Saturday, September 26, 2009


This is a bit of what my life has been like for the past month as far as academics.It is interesting, because there is a lot more freedom it seems in the British system than in the American. There are also no text books for assigned reading for the most part, only recommended books. A very self discovery based way of learning. Also...all of the assignments are anonymous so there is no professorial bias. I find this fascinating. (NOTE: THE SKILLFUL WORKING IN OF BRAIN THEORY ON MY BEHALF)

An Archaeological Examination:
Encephalization and the Change of Material Culture

Even upon the most novice examination of the archaeological record, stripped of a scientific eye, one thing is universally evident: change. Artifacts, although stagnate entities in it of themselves, are historically in a constant state of flux, ranging from the basic tool construction of early humans, to the complex technology of present day. One of the major questions in archaeology is why this change occurs, both on a local level, such as why a specific site was abandoned, and a global level, such as why suddenly metalwork became a rampant phenomenon. The purpose of this essay is to focus on the global question of why material culture changes over time, in an effort to explain the profound evolution of artifacts seen throughout human history.

To pin point an exact reason why material culture endures change, would be not only irrational, but a theory with great neglect to evidence. Since archaeology is a multifaceted field, there are a plethora of approaches that deal with the concept of material change, each with a different answer to the question. Ranging from climatic shifts, mass migration, inter-tribe dialogue, oceanic changes, forging strategies, and adoption of new religious beliefs, there are many variables involved- each with their own merit. However, from a biological perspective, one alteration seems to have a particularly clear correlation: neurology.
Excavated skeletal remains indicate that the skull of the closest human relative, Australopithecus, originated at about 435 to 650 cc, which expanded through a process called encephalization to the 1350-1400 cc of present day humans (Sternberg 2002). That means, in only a blink of an evolutionary eye, there was a 35% increase of neuronal matter, most of which was concentrated in the frontal lobes of the brain (Haviland 1979). Although it is difficult to ever know exactly to what extent such neural changes had, archeological evidence suggests its influence was vast. Ranging from new behavior, food consumption, religion, language, technology, and most importantly, their underlying material culture, there seems to be an incredibly interwoven relationship between brain size and cognitive complexity. As even Charles Darwin asserted in 1871: "No one, I presume, doubts that the large proportion which the size of man's brain bears to his body, compared to the same proportion in the gorilla or orangutan, is closely connected with his mental powers” (Lovejoy 1981). As Darwin insinuates, this increase in mental power may be one of the major forces in the evolution of material goods unearthed by archeology, as well as the culture that supported them.
This correlation between brain size and material culture can be further bolstered by looking at a particular medium, in this case stone (since organic material usually is not preserved as well in the archaeological record), and how it was used throughout a period of human development. Lithics, typically associated with the Paleolithic, are exemplary of early brain growth and the resultant complexity of tool making. Stone tools are first attested around 2.6 Ma, when Homo habilis in Eastern Africa used so-called pebble tools, choppers made out of round pebbles that had been split by simple strikes (Mortillet 1988). The revolution of stone tools is what many people consider to be the distinguishing breach between man and animal. The word “habilis,” the name given by Raymond Dart, means “handy man,” and is a commentary on their capacity to manufacture stone tools (Leakey 1981).

If one is to examine the brain size between Homo habilis and its closest predecessor, Australopithecus africanus, there is a 330 cc brain increase (Sternberg 2002). Although tool use cannot be entirely attributed to this brain development, there is significant reason to believe the changing neurology enabled them to not only think more long term, but also possess increased dexterity, planning and executive decision making, as is exhibited in their use of stone. The early emergence of lithics demonstrated by Homo habilis is indicative of how neural complexity greatly influenced the material culture of early hominids.

Similarly, when contrasted, the brain size of Homo habilis and Homo erectus skyrocketed from a mere 650 cc to a grand 1225 cc (Sternberg 2002). Coincidently alongside this brain size shift, even more sophisticated lithics emerged, such as Acheulean stone technology. The infamous Acheulean handaxe was created during this time, which was essentially stone chipped on both sides to form a biface of two cutting edges (Mortillet 1988). This technology proved to be so effective, it lingered throughout much of the Paleolithic era and was one of the major reasons for successful human survival in harsher climates. Along with more complex tool construction, complex social structures, ritual, and art also gave way, all of which drastically altered the material culture of the time.

However, when extending this trend beyond Homo erectus and its near relatives, there is a major critique: why, when the human brain has remained about the same size for since the emergence of modern man, material culture seems to still be exponentially evolving? This critique is most certainly not unjustified. It is quite clear that the average human brain leveled off at about 1400 cc, and has not changed a significant amount since (Sternberg 2002).

Upon closer examination, however, it might be possible that the underlying reason for this actually supports the idea of neural influence over material culture, rather than detracts from it. Often times in the discussion of evolution, a purely Darwinian dialogue of “survival of the fittest” and mere biological mutations prove to be unsatisfactory. Many theorists have asserted that biological evolution is simply the first step of evolution in a chain reaction. Following the evolution of the physical body, came emotional, social and economic evolution- all of which are not evident on the corporal level (Suddendorf 2000). So basically, what this theory asserts is that the trend of evolution seems to extend from an inner, biological one, to a more external, abstract one, which is why although there have not been physical changes in the brain, material culture continues to develop. It seems as though the brain has evolved to a point where rather than producing more networks to grapple with increasingly complex information (as was seen in the Stone Age) the brain has now evolved to utilize preexisting networks more effectively.

Either way, the study of prehistoric lithics is only one slice of the evolutionary relationship between materialism and an ever increasing neural complexity. The concept that more neural networks created an increased intricacy of thought, resulting in having more command over the material world, certainly is not void of flaws. But at the very least, as demonstrated by the close correlations of lithics and encephalization of the Paleolithic era, change in material culture and neurology appear to be inexorably linked.

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