Did Settlement Have Cognitive Consequences?

While reading Colin Renfrew’s new book Prehistory: The Making of the Human Mind (Weidenfeld, 2007 – Random House, 2008), I was struck by his observation (taken in turn from Wilson, The Domestication of the Human Species) that permanent, or even semi-permanent, settlements fundamentally changed people’s interactions with the material environment.  In this post I would like to sum up what Renfrew has suggested about how this changed human cognition, with a few comments of my own.  Renfrew is an archeologist, and his discussion is appropriately guided by archeological evidence.  My own archeological qualifications do not extend beyond a single graduate course and the fact that I will one day be buried, and therefore I must accept responsibility for the more wildly speculative elements of what follows.

Renfrew suggests that with settlement developed the notion of property, and the possibility of control over and the accumulation of property.  I think Renfrew is onto something here, but I do not believe the concept of ownership would have been new.  My understanding is that nomadic foragers do have possessions, though of course not many, and one need only observe a troop of chimpanzees at feeding time to see that even they have a functional notion of mine.  It seems to me rather that the notions of property and territory (land property?) must have already been available.  To be sure, these concepts were extended in new ways by settlement, but does not seem to me a change in fundamental cognitive abilities.

Renfrew observes that settlement must have made intensive investment in the environment practical, for the first time…

I assume that our nomadic forebears recognized their ability to modify a local environment in some strategic way and to benefit in the future from doing so when they returned to it.  Indeed, one theory of agriculture is that it was invented by nomadic peoples as an investment in a place to which they would return.  Settlement changed the scale on which it was practical to modify the environment.  Renfrew suggests that settlement motivated the development of agriculture, and this seems sensible, examples of settled foragers and nomadic agriculturalists notwithstanding.  This might have occasioned a cognitive shift in people’s way of thinking about land, as Mithen suggested in his Prehistory of the Mind.

The biggest changes would presumably have been social.  Renfrew suggests that the lithic monuments of Europe almost certainly occasioned social organization that, if it existed prior to their construction, has left no evidence.  He emphasizes this because evidence suggests that the peoples of northwestern Europe at that time were quasi-nomadic, living in small, temporary hamlets.  This might explain why the lithic monuments appear to have had no practical function.  For the quasi-nomadic peoples of that time, no monument could be practical.  The only use for monuments would be to occasion social interactions: in short, for “ritual.”

Settlement, Renfrew suggests, brought about a new intensity of social relationships.  In a nomadic band, one might simply leave, but this is more difficult to do in a permanent settlement, especially where property is involved.  This must have helped to bring about social inequality, but the cognitive seeds of social inequality must have already been present.  It is difficult to see how dominance hierarchies could exist without a notion of social inequality, and Larry Hirschfeld has convincingly shown that notions of human kinds have deep developmental roots.  Settlement must have made possible a greater degree of social inequality, largely by blocking the mechanisms that usually maintain egalitarianism among nomadic foragers, but not by actually changing human cognitive capacities.

It seems to me that settlement brought with it a retasking of existing human cognition, but no real changes to cognitive abilities.  If this conclusion seems obvious from the cognitive capabilities of contemporary nomads, it should not be: people move from settlement to nomadism and back again, and there is no particular reason to believe, so far as I know, that any contemporary nomads have always been nomadic.


  • Helen De Cruz
    Helen De Cruz 8 December 2008 (14:00)

    While I haven’t been able to read this book, just by looking at your summary of it, it does remind me a lot about a book Renfrew co-edited, with Chris Scarre, about 10 years ago, entitled Cognition and material culture: the archaeology of symbolic storage. In that book they explore Merlin Donald’s thesis that material culture deeply extends and changes cognitive capacities, not just in the sense of retasking, but in the sense of restructuring and altering. Merlin Donald argued that the use of artefacts to extend cognition represents an important stage in human cognitive evolution; for example, by using writing and other symbolic notation systems, it becomes possible to transmit and store information without it being distorted by the normal reconstructive processes that are typical of human and other biological memory capacities. According to a recent study by Peterssen et al. (2007), using writing does influence cognition: their MRI scans revealed that the brains of illiterate Portuguese women were less left-lateralized and had more white matter than those of literate Portuguese women from the same socio-economic background. This finding has intrigued me, it could for instance indicate that literate people can afford to have less connectivity in their brains (white matter is an indicator of connectivity), perhaps because they so frequently rely on maps, written lists, and other written sources to supplement their memory While Donald (and Renfrew) situate many of these cognitive changes with the emergence of sedentary lifestyle, there are reasons to suspect that they occurred earlier. To take the example of social inequality, the three burials at Sungir of an adult man and two children, dated at about 25 000 years ago, is often taken as evidence of social inequality in the Upper Palaeolithic. These three people are each covered with thousands of ivory beads (which were attached to their clothes, but of course, clothes are not archaeologically traceable, this is indirectly inferred from the position of the beads). Experimental studies by Randall White indicate that such beads are difficult to make, and that it takes about 1 hour to make a single bead. The children therefore probably didn’t make all these beads, but were wearing beads made by other people.

  • guest guest 8 December 2008 (16:44)

    I’ve always wondered if there is a connection between deprivation or the perception of deprivation and an increasing sense of private property. That is, as food and other resources become more scarce, or as if people believe them to be more scarce, is there an intensification of ownership behavior. For example, people who have suffered through periods of starvation will often horde food, and certain cultures have been known to become less egalitarian during times of deprivation (Turnbull’s Mountain People, perhaps?). I wonder, then, if the rise in possesive behaviors among neolithic cultures could be traced to either a percieved or real lack of resources? Certainly, the claim has been made that foraging groups suffer from fewer and less devastating famines than their agricultural neighbors, and for the majority of the members of agricultural societies there is a very real deprivation as the elite claims the lion’s share of the resources. This is, of course, in addition to all of the other factors that could have played a part (sedentism, division of labor, etc.). Maybe one of you could shed some light on this question. Thanks, Jeremy

  • Maurice Bloch
    Maurice Bloch 23 December 2008 (11:30)

    Another type of explanation, which is complementary to the EP one, but closer to Frazer, is the following. First of all, forget about magic but think about the problem of getting truthful answers to vital questions. The obvious source is people but… they are all potential liars. So one seeks answers from non-human sources that avoid the lying theory of mind potential of people. This avoidance characterises Azande divination which looks to physics (stones thrown in the air) or non mental biology (which of two sticks will be eaten by termites) as sources of truth. This rationale also applies to practices such as gold curing jaundice. It is a remedy that bypasses human intentionality and its dangers. Magic is thus to be explained, first of all, by what it is not.