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The Prehistory of the Mind: The Cognitive Origins of Art, Religion and Science Paperback – April 1, 1999

4.1 out of 5 stars 28 customer reviews

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Editorial Reviews

Amazon.com Review

Try an experiment: take a passenger along on a brief car trip--a jaunt to the supermarket, say. Have a nice conversation while you're driving, and take a scenic route. Now, the next day, try to reconstruct the details of both the conversation and the trip. Chances are, unless something unusual happened along the way, that your memory of both will be indistinct, for we tend to forget the mundane--an example of what the cognitive scientist Daniel Dennett calls "rolling consciousness with swift memory loss."

Steven Mithen, an archaeologist with an interest in psychology, believes that just such a consciousness obtained among early humans when they went foraging for food or made tools. The evolution of higher, more memory-laden consciousness, he continues, occurred only as a result of a cognitive trick that doubtless involved some trial and error. The trick, simply put, was to guess what the social behavior of some member of one's social group might be in a given circumstance--to step outside one's own mind, in other words, and enter another's. This guesswork underlies the famed cave paintings of Altamira, an attempt to predict the behavior of migratory animals. It underlies as well another experiment: the development of agriculture, with the requisite predicting of how plants and animals might behave under a wide range of conditions.

Mithen's reconstruction of the ancestral human mind, laid out in a clear and accessible narrative, is a fine intellectual adventure. --Gregory McNamee

From Library Journal

Mithen (archaeology, Univ. of Reading) here speculates on the origin of the human mind. Viewing the past six million years as a four-act drama performed with shadowy lighting and insufficient props, Mithen suggests that the precursor of our modern mind was characterized by a general intelligence supplemented by specialized modules for social intelligence, natural history, and technology. Once these formerly independent modules began to communicate with one another, art, religion, and agriculture became possible. Mithen skillfully integrates the ideas of evolutionary psychologists with archaeological evidence and studies on primate behavior to create a plausible, albeit speculative, theory of mental evolution. For academic and special collections.?Laurie Bartolini, Legislative Research, Springfield, Ill.
Copyright 1996 Reed Business Information, Inc. --This text refers to an out of print or unavailable edition of this title.

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Product Details

  • Paperback: 288 pages
  • Publisher: Thames & Hudson; 1st edition (April 1, 1999)
  • Language: English
  • ISBN-10: 0500281009
  • ISBN-13: 978-0500281000
  • Product Dimensions: 6.2 x 1.2 x 9.3 inches
  • Shipping Weight: 12.6 ounces
  • Average Customer Review: 4.1 out of 5 stars  See all reviews (28 customer reviews)
  • Amazon Best Sellers Rank: #1,152,201 in Books (See Top 100 in Books)

Customer Reviews

Top Customer Reviews

By Trevor Watkins on September 5, 1999
Format: Paperback
I read The Prehistory of the Mind when it first came out, and my copy has now been read several times. As a prehistoric archaeologist, I have found this the most exciting and richly stimulating book on archaeology that I have read during the 1990s. Steve Mithen brings together new ideas from evolutionary and developmental psychology, and produces a (controversial) theory of the evolution of the human mind. The great value of his book is that Mithen sets a theoretical sequence generalised from the work of the evolutionary psychologists into the context of the archaeological evidence, from the earliest hominids through to the emergence of our own species, Homo sapiens sapiens. He seeks to relate the mental capabilities of our hominid ancestors to the ways in which they made and used stone tools. His unfolding of the evolved abilities of the modern human mind against the archaeology, art, ritual human burials etc of the European upper palaeolithic period of 40,000 to 30,000 years ago provides a convincing and at last scientific theory to underpin the idea of the 'upper palaeolithic revolution' that a number of archaeologists and anthropologists have been talking about for some years. I think that this book will prove to have a decisive influence on the development of archaeological theory, and that it will inspire archaeologists to do a lot of thinking in quite new directions, seeking to derive much more information about the mental, psychological, cultural and social behaviour of prehistoric peoples from traditional archaeological data.
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Format: Hardcover
Mithen makes a valiant effort to establish the evolutionary roots of human intelligence. It's a complicated task, with so little physical evidence to support his endeavour. Still, he uses what there is with commendable ability. In presenting the development of intelligence, he falls back on three metaphorical images - the Swiss Army Knife, cathedral architecture and a dramatic play. The Swiss Army knife is a collection of specialized tools, each applied without relation to the others. You don't decork a wine bottle while trimming your fingernails. The cathedral is comprised of a central nave with connecting chapels. The chapels only connect to each other as intelligence develops. The drama is the history of hominid evolution, vague and obscure in the beginning, growing more discernible with more fossil evidence.
As with most cognitive studies, Mithen's book summarizes what is known of the similarity of chimpanzee [our nearest relative] intellect and abilities in contrast with our own. As do many of his colleagues, he finds our primate cousins lacking in all but minimal skills. With the chimpanzees thus disposed of, he moves to examine the hominid record. This is the great strength of this work. Instead of the usual tactic of portraying what is known of today's human intellect and projecting backward, Mithen starts at the beginnings of human evolution to carry his argument forward. Along the way he utilizes anthropology, morphological studies, even climate and geography. He uses evidence well, assuming little and carefully building the model. Key points in the narrative are two periods of hominid brain enlargement, which he uses to enhance his model of special "intelligences.
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Format: Paperback
This is a book about the evolution of intelligence. It raises an interesting question right away: Why, after humans suddenly sprouted big brains about 2 million years ago, did they do nothing in particular WITH these wonderfully big new brains until just 100,000 years ago? And then suddenly at some moment, 100,000 years ago, yesterday morning in effect, exploded into action. In other words there was vast lag between the appearance of a mature brain anatomy and any sort of vigorous, laudable mental activity. The observation makes it necessary for science to account for 1.9 million years of mental leisure, of cavemen and women just hanging out. It also calls into question the easy and commonplace assumption that we evolved a big brain in response to some extraordinary evolutionary challenge - a challenge that required us to think faster and more clearly than our near cousins, the chimps.
Books about brains are a genre, and they are as formulaic as detective novels. They always begin by setting up, in the sense of setting up bowling pins, the currently fashionable system of ideas about how the brain might work. Then comes the bowling ball - the blockbuster idea that is supposed to knock aside and supplant all of these fashionable but sadly flawed ideas. The opening critique of the fashionable ideas is usually the best chapter of a brain book, the sweet spot, perhaps because it is the most intellectually honest (ideas about the workings of the brain never add up to much) and because the hostile critique, just by the way, brings you up to date on what people have been thinking on this subject lately.
This is well written and intelligent book. There is too much coy academic nudging and winking and nodding, but when you get past it, it tells its story well.
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