The Prehistory of the Mind.

By Steven Mithen.

Thames & Hudson. 1996. £16.95 hardback. ISBN: 0-500-05081-3.

Review by Martin P. Evison.

Steven Mithen's The Prehistory of the Mind is an ambitious attempt to build a model of the evolutionary history of the mind from archaeological evidence. Whilst the book has much to commend it as an accessible and comprehensive introduction, both to the relevant palaeoanthropological models and to contemporary theories of the mind derived by psychologists and cognitive scientists, its claims to have sought and found 'the cognitive foundations of art, religion and science' are exaggerated.

The book is well structured, with our evolutionary history from the time of our common primate ancestors introduced as a series of acts in a drama. Readers are then diverted to an overview of some contemporary theories of cognition and Mithen's own postulation and are then returned to a series of chapters taking them through evolutionary history, using primatology and the fossil and material culture record as evidence, weaving in a cognitive thread. Final chapters tie up the arguments and dispense with a possible cognitive 'loose end' -- the origins of agriculture.

Mithen develops his central thesis from Leda Cosmides & John Tooby's model of the mind likening it to a Swiss army knife (discussed in Barkow et al 'The Adapted Mind', (1992)), consisting of a collection of independent task-orientated modules, but goes further in insisting both on a degree of 'generalised intelligence', which he sees as understated in Cosmides & Tooby's argument and on some leakage -- in Mithen's terms 'cognitive fluidity' -- occurring between these domains. The mind's evolutionary history, he suggests, is a three-stage process: a generalised intelligence in primates and early hominids, a modular intelligence evolving to its ultimate in archaic Homo sapiens and Neanderthals, and a 'cognitively fluid' mentality arising not with anatomically modern humans, but with the 'big bang' of human culture at 60,000 to 30,000 years ago.

Mithen builds on Fodor's The Modularity of Mind (1983), Gardner's Frames of Mind: The Theory of Multiple Intelligences (1983), and Barkow, Cosmides & Tooby's The Adapted Mind (1992) to support the modular component of his model. Dan Sperber's (1994) concept of 'metarepresentation', as well as Margaret Boden's (1990) and Arthur Koestler's (1975) ideas of 'transformation' or 'interlocking' of conceptual spaces are used to support the idea of communication between these task-orientated domains. He uses the notion of 'ontogeny recapitulating phylogeny' to support his evolutionary arguments with models from child development, such as Annette Karmiloff-Smith's Beyond Modularity (1992), in which a component of generalised intelligence is also claimed for young children. Mithen marshals support for his developing argument well, but so well that one is left struggling to recognise a novel hypothesis. The cognitive models are pre-existing, and the idea that creativity is due to analogy and metaphor, themselves permitted by communication across cognitive domains, is evident in Boden and Koestler's work. Crucially, Mithen's central use of the idea that 'ontogeny recapitulates phylogeny' to map cognitive development from life history to evolutionary history, as proposed earlier by Thomas Wynn (cited Mithen p. 62), is problematic. This is a complex enough issue in biology and an analogy which Mithen wishes to apply only hesitantly to the analysis of cognitive evolution. Mithen states: "I have no theoretical conviction that recapitulation of the evolution of the mind during development necessarily occurs" (p.63). The spine of the book is not well bound!

I am not convinced that anatomically modern Homo sapiens of circa 100,000 years ago lacked the cognitive capacity of their Upper Palaeolithic descendants. Would it not take time for knowledge to accumulate? Mithen dismisses suggestions of earlier artistic capabilities such as, for example, those claimed for Homo heidelbergensis of Bilzingsleben at circa 300,000 years ago (p. 151) -- markings on bone which he anyway attributes to Neanderthals (p. 161). Mithen may be on further shaky ground given Richard Fullagar and Paul Taçon's early dates for red ochre and rock art at sites in northern Australia (Fullagar et al. 1996; Taçon et al. 1997 in press). How fluid does your cognition have to be to navigate Torres Strait?

