• Karl Thunemann

An Intro to Cognitive Archeology

By Mary Scriver


The “Bone Detectives” have shown us — with forensic quality examination of ancient skeletons — that humans are shaped by what they do and the ecology/geology of where they are. We can see how hard work or trauma marked those bodily structures and we can chemically analyze teeth to see whether the person were male or female. We can look at DNA to know where the person’s ancestors probably lived earlier over the generations. Some of us have a vivid understanding of how a new person is created from the moment of gestation to birth to walking and talking to becoming fertile and starting the cycle again.

We know that some people learn one schema for life — the inner “feeling” that we call religious if it’s connected to a social institution and spiritual if it’s individual. But we still think it’s all about the priority of humans in terms of life on this planet. We still think we’re the most important but refuse to take responsibility for our power to change the world.


Perhaps we are ready to tackle the next task of thinking about the anthropocene—that of dismantling the presumed separation between humans and the rest of existence.

We’ve excluded ourselves from other life, but it has made us lonesome. Slowly, we realize some things.

1. Humans with consciousness—ourselves—have barely existed in terms of deep time: we are simply brief flashes. Yet we are part of an eternity that’s even more incomprehensible than we pretended.

2. Assuming that our rational logic is more important than our awareness of our sensory and emotional being has been a distortion and has led us astray, thinking that we are only in our brains and that they are computers which are possible to separate from the rest of us.

3. We think we can stand alone, apart from our environments, when this is impossible since every moment we are pressing against and drawing from all the air, land, and water around us. This begins when newly conceived balls of cells, blastospheres, attach us to the lining of our mothers’ wombs where we push to grow against her viscera, listening to her heartbeat and her stomach gurgle. Some mothers sing..

Let’s consider this third misapprehension. Perhaps we are ready to tackle the next task of thinking about the anthropocene—that of dismantling the presumed separation between humans and the rest of existence.

We have tried to pull ourselves into lofty superiority by claiming we are not animals who have developed out of a preceding sequence of creatures (evolution), but also by claiming that being rational allows us to stand apart from and in opposition to the natural world around us. The stigmatization of bodies and their emotions as well as the overvaluing of tech-created beings and abilities, have led us into some damaging blind alleys. But knowing so much has thrown open the world.

A paper by A.W. Geertz called “Method and Theory in the Study of Religion” carefully considers these sorts of wrong turns as well as suggesting new angles. I had not known that there was a field called “cognitive archeology,” which considers what mutations in human thinking have developed over the known history of our existence and how one led into the next, just like the evolution of our bones and muscles, eyes and ears, teeth, and posture. Three men are identified by Geertz as working in this discipline. The fourth name is a psychologist who accepts and develops the related idea of how a newly conceived, born, and raised child develops—individual evolution, if you like.

Steven Mithen, Colin Renfrew, Lambros Malafouris, and Margaret Wilson. That’s not all of the cognitive archeologists, but it’s great to have a place to start. I’m going to go broke buying the books these people have had published. In the meantime I grudgingly consult Wikipedia, which has little awareness of anything but the primacy of educated white men but knows to provide space for lesser beings. (Wikipedia is a status quo instrument.)




Steven Mithen’s entry says, “Cognitive fluidity is a term first popularly applied by Mithen in his book “The Prehistory of the Mind, a search for the origins of Art, Religion and Science.”

“The term cognitive fluidity describes how a modular primate mind has evolved into the modern human mind by combining different ways of processing knowledge and using tools to create a modern civilization. By arriving at original thoughts, which are often highly creative and rely on metaphor and analogy, modern humans differ from archaic humans. As such, cognitive fluidity is a key element of the human attentive consciousness.”

Mithen is also the author of the wonderfully titled, “The Singing Neanderthals”. The Wiki site devoted to Within is frankly dubious about him and asks for more evidence. This reframing of the Neanderthals as more than knuckledraggers is resisted by some. Mithen is not afraid to speak of the evolution of religion and to describe the impact of time and place on thinking at the level of belief and commitment, which also makes him a threat to some.

The Wiki entry on the “Evolutionary Psychology of Religion” is fascinating and explains that the self-damaging ideas required by some make one wonder what would preserve religions at all, except for the great value of group belief. “Richard Sosis and Candace Alcorta have reviewed several of the prominent theories for the adaptive value of religion. Many are “social solidarity theories”, which view religion as having evolved to enhance cooperation and cohesion within groups. Group membership in turn provides benefits which can enhance an individual’s chances for survival and reproduction.”

This is highly relevant to the intense groups that now are forming about entitlement, supremacy, value equity, and so on — causing war in the streets and in congress. The terms of survival are in flux with many populations clearly going to die by displacement, famine, climate change and power oppression. We suddenly realize that covert wealthy groups are protecting their self-interests at the cost of the standards of the whole, and we call for their exclusion and punishment.

We are in the midst of evolution that includes and may be guided by religious-level ideas and motives. We are also sharply aware that if we don’t discard some of our old obsessive ideas about money and stigma, they may extinguish our species. We have already damaged the world in the name of Christian-authorized dominion over all being that imagines a King on a Cloud.

We are borrowed from this planet, humus rising up in electrochemical knots as humans, and when we die our elements go back to the elements of creation. We can frame a new persuasive religion that recognizes this, and some are working on it.













Mary Scriver is a retired Unitarian minister who lives in Valier, MT