History, Cognitive Science, and the Brain (Part 4)

The fact that genetics, brain, body, culture, and environment are so intertwined has profound implications for historical consciousness.  As we have seen, nascent ideas of historical consciousness can be traced to roughly 1.4 million years ago.  The role that evolution has played in the development of chronesthesia was a chance occurrence, linked to brain development and the ability to gather more energy from the environment.  Together they formed an important part of an evolutionary positive feedback loop.  These changes were accompanied by the increased ability for abstract thought and symbolic communication, eventually culminating in the capacity for complex language among homo sapiens between 70,000 and 50,000 years ago.  The use of language — both through brain development and the descent of the larynx — allowed humans to pass on knowledge and ideas to each other across locations and across generations.   While other animal species learned primarily through imprinting, conditioning, and imitation, language gave humans the ability to learn through verbal communication.  But, the capacity for complex language also allowed for humans to come together and reflect, discuss, and debate knowledge.  The capacity for language meant that humans were able to express an infinite range of ideas using a limited set of symbols.  Furthermore, language allowed knowledge to be exchanged and stored within and between groups — what we call social learning.  This cultural process was cumulative and has had profound consequences for human cognition.

Chauvet Cave, France
Hillaire Chamber, Chauvet Cave, France

With the transformation in intellectual and linguistic capabilities, a dramatic change in human culture occurred — what some have referred to as “The Great Leap Forward” or the “Upper Paleolithic Revolution.”[1]  In a geological split second, we see the first cave paintings and sculpture, jewelry, and an increase in ritualized burials.[2]  The cave paintings of the Upper Paleolithic are remarkable in scale and beauty.  Those at Chauvet, made roughly 32,000 years ago are stunningly naturalistic images of animals.

In the caves at Lascaux humans are engaged in a hunt.  Still others, include more abstract elements, including outlines of hands and geometric shapes.  While the narratives of these paintings are tantalizingly just out of reach, archaeological analysis suggests that they served ritual functions.  More likely than not, they reflected early cosmology and mystical belief.  The pictures told a story to the people who made them – a story about themselves and their world.  Unfortunately, we don’t know what that story was.

The abstraction required to create art and narratives and to share them with other members of a community is significant.  While homo ergaster and homo erectus had already developed early historical consciousness by 1.4 million years ago, it was not until the Middle to Upper Paleolithic — roughly 70,000 to 25,000 years ago – that a new form of temporal thinking is reflected in the archaeological record: sociocultural historical consciousness.  Whereas chronesthesia refers to the individual’s ability to recall the past and imagine the future, sociocultural historical consciousness is the culturally based ability to construct temporal narratives.  Sociocultural historical consciousness is an important form of social learning.  At its most basic, it allows groups to plan together.  They can more effectively organize hunts, gather and store food, make clothing, and build shelters.  Expressed through symbols – especially language, ritual, and art — it enables groups to construct collective timelines.

When Paleolithic humans first cooperated to narrate their pasts is unclear.  However, ritual burials from 70,000 to 35,000 years ago provide evidence of sociocultural historical consciousness, about the same time that complex language developed.  Ritual burials reveal a capacity to imagine death, a finite physical state towards which each member of a community is inevitably propelled.  What is interesting about ritual burials, however, is that the experience is not simply at the individual level.  It happens at the cultural level.  It is a communal activity of mental time travel, because ritual burials are not simply acts of remembering; they are acts of planning.[3]

In the upper Paleolithic we see an increased willingness to inter the dead with grave goods, including animal bones, jewelry, and red ochre.[4]  Grave goods can tell us quite a bit about our ancestors.  In a subsistence society, the loss of tools or the expenditure of energy to make art objects is an expensive proposition — one that has the ability to affect the lives the entire community.  Societies that bury individuals with grave goods are willing to part with material wealth in order to serve a cultural function – most likely related to the belief in a spiritual world and an afterlife of some sort.  The extent to which societies were willing to inter the dead with grave good could be quite incredible.  In the Sungir, Russia burial, dated to roughly 27,000 years ago, two children were buried with 10,177 ivory beads, representing over 10,000 hours of manual labor.  Additionally, ornamental mammoth ivory spears were interred with them.[5]  It is quite probable that such an investment reflected a belief in the afterlife.  So, it is not a surprise that during the Upper Paleolithic, we see the first evidence of ancestor worship.  In effect, ritual burials reflect a belief that those from the past have the ability to influence the present — as though two worlds, a spiritual and a physical world, exist side-by-side, interpenetrating the other.  This is a conception of time that goes well beyond the individual, episodic memory variety.  It is a notion of time mediated through the community, remembering the past and imagining the future – a sociohistorical community consciousness.


