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The Foundations of Cognitive Archaeology

The Foundations of Cognitive Archaeology

By Marc A. Abramiuk. Pp. xi + 316, figs. 27, tables 2. MIT Press, Cambridge, Mass. 2012. $40. ISBN 978-0-262-01768-8 (cloth).

Reviewed by

Abramiuk’s goal is to unite under the single rubric of cognitive archaeology “several practical [and complementary] approaches to studying the mind in the past” (15). Through a series of case studies and the use of epistemology, he intends to show how linking archaeology on the one hand and philosophy and cognitive science on the other permits one to determine how and what people thought in the past.

His starting point is the archaeologists’ efforts “to understand the human behavior responsible for producing the archaeological record” (19), in which endeavor archaeologists most frequently have employed one of six approaches. The direct historical and the general comparative approaches investigate the thoughts of people in the past by analogy with people in the present either descended from the past population (the former) or living in comparable conditions (the latter). Structuralism assumes humans innately think in terms of binary opposition and looks for evidence of that in the archaeological record, while the fourth, the associative approach, deduces the meaning of the remains from the context. Abramiuk links the materiality (what the material remains denote) and conditional (what cognitive capabilities were necessary to produce the archaeological record) approaches to cognitive processualism. Turning to cognitive science, the author explains how concepts and percepts are formed and illustrates how this knowledge can provide an epistemological basis for the reconstruction of ancient frames of mind. Thus, application of the associative approach allows one to identify the categories of thought of those who placed pigs in certain Neolithic Chinese burials (ch. 3). The author then examines the role of reasoning in such reconstruction projects and in the inference of cognitive capabilities. However, since the minds of ancient humans may have functioned differently from those of modern humans, he reviews the history of the development of the modern mind from its origins in the brains of early hominids into the Upper Paleolithic (ch. 6) to its fully developed emergence about 30,000 years ago (ch. 7), looking for evidence of the cognitive capabilities discussed in the preceding chapters and in particular for traces of symbolic behavior. In the seven pages of the final chapter (“A Vision for an Ongoing Discipline”), Abramiuk concludes, but does not argue or demonstrate, that the approaches are complementary. Thus, if the subject under investigation originated within this 30,000-year period, then the scholar, on the assumption that the modern mind had appeared by that time, could use the six approaches in an analysis. Materials created more than 30,000 years ago would require a more circumspect approach, as we do not and cannot really understand how those earlier minds worked.

The author’s ambition is admirable, but in the end he does not lay the foundation the title suggests. Some of the weaknesses of Abramiuk’s text, particularly with reference to his claims concerning cognitive science, memory, and related issues, are discussed at length by Bolender (“Review–The Foundations of Cognitive Archaeology,” Metapsychology Online Reviews 17 [7 May 2013] and thus are not covered here.

Instead, my comments focus on three fundamental flaws. First, Abramiuk never defines his key term: mind. Is the mind coextensive with the physical being, principally the brain, or is there a less material component? He seems to argue for the latter, asserting that “all humans behave as dualists to varying degrees” (139 [emphasis original]) and viewing the objectification of the external world as a crucial step in the development of the modern mind. But at a minimum, the nature of the mind at any time must be problematized, if there is to be a serious discussion of the emergence of its modern form. For example, Abramiuk should acknowledge alternative views of early hominid cognition articulated by paleoarchaeologists, such as Hoffecker, who posit a collective mind for at least part of the Paleolithic. Similarly, if the mind is fully material, then arguments about the role of reason resonate differently. The absence from the bibliography of works by scholars such as Damasio, Dennett, Fodor, and Noë, who have engaged with this issue, and the inclusion of only a single, relatively early work by Clark, underscores Abramiuk’s failure to address this foundational question. Barrett’s recent analysis of cognitive evolution (“The Archaeology of Mind: It’s Not What You Think,” CAJ 23 [2013] 1–17) exemplifies the more thoughtful inquiry that would have benefitted Abramiuk’s study. The second flaw is that the book lacks a cogent synthetic argument and instead reads like a textbook, moving from one subsection to the next without linking sentences, accompanied by boxes containing expositions on relevant topics that are never integrated into the larger discussion. The anticipated finale of chapter 8 is weak and inconclusive. His organization of isolated facts and bits of arguments relieves Abramiuk from confronting the complexities of the developments he describes because he is never forced to provide connective tissue. Finally, his contention that the aforementioned six approaches typically are applied separately, thus necessitating the epistemological synthesizing that he will provide in chapter 8, is insupportable. Archaeologists are always drawing inferences using conditionals regardless of what other methods they may employ. Further, as recent works by Knappett, Ingold, and Malafouris, to name only a few, demonstrate, application of multiple approaches has become the rule, not the exception. Abramiuk cannot step in as the pioneer synthesizer as he seems to wish to do.

At the same time, despite all its disappointments, Abramiuk’s book serves a real purpose by raising important questions. In setting out the framework of the argument (i.e., how do we know what we know, how can we figure out how that way of acquiring knowledge changed over deep time, and how can we trace those patterns in the archaeological record) and proposing some tentative solutions, the author has laid the groundwork for the next step. That study would take into account the full complexity of ideas about the nature of the mind and how its development from earliest times was expressed in the material record. Abramiuk himself certainly has command of at least some of the literature necessary for that task. Anyone interested in issues of mind and materiality both in the past and in the present should read this book, if only to reflect on the best way forward.

