to Jul 30

Consciousness and creativity at the dawn of settled life

Conference at the McDonald Institute for Archaeological Research, University of Cambridge

(Friday, July 27 to Sunday, July 30)

Eventbrite - Consciousness and Creativity at the Dawn of Settled Life

Research in cognitive evolution has encouraged the notion that cognitive changes have occurred in human history, whether genetically linked or not. At the same time, work on the plasticity and distributed nature of cognitive processes argues strongly that mind is embedded in context. For example, for Fuchs and Schlimme (2009), consciousness does not develop in an isolated brain, but only in a living organism enmeshed in its environment. Clark (1997) argues that recent work on cognitive models, neuroscience and robotics indicates that our thinking comes about as an interaction between brain and world. Given this notion of a contextually distributed and plastic mind, it is reasonable to expect that the Neolithic period, with its panoply of new techniques and ways of life, would be associated with cognitive change.

Renfrew (e.g. 1998, 2012) proposes a stage in cognitive development between the phase of linguistic or mythic culture associated with Homo sapiens and the phase of theoretic culture associated with urban societies and writing. In this intermediate period associated with the Neolithic, Renfrew describes a phase of symbolic material culture in which information is stored externally, not in texts, but in the complexities of material symbols. The substantive engagement with greater amounts of material culture associated with sedentism (pottery, polished axes, domesticated plants and animals) led to a nexus of weights, values, commodities and exchanges that involved cognitive change. The substantive engagement with more material culture brought forth symbol and concept.

Watkins (2010) follows Renfrew in suggesting that the Neolithic saw the emergence of the cognitive and cultural abilities to create symbolic vocabularies and formulate symbolic constructions using material culture (as distinct from spoken or written language), but he emphasizes the built environment of houses and ritual structures as the primary driver of rapid cultural development in the first village communities. For Mithen (2004) too, it is the dense settlements of the Neolithic that made the biggest difference in terms of cognitive evolution, along with increases in trade and exchange.

Despite the evidence for cognitive change in the Neolithic Near East, however, there has been little specific testing of the claims made. Scholars have assumed that the cognitive changes they describe are loosely linked to sedentism, changes in technology, trade and exchange, increases in amounts of material culture in the Neolithic as a whole, without exploring or testing any specific correlations. The dating of sites and events in the Neolithic of the Middle East remains imprecise, and many of the processes involved took place over millennia (e.g. sedentism, cultivation and domestication) and varied in nature and speed in different parts of the Middle East: the process of Neolithization has come to be understood as a complex poly-centric process. It has proved much easier to talk about cognitive change in broad-brush terms than to test specific hypotheses against the data from the Middle East as a whole.

The Templeton Foundation-funded project Consciousness and creativity at the dawn of settled life thus takes a different strategy to formulating and testing the above claims for cognitive change and the causes of them. First, a single excavated site, Çatalhöyük, with large amounts of data that cover part of the Neolithic sequence will be used as a laboratory for testing hypotheses about the causes of cognitive change. Second, specific measures of the cognitive changes are proposed. Third, the data will be examined to test alternative causal accounts of cognitive change.

To set this project in motion, the Cambridge conference will bring together members of the Çatalhöyük Research Project and other Neolithic Near Eastern researchers, as well as leading experts in neuroscience, evolutionary psychology, cognition and material culture in order to discuss and debate these issues.

Provisional schedule

Wednesday 26 July


Thursday 27 July

9.30 – 1.00 pm.  Ian Hodder and team members – detailed introduction to Çatalhöyük and to the ‘Consciousness and Creativity’ research questions

1.00 – 2.30. Break.

2.30 – 3.15. Lucy Bennison-ChapmanConscious tokens?