Sociocultural historical consciousness changed the world in many ways for humans.  Without it – and specifically the group organizing capabilities that it offers – it is quite unlikely that humans would have made the shift to agriculture, let alone to the first urban civilizations along the Indus, Tigris, Euphrates, and Nile Rivers.  This is because complex social organization requires the ability of groups of people to delay short-term gratification and to plan for long-term returns.  Take agriculture as a prototypical example.  The agricultural cycle is an annual one.  In order for it to work, groups of people must decide together what, when, and how much to plant.  The energy that they expend on it will not be recouped for months.  And, in the time between harvest and planting, the group must allocate its resources so that it has grain to sow for the next cycle.  Likewise, long distance trade, mining, fishing, and transportation networks, all require groups to plan for the future together by taking into account past experience.

A variety of other developments also emerged from sociocultural historical consciousness.  Religion, ritual, and cosmology became increasingly tied to historical thinking.  Out of religious observance and early astronomical observation, the first calendar and time-keeping devices were constructed.  In fact, we still use the system from ancient Mesopotamia, which is why there are sixty minutes in an hour and sixty seconds in a minute.  Even writing is a product of sociocultural historical consciousness.  Not long after the advent of agriculture and urban living, humans had the need to store and exchange information related to their economy – costs, production levels, and inventories.  A secondary effect of long-term planning, writing allowed people to store their knowledge in new ways.  As we saw in the Upper Paleolithic, knowledge became distributed across populations – in this case through texts.  The urge to record the past was clearly a primary concern.  List of kings and ancestors told people about their past.  It told them about their ideals and expectations.  It told them the story of their communities.  It reached out to the spiritual realm, explaining cosmological principles.  And, at the core of their stories was a quest to describe their origins – what made them human.

Humans are hardwired to think with history.  We do this on both an individual and on a group level.  We are evolutionarily inclined to create stories about our pasts in order to learn from each other.  Our shared cultures tell us about these pasts, both reinforcing and reshaping our predispositions and actions.  Historical thinking is a conscious expression of our shared humanity.  It is not something that we practice without consequence.  The stories we tell ourselves and each other form our cultural systems.  Not only do they help us form cohesive identities — not only do they tell us about our pasts so that we can plan for the future – they are a primary mode of social learning.  Sociocultural historical thinking has had massive impacts on our history.  It has shaped and reshaped us, and it has the capacity to continue doing so into the future.  It is not something to be taken lightly. Each thing we do and each thing that we don’t do because of our historical understanding changes our worlds – changes the way we think.  Sometimes this is on a small — inconceivably small — scale.  But all of our little historical decisions have a cumulative effect on our bodies, minds, environment, society, and culture.  We all participate in sustaining historical narratives.  We are all makers of history because we embody it.



[1] Jared Diamond, The Third Chimpanzee: The Evolution and Future of the Human Animal, 3rd ed. (Harper Perennial, 2006).

[2] On these practices’ relationship to religion, see M. J Rossano, “The religious mind and the evolution of religion.,” Review of general psychology 10, no. 4 (2006): 346.

[3] Coolidge and Wynn, The rise of Homo sapiens, 234.

[4] Geoffrey A Clark and Julien Riel-Salvatore, “Grave Markers: Middle and Early Upper Paleolithic Burials and the Use of Chronotypology in Contemporary Paleolithic Research,” Current Anthropology 42, no. 4 (2001): 449-479.

[5] Coolidge and Wynn, The rise of Homo sapiens, 233.

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