Department of Liberal Studies
California State University Fullerton
Fullerton, California 92834

Book Review of The Foundations of Cognitive Archaeology, by Marc A. Abramiuk

Reviewed by Emily Miller Bonney

American Journal of Archaeology Vol. 118, No. 1 (January 2014)

Published online at

DOI: 10.3764/ajaonline1181.MillerBonney


In response to the comments published online January 2014

I appreciate the effort the reviewer took in reviewing my book, “The Foundations of Cognitive Archaeology,” and I have taken into consideration the comments. However, a few words to supplement and, in some cases, correct certain points the reviewer raises are warranted.

The first point the reviewer raises is that I do not define “mind.” Well, rightly so. One could choose to define “mind,” and other authors have gone this route. The names of these authors who have contributed to mind studies in this manner were noted by the reviewer (although I do not usually associate Fodor—who I should point out is in the bibliography—with Dennett). I resisted defining “mind,” thereby committing to a particular ontological view, since I felt it would be too speculative to use such a view as a starting point. Instead, I reasoned that we stand on empirically firmer ground by defining certain aspects of the mind, such as concepts, percepts, and cognitive capabilities, which cognitive scientists have been investigating for decades. Defining the aforementioned aspects of the mind, instead of the mind in its entirety, is much more useful for seeing why the cognitive approaches discussed in the book work, and how the approaches relate to one another. Still, if it is any conciliation to the reviewer, I do at times discuss what the mind is like and, on occasion, what it is not; I simply do not commit to saying what it is, since it was deemed unnecessary based on the reasoning mentioned above. Moreover, by committing to a single ontological view without the majority of archaeologists united behind this view, I would be contributing to an atmosphere that tends to exclude rather than include, and that of course was not the purpose.

Regarding the second point, the reviewer is quite correct in saying that the book reads more like a textbook than a thesis. This is because the purposes of the book include: presenting some key approaches used by cognitive archaeologists, explaining why the approaches can be used based on evidence from multiple disciplines, and explaining how the approaches relate to one another. These objectives along with the requisite background for achieving these objectives inherently give the book a textbook feel. I chose to seek the foundations in cognitive archaeology through synthesis (and analysis), rather than by way of thesis. So, of course this book will not have the same kind of “connective tissue” longed for by the reviewer and which one might expect in a single-threaded thesis. This is a virtue of the fact that the objectives (and respective starting points) of theses and syntheses are simply different, and that needs to be understood.

Another point, which I noticed, is that the reviewer mistakenly asserts that I envision 30,000 years ago to be a fixed barrier beyond which all six cognitive archaeological approaches I discuss are completely useless. This is an oversimplification. First, as I say in the last chapter, this barrier is tentative and therefore has the potential to move. Second, I state that the conditional approach has the potential to breach this barrier no matter where it is situated in time. The reviewer goes on further in the review to erroneously conflate what I refer to as the conditional approach with the use of conditional statements. The conditional approach, however, is not defined simply by using conditional statements. If this were the case, the reviewer would be correct in saying it is manifest in most archaeological inferences. The conditional approach, although it makes use of conditional statements, is quite particular with regards to the content being related in the statements. It is an approach utilized to infer cognitive capabilities that would have been needed to produce very specific contributions in the archaeological record. The conditional approach involves setting up logical arguments in a conditional manner, such that some remain is contingent on the presence of a certain cognitive capability, but the approach is not defined solely by the setup.

Nearing the end of the review, it is asserted that I claim that the six approaches discussed in the book are often used separately in practice. This was never stated about all six approaches—although there is no doubt that some of these approaches have been treated antithetically and, for this reason, either valued or devalued in past research. On the contrary, I say that certain approaches can in many instances be used together, and depending on the contexts of those instances the case may be stronger for doing so. Indeed, some of the case studies to which I refer in the book exemplify this practice by using at least two approaches simultaneously and I point this out. Therefore, the reviewer’s added comment that I am not the only archaeologist who has noted that multiple approaches can be used together is redundant and unproductive. This comment also suggests that the reviewer is fundamentally misunderstanding the premise of the book. The main question being explored in the book is not simply, “Can multiple approaches be used in cognitive archaeological inquiry?” The question is, “Why can multiple approaches be used in cognitive archaeological inquiry?” This latter question further serves as the basis for understanding why these approaches may or may not be used together.

I would also like to say that nowhere in my text do I state that I wish to be a “pioneer synthesizer.” Being a synthesizer and being a pioneer are incongruous. Being a synthesizer—as I have primarily functioned in this book—involves examining and collating other people’s work. It is those “other” people, whose works are being synthesized, who are the pioneers. Still, it is difficult to see how my personal, unwritten wish to be anyone—whether it is a pioneer or the Prince of Wales—is even relevant in a book review.

As a final note, I find I must also acknowledge the reviewer’s positive commentary at the end of the review. The fact that the reviewer sees the book as raising important issues and setting the groundwork for the next step forward affirms my purpose for writing the book. As I have said, my intent in writing the book was to bring to light the foundations of the main cognitive archaeological approaches utilized to date and to see how the approaches relate. What comes next in all likelihood will entail further testing of these foundations as well as devising new approaches with a keen eye toward their empirical and logical substantiation.

- Marc A. Abramiuk (email:

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