approach emphasizes the effects of cultural products on people's beliefs, desires, and actions.  It is the attempt to infer what a given prehistoric people directly perceived in their environment, and also the concepts based on these percepts.  "The materiality approach is based on the idea that mind and material are inextricably locked in a dialectical relationship.  In this dialectic, not only are mental concepts materialized by people, but the materializations in turn have a cognitive effect on people.  The basic idea is that material objects are active in shaping life ways; they facilitate certain behaviors as well as thought processes" (p. 105). 

Abramiuk recognizes two forms of materiality, one according to which humans produce objects which, in turn, influence their thoughts.  The other, more extreme, form is the claim that "there is little or no division between material objects in the environment and the mind" (p. 17).  (How this might relate to the extended-mind hypothesis is not discussed.)  Abramiuk claims that the former kind of materiality is committed to interactionist dualism, the view that there are two substances, mental and physical, which stand in causal relations to one another.  He claims that the latter, more extreme, form is committed to double aspectism, which he defines as the "view that contends that a dual substance, in which matter and mind are aspects, pervades the universe" (p. 264). 

The claim that slight variants of an archaeological approach have such divergent, and extreme, metaphysical commitments would need to be defended in great detail.  Abramiuk does not provide the detail, and one is left wondering why the author makes such strong claims.  His remark, that Gibson, in discussing affordances, revealed a "bent" toward double aspectism, is not very illuminating (p. 111).  That a single substance pervades (constitutes?) the universe is a very strong claim, demanding a detailed explanation as to how it relates to affordances and materiality, if indeed it really does.   

Abramiuk comes close to, but still misses, an opportunity to link archaeology to philosophy in what is potentially a very solid way.  The philosopher of language H. P. Grice distinguished various levels of intentionality in his discussion of semantics in linguistic communication.  In the 1980s, influenced by Grice, Daniel Dennett suggested that levels of intentionality might serve as a useful means of categorizing the cognitive capacities of various primate species (1983).  Dennett also noted that levels of intentionality pretty intuitively suggest a scale of intelligence, hence suggesting a model for mapping the course of early hominin cognitive evolution.  Possibly, first-order intentionality came first, e.g. believing that rabbits taste good.  This was later accompanied by second-order intentionality, e.g. wanting one's neighbor to believe that rabbits taste good, which was later accompanied by third-order intentionality, e.g. wanting one's neighbor to believe that one believes that rabbits taste good, and so on. 

Abramiuk does not cite Grice or Dennett, but does cite Sperber who has defended Dennett's view.  Abramiuk maintains that the hypothesis fits the archaeological record fairly well.  For Abramiuk, evidence of second-order intentionality appears during the Lower Paleolithic, specifically in the Acheulian period.  Only with the Upper Paleolithic does one find full-blown modern higher-order intentionality, or "metaconceptualization" as he terms it.  "It is only in the Upper Paleolithic period that semantic concepts and connotative symbolism become clearly expressed.  It is during this time that archaeological evidence for third-order metaconceptualization capability (the ability to communicate through external symbols) appears" (p. 241).  But note that for Grice, linguistic communication requires more than three levels of intentionality (1969).  If my saying to you "Looks like rain" means that it might rain, then I intend that [you recognize that [I want [you to believe that [I think that [it might rain]]]]].  In contrast to Grice, Abramiuk asserts that fourth-order intentionality is not even necessary for religion (p. 239), much less verbal communication.  Given the author's eagerness to make connections with philosophy, it is surprising not to find Dennett, and especially Grice, in a discussion of higher-order intentionality and symbolic communication.

In my view, the archaeological evidence is less conclusive than Abramiuk takes it to be.  Full-blown higher-order intentionality was perhaps present even as early as the Lower Paleolithic.  There is evidence, for example, for seafaring from the Lower Paleolithic (Strasser et al. 2010; 2011), and evidence for the production of ochre, which may have been used to decorate the skin for symbolic purposes, from 100,000 years ago (Henshilwood et al. 2011).  Abramiuk is correct to note that the abundance of such evidence dramatically increases with the transition to the Upper Paleolithic, roughly 50,000 years ago, but this may be due to increased population densities placing greater demands upon, and hence stimulating, cognition (Bolender 2007).  We could be seeing the awakening of a dormant potential rather than any pertinent genetic change.  This would be consistent with the occasional bright flashes of advanced cognition prior to the Upper Paleolithic.  