Small, geometric-shaped Clay Objects (spheres, discs cones etc.) are a common feature of all occupational levels at Çatalhöyük. Crudely manufactured in the context of the site’s material culture, Clay Objects are generally disposed of after little use, in middens. Clay Objects appear at the start of the Neolithic period across the wider Near East. They are the most prevalent artefact at neighbouring 9th to 8th millennium BC Boncuklu Höyük for example, and remain common across Anatolia and the Near East into the first millennium BC. It is largely assumed that from their inception, Clay Objects acted as “tokens”, used as part of a formal, settlement wide and inter-settlement pneumonic record-keeping system, consistent across the entire Near East for millennia. Their sudden appearance in the Neolithic necessitated by the simultaneous shift in lifestyle from mobile-hunter gather to sedentary farming communities. It is further argued (Schmandt-Besserat 1992, 1996) that it is only after the cognitive shift into the modern, civilised mind that humans become capable of counting, recording and conceiving of abstract number. In this theoretical context, the presence of “tokens” at a settlement, is clear evidence for the presence of a highly organised, intelligent, cognitively “advanced” population.  

Systematic analysis of over 700 Clay Objects, considering object form, use-wear, immediate contextual deposition and broader spatial patterning finds no support for the interpretation of these items as information storage tools at Çatalhöyük. Furthermore, the study of the distribution of Clay Objects across the wider Neolithic Near East, reveals little indication of correlations between site type, size, complexity and lifestyle, as would be expected (Bennison-Chapman 2014). At Çatalhöyük, there is no evidence for the use of small geometric Clay Objects as “tokens”- symbols used to represent goods or produce, and to retain information for storage and retrieval at a later point in time. Clay Objects held no intrinsic value, nor did they have a single, solid, universal role transcending households, occupational areas or levels of settlement at Çatalhöyük. They are just as likely to have been utilised as simple counting tools, as they were in gaming or ritual activities. It is the far rarer, large, carefully decorated clay spheres which are the most likely contenders for proving the presence of Consciousness and Creativity at Çatalhöyük.

3.15 – 4.00.  Lucy Bennison-Chapman and Orkan UmurhanA method to test regularity of size and shape of Çatalhöyük’s large clay balls

Large Clay Balls are a common artefact category at Çatalhöyük, especially in the earlier phases. They are characterised by their large (tennis to baseball) size, extremely smooth surface finish, regularity of shape, dense clay make-up and the regularity of these characteristics. The overwhelming majority of Clay Balls are recovered as fragments from a variety of contexts including middens (open air and building in-fill), oven make-up and in situ deposition close to ovens inside buildings. This latter context led to their common interpretation as heating balls for cooking liquid foodstuffs.  A major obstacle to the study of Clay Balls has been their condition; the overwhelming majority are recovered as fragments, making the assessment and comparison of their original circumference, diameter and shape definition impossible in most cases. However, as Clay Balls are found in all of Çatalhöyük’s excavation areas and levels, they are a perfect artefact by which to address the questions of consciousness, creativity and change during the Neolithic in West Asia.  

Using an innovative new technique, this project addresses research questions related to the production, visual characteristics and use of Clay Balls at Çatalhöyük. Questions most important for assessing consciousness and creativity include: (1) are Çatalhöyük’s large Clay Balls made in a standardised size, or a range of size groupings? (2) How perfectly spherical are they? Crucially, the method allows for the original, complete circumference to be calculated from just a small fragment of Clay Ball. The technique utilises N.A.S.A. engineered software to analyse high resolution, specialised photographs. The photographs, taken in B/W silhouette, highlight the original, exterior surface of the Clay Ball fragment. The edge is traced into the software, allowing the exact angle and continuity of the curve to be obtained, providing a mathematical calculation of both original circumference and spherical accuracy.   

A new phase of Clay Ball research, carried out in 2015-16 suggests the Clay Balls are manufactured at an extremely high level of size standardization and shape perfection. How this was achieved, maintained across such a large settlement, and for over 1,000 years, all impact on our assessment of human cognitive ability in the Neolithic. Preliminary results of a pilot study, using the new methodology will be presented and various hypothesis regarding ‘higher levels of consciousness’ will be addressed.

4.00 – 4.15. Break.

