For more than 20 years, Thomas Wynn and Fred Coolidge have been thinking about cognitive archaeology: the science of understanding how human brains evolved, using materials early humans left behind. Now, Wynn, Distinguished Professor of Anthropology at the University of Colorado Colorado Springs, and Coolidge, Professor of Psychology and CU Presidential Teaching Scholar, have co-authored a book that further defines the discipline.
Evolutionary cognitive archaeology is a relatively new subfield in prehistoric archaeology. It combines specialties from cognitive psychology, to understand how the brain and thought processes develop, and archaeology, to examine the archaeological record of ancient manmade items. Wynn and Coolidge combined their expertise to co-author “An Introduction to Evolutionary Cognitive Archaeology.” Published by Routledge in 2022, it is the first concise introduction to the field of cognitive archaeology.
The book is divided into three sections. The first defines evolutionary cognitive archaeology and examines its major methods. The second section details the cognitive processes that the discipline seeks to understand — from memory and spatial cognition to art, symbolism and language. And finally, the third section overviews major phases of the archaeological record to present a brief outline of hominin cognitive evolution.
To share more about the book and its origins, Coolidge answered seven questions below.
1. If you were describing your book to someone outside of your field, what would you say?
This book serves as an introduction to the evolution of cognition (thinking) by examining the archaeological record — in other words, the record of things hominins made.
We divided this timeline into three major phases: The bipedal (walking on two legs) apes from 3.3 million years ago to 1.7 million years ago; the handaxe age from 2.7 million years ago until 300,000 years ago; and the emergence of modern thinking from 300,000 years ago until 12,000 years ago, during the advent of agriculture.
2. How did you get the idea for your project?
Together and for the past 22 years, Thomas Wynn and I have been pondering the cognitive processes behind archaeological artifacts. When the publisher Routledge offered us this opportunity, we jumped at the chance to help further define this discipline of cognitive archaeology.
3. Did your focus develop or change throughout the research and writing process?
Like many books, our vision changed somewhat over the course of writing, but it was very pleasant to see its ending and to look back and see how it all turned out.
4. Which idea do you write about that most excites, invigorates or inspires you?
The notion that handaxes, i.e., stone tools that generally fit in one’s hand, became “prettier” since 300,000 years ago, makes us think that stone knappers started thinking “with” the tool. By that I mean they were engaging more intimately with their stone productions than ever before. These stone knappers were spending way more time than needed to produce a functional tool. It appears they were “showing off” their prowess to other knappers, to potential mates, and others. This phenomenon suggests that minds were evolving along with the brain’s shape.
5. Describe your writing space. Where do you do your best work? What time of day? Do you have any writing routines you are willing to share?
For the past two years, I’ve written from home. I usually get more written in the morning but I still put in a few hours after lunch. When I wrote at school, I kept the same writing schedule.
6. Is there a favorite quote or passage you want to showcase from the book?
“We humans are very good at finding ourselves and moving in space.”
7. What new questions for future exploration have you discovered?
Tom and I are negotiating with Oxford University Press to release a second edition of our 2012 book, “How to think like a Neandertal.” In addition, my newest book, “The 20 Greatest Mysteries in Anthropology,” will be published by Elsevier in 2023.
UCCS celebrates faculty and staff who author and edit books each year. In recognition of their achievement, and as part of the UCCS Author Spotlight initiative, authors are invited to submit details on their published works.