Symbolic thinking, scientists explain, is a form of consciousness that extends beyond the here and now to a contemplation of the past and future and a perception of the world within and beyond one individual. Thinking and communicating through abstract symbols is the foundation of all creativity, art and music, language and, more recently, mathematics, science and the written word. Last month, Dr. Henshilwood reported details of an even more striking 77,year-old find at the Blombos Cave site.
Two small pieces of ocher, a soft red iron oxide stone, had been inscribed with crisscrossed triangles and horizontal lines. The decoration, made by the same cave dwellers, was more evidence, the archaeologist said, that ''we're pushing back the date of symbolic thinking in modern humans -- far, far back.
Previous excavations in the Katanda region of Congo yielded barbed harpoon points carved out of bone 80, to 90, years ago. Brooks and Dr. Yellen, her husband, found that these ancient people ''not only possessed considerable technological capabilities at this time, but also incorporated symbolic or stylistic content into their projectile forms. The dating of the Blombos discoveries, once suspect, is now generally accepted by other archaeologists. But a few have challenged the interpretations.
If the artifacts are really that old and represent a basic change in human culture, why are they not showing up all over? Noting that no similar artifacts had been found in at least 30 other sites in the region of Blombos, Dr. Klein said the ''unique find'' did not justify a revision of ideas about when and where modern behavior began. Yellen disagrees. The population of modern Homo sapiens then was small and probably widely scattered, he explained, and so ideas and cultural practices might have been slow to travel among different groups.
Yellen said. But it takes a certain density of the stuff before the fire is going to catch and go somewhere. So when you don't have other people in your face, you probably won't get or don't need the richness of behavior that came later. The Social Factor.
Origin of speech
Variations on this theme are offered in other attempts to explain scattered finds suggesting the presence of modern cultural behavior outside Europe before the Cro-Mag non efflorescence. Stiner and her husband, Dr. Steven L. Kuhn, both archaeologists at the University of Arizona, said their research in Turkey and Lebanon showed that people around 43, years ago were making and wearing strings of beads and shell ornaments of highly repetitive designs. Some of the shells were relatively rare marine varieties, luminous white or brightly colored.
The bone of an eagle or vulture was incised for suspension as a pendant. These were presumably objects of social communication, readily conveying information about kinship, status and other aspects of identity to outsiders. Stiner said. Not to mention in complex societies that send social signals with wedding rings, designer clothes and hot-label sneakers. At the Mediterranean coastal dig sites of the Ucagizli Cave in Turkey and Ksar Akil in Lebanon, in the corridor of migrations into Eurasia, the two archaeologists also found remains of animal bones, indicating a marked change in diet over time.
The people there were eating fewer deer, wild cattle and other large animals. They seemed to be hunting and gathering fewer of the slow-reproducing and easy-to-catch animals like shellfish and tortoises and more of the agile animals like birds and hares. Their living conditions had changed, Dr. Stiner and Dr. Kuhn surmised, and one cause could have been population increases that pressured their resources. Not that the region suddenly teemed with people, but where populations had been sparse, even modest increases could double or triple their numbers, forcing them to turn to lower-ranked food sources.
Families and groups would be living in closer proximity, with more occasions to interact, which could account for the creation of so many body ornaments as part of a shared system of communication, signaling from afar to outsiders one's group identity and social status. In a report in June in The Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, the two archaeologists noted that this ''habitual production and use of standardized ornaments first appeared at about the same time'' at two other widely separated sites, in Kenya and Bulgaria.
That implied ''the existence of certain cognitive capacities and that these evolved relatively late in prehistory,'' the two researchers said, but they were probably not a consequence of a sudden genetic mutation. Kuhn said. Gamble, a visiting professor at Boston University this semester, attributed this changed behavior less to specific population pressures than to generally increasing social competition.
The response was new strategies for procuring food, sharing ideas and knowledge and organizing their societies. This would have been an advantage to societies as they moved into new lands and dealt with new circumstances, including non-modern humans they came in contact with. That's an extreme example, but something like that is what we are seeing in the form of an intensification of social life'' at the sites in Turkey and Lebanon.
Along the same lines, Dr. Randall White, an archaeologist at New York University who specializes in Cro-Magnon creativity, said findings of early personal adornment in Africa and the Middle East indicated that the capacity was there and latent long before modern humans reached Europe.
White said, ''people had a capacity for symbolic thinking. It is a model that requires team players who respect and trust each other and the disciplines they represent. Those who stuck with the project had to learn to speak a common language in thinking about our research questions, even while retaining a noticeable psychological or philosophical or anthropological accent. The result, we believe, was a remarkably cohesive interdisciplinary research team. Arguably, the single most influential achievement of anthropology, as it emerged as an academic discipline, was the detailed description of dramatically different moral norms and moral systems in different cultures.