Abramiuk's attempts to link archaeology with cognitive science are often a bit weak.  Consider, for example, his discussion of what he terms the "associative method" in archaeology.  This is the attempt to find evidence of thematically related groupings of concepts based on archaeological remains.  Abramiuk notes, for example, the inference that pigs were associated with prestige in Neolithic China from the discovery that pig skulls were found with other apparently prestige items in certain graves while other graves contained neither.  In Chapter 3, the author discusses this and similar examples of the associative method in archaeology, while also discussing psychological work on concepts, specifically addressing associative links between concepts and the roles of exemplars and prototypes.  But it is hard to discern how the author has uncovered any interesting or revealing link between these two bodies of literature; there is little more here than the trivial point that both are concerned with associations among concepts. 

Abramiuk appeals to the arguments of Wynn and Coolidge to the effect that humans enjoy an enhanced working-memory system (pp. 230f).  He notes that improved working memory would have boosted language capacity, which Abramiuk appears to understand primarily as a phonological and communicational system.  "Increased phonological storage would have been crucial for language, and it would have allowed for an increased capacity for articulatory rehearsal.  More language-based information would have been stored and pieced together; this would have led to the use of longer sentences containing more information and increased syntactic complexity" (p. 233).  I suspect that Abramiuk does not go nearly far enough.  The cognitive boost provided by an enhanced working memory could benefit syntactic computation directly apart from increasing phonological storage, e.g. in the derivation of structural descriptions.  In other words, increased working-memory capacity could boost what linguists call "derivational memory" which crucially enters into the structural descriptions generated by a transformational grammar (Piattelli-Palmarini and Uriagereka 2005).

In my view, Abramiuk's proposed linkages between archaeology, on the one hand, and philosophy and cognitive science, on the other, range from the trivial to the shaky.  Nonetheless, the attempt to link archaeology more strongly to these other fields may be of some value even when it falters.  Perhaps the book makes a contribution, in its cross-disciplinary aspect, simply by reason of the author's noble intention.     

 

References

 

Bolender, J. 2007. Prehistoric cognition by description: A Russellian approach to the Upper Paleolithic. Biology and Philosophy 22:383-399.

Dennett, D. C. 1983. Intentional systems in cognitive ethology. Behavioral and Brain Sciences 6:343-390.

Grice, H. P. 1969. Utterer's meaning and intentions. Philosophical Review. 78:147-177.

Henshilwood, C. S., F. d'Errico, K. L. van Nieker, Y. Coquinot, Z. Jacobs, S. Lauritzen, M. Menu, and R. García-Moreno. 2011. A 100,000-year-old ochre-processing workshop at Blombos Cave, South Africa. Science 334 (6053): 219-222.

Piattelli-Palmarini, M., and J. Uriagereka. 2005. The evolution of the narrow language faculty: The skeptical view and a reasonable conjecture. Lingue e Linguaggio 4 (1): 27-79.

Strasser, T. F., E. Panagopoulou, C. Runnels, P. M. Murray, N. Thompson, P. Karkanas, F. McCoy, and K. W. Wegmann. Stone Age seafaring in the Mediterranean: Evidence from the Plakias region for Lower Paleolithic and Mesolithic habitation of Crete. 2010. Hesperia: The Journal of the American School of Classical Studies at Athens. 79:145-190.

Strasser, T. F., C. Runnels, K. Wegmann, E. Panagopoulou, F. McCoy, C. DiGregorio, P. Karkanas, and N. Thompson. 2011. Dating Paleolithic sites in southwestern Crete. Journal of Quaternary Science 26:553-560.

 

© 2013 John Bolender

 

John Bolenderis the author of The Self-Organizing Social Mind (MIT Press), Digital Social Mind (Imprint Academic), and Unfelt, Unheard, Unseen: Thinking beyond the Observable (forthcoming). 


 

Response from Marc Abramiuk received May 21, 2013

Published June 4, 2013

 

In response to the comments dated 7 May 2013, the reviewer correctly begins by stating that my book has two general aims.  "One is to reconcile contrasting approaches and schools of thought within paleoarchaeology" (archaeology?).  The other is a cross disciplinary aim, which is to show "that most mind-related archaeological research is built upon empirically and logically substantiated principles derived from relevant disciplines" (p. vii), a quote taken from my book.  With respect to the latter aim, I also have written that "[e]stablishing these 'multidisciplinary' foundations will facilitate the moving of mind-related archaeological research in a productive direction by promoting fruitful dialogue between archaeology and the other disciplines upon which much of this research is founded" (p. viii).  The reviewer chooses to focus on the latter of the two general aims and selects three of the six approaches that I discuss in the book.  I will attempt to address each of these points sequentially.  Thus, a good portion of the content of my book will not be discussed here.

