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The Foundations of Cognitive Archaeology
January 2014 (118.1)
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).
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] http://metapsychology.mentalhelp.net/poc/view_doc.php?type=book&id=6866) 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  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 www.ajaonline.org/book-review/1720