For much of the 20th century, philosophers debated how to deal with these findings, and more recently the findings have posed a challenge to the study of moral cognition by psychologists and cognitive neuroscientists.
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But in contrast with the vast body of anthropological work on moral norms, there has been surprisingly little anthropological exploration of epistemic norms. Indeed, as we read the literature, there is no clear evidence that epistemic norms—norms governing the ways in which people form and revise their beliefs—even exist in many cultures. This looked like an ideal topic to be tackled by an interdisciplinary group of philosophers and psychologists working closely with ethnographically engaged anthropologists. Using a meticulously constructed set of questions, participants were asked to tell us how they would react to a member of their culture who formed beliefs in various ways some sanctioned by Western philosophical epistemology, others not , when those beliefs had a variety of consequences, sometimes good, sometimes bad, and sometimes neutral.
Another Culture and the Mind Project study addressing an important question in contemporary cognitive science focuses on moral psychology. The existence of a distinction between moral norms or judgments and conventional norms or judgments, drawn along the lines first suggested by Elliott Turiel , , has played a major role in the recent renaissance of research on moral cognition and moral judgment. Some have proposed that the ability to draw this distinction can be used to determine whether a person has a normal, intact moral judgment system Blair, ; Nichols, Adapting the Turiel test to these settings, we quickly discovered, is a challenging task that would be hopeless without the guidance of ethnographers with an intimate knowledge of the local cultures and the environments.
But it was, we felt, a challenge worth tackling, as whichever way the data went, it promised to make an important contribution to a topic of interest to philosophers, cultural and cognitive psychologists, cognitive neuroscientists and psychiatrists, as well as to anthropologists—or at least the growing subset of them who believe that empirically testable generalizations and theories have a crucial role to play in anthropology. Not all anthropologists would agree that it is possible to do genuinely comparative research using a common set of field methods across multiple sites.
Some anthropologists would argue that the uniqueness of individual cultures and even individual individuals renders such comparisons impossible. So is cognitive science, or at least its ambition to produce general knowledge about humankind and human cognition. Obviously, we believe that this extreme degree of pessimism is unwarranted. As we have already stressed, cultures differ widely in things like norms of communication, what kinds of questions are permissible or even intelligible to ask, and assumptions that people make about shared knowledge and pragmatics.
How people construe and relate to visiting anthropologists, especially nosy ones asking the sometimes bizarre questions that cognitive scientists are interested in, is highly dependent on culture, context, and interpersonal history with the researcher. Anthropological research cannot be done without taking the time to situate oneself in a culture beforehand. Moreover, many laboratory experiments might not work in field settings, or might produce results that do not mean what the experimenters think.
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Humans are inferential creatures that try to figure out why you are asking them a question or to perform an experimental task, and without the proper anthropological expertise, it can be difficult if not impossible to design proper field experiments, let alone interpret the results. Local expertise is necessary. Projects such as the Culture and the Mind Project take this to heart by assembling teams of experienced ethnographers, something that will be a necessary part of any future anthropological cognitive science.
Our view of the potential role that anthropology can play in cognitive science is, at least in principle, as broad as the scope of anthropology itself. There is virtually no question in anthropology that does not bear, at least in some way, on questions about human cognition there are exceptions, of course, such as studies of human physiology in biological anthropology. By pointing to the potential for anthropology to answer questions about human universals, we are not suggesting that this is the only role that anthropology can play in cognitive science.
How the mind responds to the particulars of culture and environment are also, of course, questions of critical importance to cognitive science.
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As we have stressed, however, the kind of anthropology that can contribute meaningfully to cognitive science is not easy. Getting cognitive data from undergraduates is often simply a matter of offering credit in a subject pool or posting flyers offering a few dollars for participation.
Getting cognitive data from other cultures is, in contrast, often incredibly difficult, with the difficulty in some cases proportional to the value those data have for addressing important questions in cognitive science, such as whether a given cognitive phenomenon manifests the same way outside the reach of Western industrialized culture.
This important work can only be done if there are people willing to do it, and there are a lot of serious costs associated with it, especially for junior academics—such as the massive time investment of developing a field site and the inability to run as many studies per unit time as colleagues in cognitive psychology, not to mention the serious prospect of unemployment. If cognitive science needs these kinds of data to truly understand human cognition—as we are arguing it does—it will need to put its money where its mouth is.
In the current culture of cognitive science, some kinds of data, such as fMRI data, are treated with great reverence, drawing massive amounts of grant money and earning placement in top journals. Anthropological studies, we are arguing, are just as valuable and just as difficult to produce but are accorded far less value in the current cognitive science landscape. If this is to change, then journals must take an active role to promote such work, grant agencies must be open to and encourage interdisciplinary collaborations to support it—especially among young scholars—and academic departments must be open to hiring people working at the intersection of anthropology and other disciplines in cognitive science.
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