The first point the reviewer makes is that I presumably defend "the 'conditional approach' by arguing for the extended-mind hypothesis of Clark and Chalmers [1998], i.e. thought processes are literally extended into the external environment through, for example, the manipulation of tools (pp. 27-9)."  I offer no such defense, as it is irrelevant for the purposes of the book.  In the pages to which the reviewer is referring (pp. 27-29), the point I make is that a consequence of envisioning the mind as computation is its facility for being extended into the environment.  The reviewer goes on to suggest that there is irreconcilability between the notion of extended mind and my definition of perception as "a process in which stimulus information, originating in the environment, is channeled through the sensory organs and revealed to us in the mind" (p. 95).  However, I see no issue with irreconcilability since I am not locating the mind exclusively in any particular place--brain or environment--within the definition.  I can see how this issue might need to be addressed in more depth if I was indeed defending the conditional approach using the notion of extended mind, but I am not.  Nor am I using the notion of extended mind as an epistemological basis for the conditional approach.  The reviewer continues to say that I argue that "[t]he conditional approach is reasonable because the extended-mind hypothesis is true (p. 258)."  What I actually say on pp. 257-258 when taken in context is that from an archaeological practitioner's standpoint, the incommensurability of brain and mind is often marked.  I then go on to say that studying brain functioning in the past cannot by itself achieve a complete understanding of the mind in the past, and I propose a strategy for achieving this more complete understanding.

With respect to the relevance of discussing conditional statements in the book (pp. 148-49), I am not denying that conditional statements are used pervasively in other fields or in other areas of archaeological inference.  I am simply analyzing how they are used when inferring cognitive capabilities from behavioral remains--what I have termed the "conditional approach."  The conditional statements cognitive archaeologists use in their arguments figure prominently in such a discussion because they embody the inferences being made, and are what cognitive archaeologists commonly use to express what they know and how they know it.  It is for this reason that I go into such detail discussing the strengths and weaknesses of the different argument forms that incorporate conditional statements.      

The reviewer goes on to discuss the materiality approach, stating "Abramiuk recognizes two forms of materiality, one according to which humans produce objects which, in turn, influence their thoughts.  The other, more extreme, form is the claim that 'there is little or no division between material objects in the environment and the mind' (p. 17) ... Abramiuk claims that the former kind of materiality is committed to interactionist dualism ... He claims that the latter, more extreme, form is committed to double aspectism…"  The reviewer goes on to say that "[t]he claim that slight variants of an archaeological approach have such divergent, and extreme, metaphysical commitments would need to be defended in great detail."

Firstly, I cannot be credited for having come up with that distinction.  For that, the reviewer should refer to DeMarrais et al. (2004:2) (as cited in the book) who discuss this distinction in detail.  My focus was on elaborating on the metaphysical distinctions only in so far as they helped describe and provide background to the variants of the materiality approach.  Later in Chapter 4, I exemplify the materiality approach and discuss its foundations, not by examining philosophical positions--although I make reference to them--but rather by deferring to the empirical studies on affordances conducted by psychologists.

I agree with the point made that discussing Grice (1969) and Dennett (1983) would have created a useful link to the philosophical literature, providing a fuller account on the topic of the evolution of intentionality.  I do believe, however, that my research is not incompatible with the views of Grice or Dennett.  I am not arguing that third-order intentionality is the only cognitive capability required for language and all religions; nor am I saying that the archaeological data provide the final say on issuing dates for the development of intentionality.  What I do state is that the evidence for third- and fourth-order intentionality is most clearly expressed at the onset of the Upper Paleolithic, and I make it very clear that the archaeological evidence provides us with a kind of "lower bound" for inferring the rise of such cognitive capabilities (p. 241).  Regarding the archaeological evidence for fourth-order intentionality which appears early in the Upper Paleolithic, I state "[t]his does not mean that fourth-order [intentionality] was not present earlier" (p. 241).  Indeed, higher-order intentionality may have arrived before the onset of the Upper Paleolithic, but I am saying that it is more prudent to err on the side of safety and to go with the lower bound when inferring mind frames using the approaches I outlined earlier in the book.

