The Center for Cognitive Archaeology wants to highlight books that cognitive archaeologists should be reading! Each recommended book comes with a short description by one of our faculty members.

Featured book: First Sculpture: Handaxe to Figure Stone by Tony Berlant and Thomas Wynn

First Sculpture cover

First Sculpture: Handaxe to Figure Stone, by Tony Berlant and Thomas Wynn, is the catalogue of the first museum exhibition to present ancient handaxes and figure stones as works of art. Traditionally understood as the longest-used tool in human history, with examples dating back more than 2 million years, some handaxes are equally fascinating for their non-utilitarian, aesthetic qualities. First Sculpture presents these objects as evidence of the earliest forms of artistic intention, highlighting the aesthetic qualities of each stone and providing crucial historical and scientific information to give the viewer a deeper understanding of human history, as well as an enriched appreciation for humankind’s early ability to sculpt beautiful objects. The exhibition’s second focus, that of figure stones, suggests early human ability to recognize beauty and meaning in found objects. These naturally occurring stones possess evident shapes and patterns, including geometric forms, animals, and especially faces. Prehistoric people recognized these shapes and augmented their mimetic qualities through additional carving. First Sculpture: Handaxe to Figure Stone is the product of a unique collaboration between Los Angeles-based artist Tony Berlant and anthropologist Dr. Thomas Wynn, Distinguished Professor at the University of Colorado, Colorado Springs. The catalogue includes contributions by John Gowlett, Evan M. Maurer, Richard Deacon, Jared Diamond, Naama Goren-Inbar and V. S. Ramachandran. ©2018 Nasher Sculpture Center, Dallas, TX.


Evolutionary Neuropsychology: An Introduction to the Evolution of the Structures and Functions of the Human Brain by Frederick L. Coolidge

  • In Evolutionary Neuropsychology, Coolidge examines the evolutionary origins of the human brain. A new multidisciplinary science, evolutionary neuropsychology assumes that brain regions developed their functions in response to environmental challenges over billions of years. These regions and neuronal circuitry now serve newer functions (exaptations) and are now involved in many higher cognitive functions.

    Praise for Evolutionary Neuropsychology:

    “Anyone curious about the evolutionary roots of the human brain will relish this book. It offers a spirited dive into modern brain function origins by tracing the earliest hominins’ cognition through current neuroscience. Coolidge has a knack for answering unforeseen questions. Readers will better understand neuropsychology through his overview of controversies, historical perspectives, and case histories. This text will begin new and exciting conversations.” – Michelle M. Merwin, Professor of Psychology, University of Tennessee Martin

    “Coolidge delves deeply into the evolution of the brain and touches the physical stuff of the universe and the principles of life itself. In highly digestible prose, he offers an overview of evolutionary neuropsychology while challenging assumptions about learning, sleep, brain regions, and psychopathology…a must read.” – Karenleigh Overmann, Associate Professor of Anthropology (Adjunct), University of Colorado

Neanderthal Language: Demystifying the Linguistic Powers of our Extinct Cousins by Rudolf Botha

  • Associate Professor Karenleigh Overmann says: Neanderthal Language tackles one of the most controversial and hotly debated topics in paleoanthropology and cognitive evolution: the questions of whether, and if so, how, Neanderthals might have differed from contemporary Homo sapiens. This astute and timely book navigates a complex, often contentious literature that encompasses the mutually opposed positions that Neanderthals were either indistinguishable from H. sapiens(Villa & Roebroeks, 2014) or differed from them in ways that were visible to natural selection but did not entail their brutishness or incompetence (Wynn, Overmann, & Coolidge, 2016). While Prof. Botha’s specific focus is whether or not Neanderthals had language, he also examines issues like the degree to which language is necessary for making stone tools, as well as the evidence for other behaviors attributed to Neanderthals—personal ornamentation, cave art, use of ochre, burial, and hunting—particularly in regards to the way these have been used to argue for or against Neanderthal language. The result is a comprehensive review and critique of the full range of current Neanderthal studies, written in a succinct and highly accessible prose.

    Independent of any specific interest in either Neanderthals or language, Prof. Botha’s book makes another substantial contribution to the state-of-the-art by dissecting the arguments being made in the literature for and against Neanderthal language. Here the author offers a cogent, coherent, and comprehensive analysis of how a sound inferential argument is to be constructed from interdisciplinary data. Given the increasing popularity of interdisciplinarity in the quest to understand human cognitive evolution, Prof. Botha’s discussion of the art of inferential argumentation addresses a critical need. This is especially true for Neanderthal research, where the ability to argue from disparate evidence is both crucial and often imperfectly achieved, as he so capably illustrates with numerous examples from the literature. The result is a masterful “must read” surely destined to become a classic in the field.

    Villa, P., & Roebroeks, W. (2014). Neanderthal demise: An archaeological analysis of the modern human superiority complex. PLoS One, 9(4), 1–10.

    Wynn, T., Overmann, K. A., & Coolidge, F. L. (2016). The false dichotomy: A refutation of the Neanderthal indistinguishability claim. Journal of Anthropological Sciences, 94, 1–21.

Squeezing Minds from Stones edited by Frederick L. Coolidge and Karenleigh A. Overmann

  • Cognitive archaeology is an exciting interdisciplinary science that interprets ancient artifacts—stone tools, beads, figurines, and art forms—using insights from cognitive science in order to understand the minds of their makers. Squeezing Minds From Stones is a collection of essays co-edited by cognitive archaeologist Karenleigh A. Overmann and neuropsychologist Frederick L. Coolidge. The essays range from early pioneers in the field, archaeologists like Thomas Wynn and Iain Davidson and evolutionary primatologist William McGrew, to ‘up and coming’ newcomers like Shelby Putt, Ceri Shipton, Mark Moore, James Cole, Natalie Uomini, and Lana Ruck. The essays address a wide variety of topics in contemporary cognitive archaeology: the evolutionary bases for cognition, how stone tools may reflect the brains and minds of their makers, when and how stone tools move from the practical to the aesthetic, and the social implications of archaeological artifacts and their relationships to attention, language, working memory, materiality, and numbers.

The Material Origins of Numbers by Karenleigh A. Overmann

  • Professor Thomas Wynn says: In “The Material Origin of Numbers: Insights from the Archaeology of the Ancient Near East” Karenleigh Overmann pursues two ambitious goals – achieving a new understanding of Mesopotamian number systems and in so doing making a case for the active role of bodies and artifacts in the development of human cognition. Overmann deploys a broad-based analysis that includes data generated by psychologists, neuroscientists, linguists, ethnographers, archaeologists and mathematicians. Beginning with an account of the perceptual experience of quantity (subitization and magnitude appreciation) she uses judicious reference to ethnographic examples and comparative linguistics to highlight the importance of finger and body-part counting, and the use of artifactual assists such as tallies in the development of number sense, setting the stage for her discussion of Mesopotamian numbers. In her meticulous analysis of 4th millennium BCE clay tokens, token-impressed bullae, and clay tablets, including 2300+ hitherto uncatalogued tokens, Overmann is able to demonstrate that the clay tokens could not have been the earliest Mesopotamian number system, as some have argued, and that restrictive number use must have been in place since the onset of the Neolithic, with roots even deeper in the Palaeolithic. But the most provocative component of her presentation is her discussion of how material forms such as tallies and tokens interacted with human psychology and physiology to produce true abstract number concepts. The result is a tour de force of cognitive archaeology, destined to reshape the way archaeologists and cognitive scientists understand the role of material culture in cognitive evolution.