Cognitive Anthropologist, Steven Mithen, Looks at Our Prehistory

A couple of topical areas that interest me (a LOT) is our species’ prehistory, and even more specifically, our development and use of two specific cultural features of the species: our language and our music.

Mithen and his Research

One academic I discovered some years ago now was Steven Mithen, a cognitive archaeologist at the University of Reading.  Mithen is a prolific author of easily readable books about topics that have to do with mind of humans in our long prehistory: the development of our mind’s language and music abilities. As a professor of archaeology and its methods, but also the literature of cognitive psychology and linguistics, he has always seemed uniquely capable of drawing important features from those parallel fields into his arguments and supporting evidence about how human beings developed these abilities over our long, long prehistory of some 6 of 7 million years.

Several of Mithen’s books come to mind as his most successful contributions to the wider, academic and lay audiences he writes to.  In fact, reviews of his “holy trinity” of best three books always note his ability to use an accessible vocabulary and easily understood metaphors and analogies that he weaves into his stories.  In order by year of first publication,

I took a stranger path through my reading of these three book, off of the temporal order of their appearance.  Personally, I started with the second book, After the Ice, then later on I read The Singing Neanderthals.  And just recently (a few days ago) I finished my reading of Mithen’s first “best seller” in the academy, The Prehistory of the Mind.

Mithen on the Development of Human Cognition


Mithen, back in the late 1990’s had already done the job for the rest of the scientists of cognition: he had laid out how, over time, the human animal had developed cognition, how they came to have what we today call a theory of mind.  We, today, have the ability to make predictions about what another human beings are thinking.  That state of reasoning is called “theory of mind”. Mithen’s The Prehistory of the Mind lays out how that process came about, and does a reasonably good job of indicating when that change, and others, took place in what we finally came to know as both Early and Modern Humans.

Mithen is interested enough in the whole general process of the march toward cognition in our human ancestors that he lays out the whole story from our divergence from some common link dating back to at least 6, if not 7 million years ago (see Sahelanthropus tchadensis below), leading to our co-existence with Neanderthals until recently, when we, Homo sapiens, were left as the only remaining species in this whole Human family tree line on earth:

Four Different Kinds (and Stages) of Intelligences:
At First Separate, Later, Cognitive Fluidity and Interwoven


Within these 6 to 7 million years of human evolution, Mithen lays out major stages of cognitive development: a model of how each of four different aspects of intelligence developed over time–at different stages of need by the species:

If you follow the graphic model at the right below, you see that we inherited our general intelligence module (1) from our primate ancestors, but as time passed we developed increasing cognitive flexibility, which led to what Mithen labeled as, first, our new social intelligence (2).   As our species worked through that first module of development, our family, clan, tribal development of social modifications and adjustments, our species also encountered new pressures due to the different natural environments we found ourselves living in and with.  The was the development in our minds of a development natural environmental intelligence module (3), followed by our last large modular cognitive stage, our technical intelligence module (4).

  1. General Intelligence, then three Specialized Intelligences . . .
  2. Social Intelligence
  3. Natural Environmental Intelligence
  4. Technical Intelligence

Mithen then weaves these four, separate “Swiss Knife” intelligences together over time, through a final stage of interplay (language)–most probably over the period from 100,000 years ago through 30,000 years ago–into our (now) highly inter-coordinated ability to pull ideas and images across one or several of those once separate intelligences . . . to solve problems that may have originated in one of those original domains.

The terminology we use to refer to those abilities are terms like metaphor and analogy, and as you can see, it is those concepts–which both involve language–that allow us to judge some occurrence as being “like” another action or event that originated in one of the other domains of our different intelligences.

All I can tell you is that Mithen does a very good job of showing how each of the separate specialized intelligences developed, and the reason they developed for the stability of the species in its response to new environments and circumstances.  At the beginning of this 6 to 7 million year old period, the animal that would eventually develop into the human being had just one cognitive brain, the same brain as his ape, chimp, bonobo cousin: the general intelligence function.  But as conditions changes for these animals–first, their natural environment–their brain functions adapted by changing accordingly.

As a species adopted to a change–say, by protecting its fellow members in its groups (families first, clans, tribes, etc)–specialized modules of cognition, like social intelligence, developed in the mind of that species.  Mithen shows this by suggesting that after the initial state of general intelligence (1) in the species, the next stage or module of intelligence to be added was social intelligence (2).

Lots more in Mithen, but you will have to read him yourself.  However, you see where he is going: from 1 through 4.

Finally, I’d just like to say I am really taken by this guy, forcing all of us to break the artificial constraints of history by using the new instrumental tools of Science to consider the cognitive development (evolution) of humans across time.  He has detractors, but as usual, they are usually defending the false sanctity of their narrowly defined disciplines.







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