4.15 – 5.00.  Sean DoyleSignatures in stone - symbols of ownership and signs of innovation

5.00 – 6.00.  Discussion

Friday 28 July

9.30 – 10.15.  Marek BaranskiBrick size and architectural regularities

10.15 – 11.00. Christopher Knüsel From parts to a whole? Exploring the meaning of human remains at Çatalhöyük

11.00 – 11.30.  Break

11.30 – 12.15.  Scott HaddowFrom parts to a whole? Exploring the meaning of human remains at Çatalhöyük (continued)

12.15 – 1.00. Milena VasićAdorning the self

1.00 – 2.30.  Break

2.30 – 3.15.  Douglas BairdBoncuklu Höyük

3.15 – 4.00.  Hans Gebel - The Southern LPPNB's territories of consciousness: their fabric in the Ba‘ja/ Basta region

The contribution aims 1) to identity and define the various territories of consciousness (the self, the communal, safety, traditions, subsistence, products' quality, etc.) existing in a regional southern Levantine LPPNB system; 2) to evaluate how these territories were connected/ interacting; 3) to reconstruct how this fabric may have supported and altered the ethos/ consciousness and creativity levels of the region's Neolithic people; and 4) to compare these insights with the more media-supported “imagined communities“ existing in the northern early Neolithic. The concepts by which analyses are approached and keep contact with their empiric substrata are commodification and territoriality.

As polycentric developments during Neolithisation were largely subject to natural conditions, developments in consciousness and creativity were subject to the regional frameworks of interacting natural, social and cognitive habitats. The polycentricity of Neolithic consciousness and creativity – as expressed by the highly diversified economic, social, and ritual/ symbolic lifeways in the Near East – much has to do with the needs and chances systems had to free themselves from natural conditions. Spatially limited habitat sets – or a territoriality creating spatially confined areas of influence – seem to have resulted in commodification systems and social minds more related to the daily needs of communities, showing less tendencies for formal supra-group expression and hierarchies. The "external fixing" of symbols is less pronounced, communities appear culturally more "conservative" and self-involved, and dissipative structures are less developed. However, such features may also follow larger and complex networks in the shape of local/ regional processes of "individuation".

In terms of Neolithic research: Working with the rather new concepts of consciousness and creativity demands 1) that terms used should become transparent by definitions; 2) that evidence for consciousness and creativity is addressed through cross-cultural comparison rather than 3) deduced from a single Neolithic culture's sight. Such correlates strengthen the multi-dimensional understanding of consciousness and creativity and assist to avoid fallacies generated by interior perspectives on the subject.

4.00 – 4.15. Break.

4.15 – 5.00.  Colin Renfrew - The structure of material engagement as an aspect of cognition in early complex societies

At Çatalhöyük a series of skills may be recognised, practices of material engagement, such as led in early urban societies to specialised trades and professions. Indeed most crafts and trades in urban societies had their roots or origins in pre-urban skills. A thought experiment reviews a range of trades and professions seen in classical and mediaeval urban societies of which many may be prefigured in this large Neolithic community.

5.00 – 6.00. Discussion

Saturday 29 July

9.30 – 10.15.  Fiona Coward - The rise of the ‘familiar stranger’: material culture, social cognition and the conscious creation of self in the early Neolithic of the Near East

The shift from mobile hunting and gathering to settled and agricultural village life during the late Epipalaeolithic and early Neolithic of the Near East has primarily been investigated in terms of the changes in economy and settlement. Only recently have the social and potentially cognitive implications become a major topic of research. In this paper I use regional-scale analyses of material culture and settlement data to examine links between population growth, social complexity, social cognition and material culture during the development of large village societies. The increasing elaboration of material culture that occurs at this time has largely been regarded simply as a by-product of sedentism and population growth. However, I argue instead that elaborate material environments are in fact prerequisites for the expansion of social groups. Material culture extends and enhances human social cognition by providing valuable cues as to how to behave when faced with novel social contexts and unfamiliar others. It thus allows individuals to expand their social networks by incorporating a new social category: the ‘familiar stranger’. This increasing reliance on material culture for defining interactions also provides new opportunities for individuals to manipulate that material culture in order to create identities and ‘fronts’ specific to particular audiences and performances, suggesting the early Neolithic may have seen the development of a newly complex, faceted sense of ‘self’.