As I discuss in the book (pp. 260-261), it is possible that this lower bound may need to be pushed back in time as new evidence mounts.  The reviewer's reference to the work of Henshilwood et al. (2011) which revealed evidence of ochre in an archaeological context 100,000 years ago suggests that the ochre might have been used symbolically to decorate the skin; however, another explanation that the authors offer is that the ochre might have been used as a protectant (Henshilwood et al. 2011:222).  There may be a considerable amount of symbolic activity going on in the Middle Paleolithic, specifically with regards to ochre use (e.g. Hovers et al. 2003), but the context of the ochre and, therefore, the proposed symbolic use of ochre is not at all definitive--not to mention that the non-symbolic uses for ochre as explanations seem just as plausible (see Rifkin 2011).  Just as provocative as the finds of ochre--for suggesting the "first glimmers" of symbolism--are the discoveries of burial goods in juxtaposition with human remains at Qafzeh Cave (Vandermeersch 1970) and Es Skhul Cave (McCown 1937:104) dating to between 80,000 and 90,000 years ago (see p. 244).  Regardless of these finds, however, clear evidence of connotative symbolism finds its expression in the archaeological record later.  This is why the 30,000 YA age limit is used; it provides a secure girth for the purpose of inferring mind frames using the approaches outlined in the book--an objective that is stated on several occasions (e.g. pp. xi, 154-155, 253).

With regard to the comments on my discussion of the associative approach as well as the previously discussed conditional approach, the detail I provide is meant to show how the approaches are used by the archaeologist and to analyze the foundations--empirical and logical, respectively--being appealed to in archaeological practice.  As stated in the introduction, the audience for which I am aiming this book is firstly an archaeological one, and secondarily a cognitive scientific one (p. vii).  The reason I made this qualification is that the issues discussed are largely epistemological matters archaeologists face when they inquire about minds in the past, and thus may be of interest to archaeologists and also cognitive scientists clued into the discussion.

The reason for writing the book was to establish foundations surrounding the assumptions that archaeologists make in mind-related research, as I felt this was much needed in cognitive archaeology.  Generally speaking, foundational research does not make novel claims and generate exciting theories.  It often takes something that is assumed and analyzes the credibility of the assumptions.  In mathematics, foundational research can accomplish this through logically proving that the assumptions are correct under certain conditions.  In cognitive archaeology, we must be content with using research from multiple disciplines to support cognitive archaeological assumptions, whether the support is derived from archaeology, cognitive science, or otherwise.  To do this a dialogue between professionals in archaeology and in the cognitive sciences must be opened.  With respect to this point, it seems I have been successful in achieving what was a fundamental purpose of the book. 

 

References Cited

Clark, A., and D. Chalmers. 1998. The extended mind. Analysis 58:7-19.

DeMarrais, E., C. Gosden, and C. Renfrew. 2004. Introduction. In Rethinking Materiality: The Engagement of the Mind with the Material World, ed. E. DeMarrais, C. Gosden, and C. Renfrew. 1-7. Cambridge: McDonald Institute Monographs.

Dennett, D. C. 1983. Intentional systems in cognitive ethology. Behavioral and Brain Sciences 6:343-390.

Grice, H. P. 1969. Utterer's meaning and intentions. Philosophical Review. 78:147-177.

Henshilwood, C. S., F. d'Errico, K. L. van Nieker, Y. Coquinot, Z. Jacobs, S. Lauritzen, M. Menu, and R. García-Moreno. 2011. A 100,000-year-old ochre-processing workshop at Blombos Cave, South Africa. Science 334 (6053): 219-222.

Hovers, E., S. Ilani, O. Bar-Yosef, and B. Vandermeersch. 2003. An early case of color symbolism--Ochre use by modern humans in Qafzeh cave. Current Anthropology 44(4):491-522.

McCown, T. 1937. Mugharet es-Skhul: Description and excavations. In The Stone Age of Mount Carmel, ed. D. A. E. Garrod and D. Bate, 91-107. Oxford: Clarendon Press.

Rifkin, R.F. 2011. Assessing the efficacy of red ochre as a prehistoric hide tanning ingredient. Journal of A

 

 

© 2013 Marc Abramiuk


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