Thinking About Thinking

The Prehistory of the Mind: The Cognitive Origins of Art, Religion and Science

by Steven Mithen
Thames and Hudson, 288 pp., $27.50


Before Darwin, many scholars wrote about the origins of man and the beginnings of mental life. Such writings, however, were frankly speculative: there were few agreed-upon facts, nor was there a comprehensive theoretical frame within which to situate facts and suppositions. Darwin’s epoch-making writings changed forever the status of human beings’ reflections about themselves and their minds. Darwin put forth the most plausible general account of the evolutionary origins of contemporary forms of life—an account long accepted as correct in its basic outlines. In addition, he stimulated students of biology and human behavior to collect and interpret data relevant to the actual, as opposed to the supposed, “prehistory” of mind and man.

What had been a trickle of writings about prehistoric life became a torrent of publications in the half century following Darwin. Dozens of scholars conjectured about the antecedents of contemporary man or described more primitive forms of mental life in nonhuman animals. In nearly all cases, what emerged as the peak of intellectual evolution bore a marked resemblance to the authors of these books—European and North American scholars who, in a contemporary phrase, were “stale, male, and pale.” So much energy was devoted to the often speculative search for mankind’s intellectual “roots” that in 1866 the Circle of Linguistics of Paris actually banned papers on the origins of language, which of course did not stop them from being written.

While the temptation to publish grand theories about the prehistory of the mind was never completely quelled, such work had fallen distinctly out of favor by the middle years of this century. Most scholars agreed that there were already too many accounts that could not be properly evaluated, among them Freud’s view that prehistoric social life originated in the consumption by sons of their murdered father’s corpse. It made more sense for scholars to set themselves to less ambitious tasks, and to try to get at least part of the “prehistory riddle” straight. They could investigate the mental life of infants, or the development of early tools in East Africa, or brain changes that might have facilitated the development of speech, or the stunning images of animals found in the caves of southern Europe. Finally, the pseudoscientific evolutionary and eugenic program advanced by the Nazis gave a deservedly bad name to the practice of ranking individuals (or minds) according to some metrical index of sophistication, complexity, or “full” humanity.

Still, it is not possible—and probably not desirable—for scholars to desist entirely from attempting to sketch a broad picture of human prehistory. Textbook authors often attempt to do so, and important proposals about early development have also come from philosophers such as Ernst Cassirer, who examined the fundamental practices of art, myth, and religion as they might have first emerged; brain scientists like Harry Jerrison, who charted the growth patterns of the brain in different species; and archaeologists like Alexander Marshack, who discerned early notational systems in the apparently haphazard scratches on pieces of bone.

Other theories have…

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