10.15 – 11.00.  Marion Benz - When time becomes a matter

Few things could be more subjective and situative than the perception of time. Nonetheless, it is widely accepted that there exist collective categories of time. Claude Lévi-Strauss distinguished hot and cold societies, suggesting that cold ones had cyclical concepts of time and suppressed innovation actively. In contrast, hot societies used linear concepts of time. The past and the future influenced the present and were incentives for innovation. Literacy and hierarchy were said to characterize hot societies. Jan Assmann, elaborating on Lévi-Strauss’ division argued that there may be aspects of both types within one society.

If Neolithic communities were as innovative as they are said to be, was this due to linear concepts of time? In this presentation, I will explore the material records of early Holocene communities in order to detect ideas of time. The beginning of production, accumulation of things, and monumental architecture might point to increasing importance of the past, and emerging linear concepts of time. Anticipating and assessing environmental conditions and long term planning became crucial cognitive capacities within farming communities. However, rituals hint at cyclical concepts, whereby forgetting seems to have been as important as remembering.

If the conception of time differed between hunter-gatherers and Neolithic communities, this would probably have had important consequences for the ways in which remembering, socialization and learning functioned and, by extension, for cognitive capacities.

11.00 – 11.30. Break

11.30 – 12.15.  Lisa Maher - Hunter-gatherer home-making? Building landscape and community in the Epipalaeolithic and Neolithic

The transition from mobile hunter-gather to sedentary food-producing societies in Southwest Asia was a pivotal shift in human prehistory and its impacts on landscape and resource sustainability, long-distance interaction networks, technological innovation, and social issues, such as overcrowding and migration, continue to resonate today. Yet, despite decades of research, the Neolithic remains a highly-debated and high-profile period, and comparatively little research has been done on hunter-gatherer populations that represent the first 10,000 years of this transition. Indeed, much hunter-gatherer research here focuses on Late Epipalaeolithic (Natufian) trajectories towards Neolithic agricultural lifeways, tracing the appearance of settled villages, elaborated symbolic behaviours, the creation of a built environment, long-distance social networks, and other features, as markers of increased cognitive and social complexity. We now recognize that this transition was protracted, nonlinear, and entailed multiple entangled social, technological, ideological and economic facets, and, crucially, that this process began millennia earlier in the Epipalaeolithic. Here, I trace some of these Neolithic lifeways back into the Epipalaeolithic focusing, in particular, on the concept of home-making. I argue here that the hunter-gatherer home (imbued with symbolic meaning) is visible not just in the structured use of space within sites (‘huts’), but that this home should be extended to include certain landscape features or even an entire landscape (albeit with poorly defined boundaries)—the Epipalaeolithic hunter-gather landscape was every bit as experiential and constructed or built as that of a farmer. Through a nuanced approach to landscape that integrates concepts of dwelling, microscale examination of the organization of space, reconstructions of daily practice and object life histories, social networks and landscape-level datasets we are better able to understand hunter-gatherer place- and home-making. While I do not suggest that EP sites are the same as later Neolithic villages with stone architecture, communal buildings, and other supposed hallmarks of Neolithic farming village life, our current approach that highlights the differences between these periods grossly overshadows continuities. In reconstructing prehistoric lifeways, emphasis could more fruitfully be placed on the movements of people throughout a landscape that is created and transformed over time by those who dwell in these places, viewing sites as connected to others across a dynamic social landscape.

