Consciousness and creativity at the dawn of settled life

© Jason P. Quinlan (Çatalhöyük Research Project)

Article by Ian Hodder/Scott D. Haddow

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

Thursday 27 July

2.00 pm – 5.00 pm.  Ian Hodder and team members – detailed introduction to Çatalhöyük and to the ‘Consciousness and Creativity’ research questions

5.00 – 6.00.  Discussion

Friday 28 July

9.30 – 10.15. Lucy Bennison-ChapmanSmall, geometric clay objects: symbolic, record keeping tools (“tokens”) or multifunctional, utilitarian, tools?

10.15 – 11.00.  Lucy Bennison-Chapman and Orkan UmurhanA method to test regularity of size and shape of Çatalhöyük’s large clay balls

11.00 – 11.30. Break.

11.30 – 12.15.  Sean DoyleSignatures in stone - symbols of ownership and signs of innovation

12.15 – 1.00.  Marek BaranskiBrick size and architectural regularities

1.00 – 2.30.  Break

2.30 – 3.15. Christopher Knüsel From parts to a whole? Exploring the meaning of human remains at Çatalhöyük

3.15 – 4.00.  Scott HaddowFrom parts to a whole? Exploring the meaning of human remains at Çatalhöyük (continued)

4.00 – 4.15.  Break

4.15 – 5.00. Milena VasićAdorning the self

5.00 – 6.00. Discussion

Saturday 29 July

9.30 – 10.15. Güneş DuruAşıklı Höyük

10.15 – 11.00.  Douglas BairdBoncuklu Höyük

11.00 – 11.30. Break

11.30 – 12.15.  Hans Gebel - The Southern LPPNB's territories of consciousness: their fabric in the Ba‘ja/ Basta region

12.15 – 1.00.  Colin Renfrew - TBA

1.00 – 2.30.  Break

2.30 – 3.15.  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

3.15 – 4.00.  Marion Benz - When time becomes a matter

4.00 – 4.15.  Break

4.15 – 5.00.  Lisa Maher - Hunter-gatherer home-making? Building landscape and community in the Epipalaeolithic and Neolithic

5.00 – 6.00. Discussion

Sunday 30 July

9.30 – 10.15. Lambros Malafouris - TBA

10.15 – 11.00.  Trevor Watkins - The pivotal transformation of the human cultural niche

11.00 – 11.30. Break

11.30 – 12.15.  Olivier Nieuwenhuijse  - TBA

12.15 – 1.00.  John Sutton - Forms of remembering: Neolithic changes in memory and material culture

1.00 – 2.30.  Break

2.30 – 3.15.  Paul Howard-JonesCognitive function and the cultural “ratchet”

3.15 – 4.00.  Michael Wheeler - Cognitive change and material culture: a distributed perspective

4.00 – 4.15.  Break

4.15 – 5.00.  Chris ThorntonThe headed meronomy as a ladder to complex thought

5.00 - 6.00. Final discussion

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

main sponsors

Yapı Kredi



secondary sponsors

Konya Şeker