Early on, Mithen rejects cognitive analogies with computers, which he dismisses as simple problem solving devices. The mind thinks, it creates, it imagines. This cannot happen within a computer. Computers just do what programmers tell them to do... (p. 35). I find terms like 'think', 'create' and 'imagine' rather vague, but I am reminded of algorithms which evolve novel anatomical forms and the fascinating fractal shapes generated from Mandelbrot sets. Computer scientists will recognise many of the cognitive terms recounted by Mithen as having analogies in computer hardware and software structure: 'input', 'module', 'domain' -- and the idea that certain propensities are hard wired.

The computational analogies cannot be dismissed as readily as Mithen would wish and, anyway, we could do far better by heeding neuroscientist Susan Greenfield's cautions, frequently heard on Radio 4's Midweek, that there is a chemical dimension to the brain, in addition to neuro-physical structure, which has no analogy in the microelectronics of a computer. The mind is capable of emotions as well as thought, and both are reflected in the biology and chemistry of the brain. Discussions of emotions and the brain are decidedly scanty in this volume. Given that Mithen only aims to consider the mind and cognition, the latter omission is perhaps understandable, but not so the former. However, I cannot accept that one can so easily relegate the brain in a cognitive model, especially one that relies on fossil cranial material as evidence. Exactly how does Mithen suppose that dedicated areas of the mind become suddenly connected late on in human evolution? Unless there was already some connection, in which case they were never isolated, an entirely new class of neurological structures and their underlying genetic basis must have appeared abruptly. I find such an idea anatomically and genetically implausible. Mithen's approach perpetuates mind-body dualism and ill-defined concepts such as 'think', 'create' and 'imagine' mean yet more special pleading for humans.

Of course, it is unfair to expect Mithen to cover neurobiology, genetics and computer science, as well as archaeology, linguistics, psychology, social anthropology and cognitive science! It is pleasing enough to see another sign that the idealisation/demonisation of science in archaeology may be over.

The Prehistory of the Mind is a well written review and part synthesis of pre-existing work, which the author does much to acknowledge. If nothing more had been claimed I would have no qualms, but Mithen insists that he has used archaeology to further understanding of how the mind works and I do not find this a sustainable argument. It remains early days for cognitive archaeology; we know some 'whats' and 'whens', but few 'whys'. With The Prehistory of the Mind Mithen has put archaeology firmly on the cognitive agenda, but we have a long way to go before we will know 'what was going on in their minds'.


Barkow, J.H., Cosmides, L. and Tooby, J. 1992. eds. The Adapted Mind. New York: Oxford University Press.

Boden, M. 1990. The Creative Mind: Myths & Mechanisms. London: Weidenfeld & Nicolson.

Fodor, J. 1983. The Modularity of Mind. Cambridge MA: MIT Press.

Fullagar, R.L.K., Price, D.M., and Head, L.M. 1996. Early human occupation of northern Australia: archaeology and thermoluminescence dating of Jinmium rock-shelter, Northern Territory. Antiquity 70: 751-73.

Gardner, H. 1983. Frames of Mind: The Theory of Multiple Intelligences. New York: Basic Books.

Karmiloff-Smith, A. 1992. Beyond Modularity: A Developmental Perspective on Cognitive Science. Cambridge MA: MIT Press.

Koestler, A. 1975. The Act of Creation. London: Picador.

Sperber, D. 1994. The modularity of thought and the epidemiology of representations. In Mapping the Mind: Domain Specificity in Cognition and Culture. L.A. Hirschfeld and S.A. Gelman, eds. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press pp. 39-67.

Taçon, P.S.C., Fullagar, R.L.K., Ouzman, S. and Mulvaney, K. 1997. Cupule engravings from Jinmium-Granilpi (northern Australia) and beyond: exploration of a widespread and enigmatic class of rock markings. Antiquity 71 (in press December 1997).

Martin Evison's first degree was in genetics. He was an amateur archaeologist for many years before completing M.Sc. and Ph.D. degrees in archaeology at Sheffield University. He is now a research associate in the Department of Forensic Pathology, with research interests in computer simulation, human biological and cultural diversity, and forensic archaeology.

© Martin Evison 1997

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