12.15 – 1.00. Anna Fagan - New bodies: From Houses to Humans at Çatalhöyük

Following the fundamental social changes that occurred at Çatalhöyük from South P onwards, we can observe a significant shift in loci of vitality and notions of identity. Previously, via the generative capacities of wild animals, vital force was harbored in the house and the matrix of the community, recycled and exchanged between persons through sustenance, substances, and manifold interdependencies. However, following the move towards greater mobility and economic self-sufficiency, social relations were no longer centered on collectivity and personhood becomes predicated on explicit difference rather than similarity. This is expressed through the emergence of new types of bodies: the human as the salient source of accumulation and vitality, along with stamps and pottery as other conceptual 'bodies with autonomy'.

1.00 – 2.30.  Break

2.30 – 3.15.  Trevor Watkins - The pivotal transformation of the human cultural niche

I argue that the changes in society, in culture, and in the economic basis of society that characterise the Neolithic represent a step-change away from the world of Palaeolithic mobile foraging into a new world. The scale and organisation of the social group and the tempo of socio-cultural evolution were transformed. In Southwest Asia the transformation began with Epipalaeolithic social, cultural and economic innovations (from 22,000 BC) that quickened notably from the beginning of the Neolithic (from 9600 BC). The key elements of the Neolithic were (a) the emergence of the first large, permanently co-resident communities, networked into extensive super-communities of cultural sharing and social exchange;  (b) a demographic explosion in terms of absolute numbers, and in terms of the numbers and density of people who were connected with one another; (c) the extensive diversification and expansion of complex material and non-material cultures; and (d) the development of high investment and delayed return economic subsistence strategies that led to the domestication of plants and animals, and the emergence of efficient farming economies. The earlier part of the Neolithic period saw the colonisation of Cyprus; and the later Neolithic saw the expansion of Neolithic settlements / population in all directions.

Together, these various components can be seen to be linked into co-evolutionary feedback loops that accelerated rates of expansion, diversification, and innovation (that have been characterised as ‘ratcheting’ effects, or ‘runaway’ cultural evolution). The best systematic framework for incorporating these co-evolutionary trends is in terms of cultural niche construction theory. Niche construction theory says that organisms not only form their own (and, for sociable species, their group’s) niche, but may also create an ecological inheritance. Cultural niche construction theory adds to that the notion of sustaining a cultural inheritance for successive generations. The cultural niche of Homo sapiens groups was already very sophisticated, resilient, and capable of creativity and innovation by 100,000 or 50,000 years ago. But I want to look in particular at the operation of cultural inheritance within the early Neolithic cultural niche. And I will bring out the novel elements of cognitive-cultural co-evolution that were essential to the functioning of the new, Neolithic (and subsequent) super-communities.

3.15 – 4.00.  Olivier Nieuwenhuijse  - Consciousness and Creativity in the Upper Mesopotamian Late Neolithic

There's something curious in the notion of Çatalhöyük as a model for the Near Eastern Neolithic. It is not so much that the extraordinary scope of this exemplary project so far has few parallels within the broader archaeology of the Middle East; rather, Çatalhöyük was unique in the past as well. While the site clearly fits into a well-documented long-term cultural trajectory, research also shows there were no other contemporaneous Çatalhöyüks. Its explanatory power will remain limited unless alternative cases are brought forward for comparison. I shall therefore explore the Upper Mesopotamian Late Neolithic for evidence of consciousness and creativity. The Upper Mesopotamian evidence stems from research practices quite different from Çatalhöyük and it remains relatively inaccessible. But recent work in the region has resulted in a vast, challenging data set calling out to be more fully explored. The Upper Mesopotamian Late Neolithic was constituted differently than in Central Anatolia, in particular in its regional organization. Yet there are intriguing commonalities, offering a valuable benchmark perhaps more relevant than the Southern Levant now often used for comparison. Adopting the perspective of dialectic, mutual dependencies between humans and their material world, the Late Neolithic period arguably was qualitatively and quantitatively distinct from what came before and after; a uniquely transformative epoch in human history. I shall seek to identify measurements of cognitive change - levels of consciousness, rates of innovation and an awareness of an integrated self – and put these in a historic context. Together with the audience we may explore possible explanations and cause-effect relationships.

4.00 – 4.15. Break.

4.15 – 5.00.  John Sutton - Forms of remembering: Neolithic changes in memory and material culture

I will hope to synthesise themes arising over the workshop, especially with regard to distributed cognition and material culture. My talk will focus on memory as a test case in two senses: a test case for cognitive history on the scale and of the ambition sought in this project, and a test case for stronger claims about the constitutive role of multiple interacting heterogeneous resources – neural, bodily, affective, material, environmental, cultural – in distributed cognitive ecologies. Specifically, I aim to survey and assess evidence about which forms of remembering we can find traces of in the archaeological record at Çatalhöyük. Episodic, semantic, and embodied/ procedural remembering may each be distributed, leaving us with some traces of the external wings of the larger memory systems in play. We can ask whether and how the recruitment and involvement of external resources may differ across each form of memory. A further challenge, however, is that these kinds of remembering are often richly interanimated rather than neatly distinct in practice.

5.00 – 6.00. Discussion

Sunday 30 July

9.30 – 10.15.  Paul Howard-JonesCognitive function and the cultural “ratchet”

The impact of accumulating material culture and technological progress on cognition function is generally characterised in broadly positive terms. For example, the “Flynn effect” refers to the overall increase in IQ over the recent decades since this measure was invented and higher socio-economic status is associated with generally improved executive function. One might predict, therefore, a simple culturally-acquired expansion of processing power amongst communities experiencing a flourishing of material culture.  However, the acquisition of modern cultural tools reshapes brain function in ways that bias our perception and processing of incoming information, suggesting the impact of culture on our cognition function is better described as a difference rather than a simple enhancement.  This brief review examines what is known about the impact of acquiring cultural tools on individual brain function, and speculates on the possible effects of such changes on communities experiencing an uptake of material culture.

10.15 – 11.00.  Michael Wheeler - Cognitive change and material culture: a distributed perspective

Cognition (or mind, or thought, or intelligence…) may be said to be distributed when it is, in some way, spread out over the brain, the non-neural body and an environment consisting of objects, tools, other artefacts, texts, individuals and/or social/institutional structures. In this presentation, I’ll identify and explore a challenge for any attempt to settle the nature of ancient thought on the basis of material-cultural evidence, once one accepts that cognition is distributed. Of course, material-cultural evidence of changes in habitation, agriculture, technology or trade plausibly indicate the introduction of new techniques and ways of life that we would expect to be associated with increased cognitive complexity. But now consider the specific claim that the material-cultural evidence from the Neolithic may indicate the emergence of a capacity for abstract thought and objective reasoning based on metrication and the appearance of combinatorial material symbols and tokens. I shall explore three ways of developing this claim, each of which is suggested by a different contemporary hypothesis about the nature of the mind, namely (i) the language of thought hypothesis, (ii) the hypothesis of embedded cognition, and (iii) the hypothesis of extended cognition. I shall argue that if we adopt (ii) or (iii), which are versions of distributed cognition, we are seemingly in a position to say rather less about the constitution of the Neolithic mind than if we adopt (i), which is a non-distributed account. The root issue is that the distributed perspective leaves us less able to make direct detailed inferences about the inner aspects of thought from structures located in the material environment. I shall end with some reflections on how one might respond to this challenge.

11.00 – 11.30. Break

11.30 – 12.15.  Chris ThorntonThe headed meronomy as a ladder to complex thought

If complex thought is what we do, what would simpler thought be like? The issue is as relevant to cognitive archaeology as it is within the study of cognition generally. Past proposals have often been qualitative in nature. Theorists have envisaged that simpler thought would be like complex thought minus X, where X is some critical mental mechanism such as bisociation, analogy, or conceptual-space transformation. Quantitative schemes are also feasible, however. Concepts can be assembled into structures in only two ways. It is possible to envisage that simpler thought would be what occurs under limited levels of construction, then. The talk will sketch out one such story, in which limits on meronomic forms of construction are the focus.

12.15 - 1.00. Final discussion

All papers will be 30 minutes in length followed by 15 minutes discussion.


View Event →