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Quaternary International xxx (2015) 1e7

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The cultural dimension of cognition

Trevor Watkins
University of Edinburgh, United Kingdom

a r t i c l e i n f o a b s t r a c t

Article history: Around the transition from the Pleistocene to the Holocene in southwest Asia, human skills in cultural
Available online xxx niche construction were qualitatively upgraded in order to support the formation of large, permanently
co-resident communities and regional interaction networks with new and sophisticated forms of sym-
Keywords: bolic action and representation. The transition from small, mobile forager bands to networks of large
Cultural niche construction theory permanent communities that occurred between 22,000 and 8500 years ago was enabled by the signif-
icant development of what Merlin Donald has called theoretic culture, communicated and stored in
systems of external symbolic storage. The over-arching role of symbolic culture became the highly
Southwest Asia
developed core of what we may call the cognitive-cultural niche, within which and by means of which
children learned and adults understood and expressed their identity and their place in the world. The
extraordinary plasticity of the modern human brain and its developmental responsiveness to context
meant that individuals formed their identity through a long process of enculturation within a cognitively
powerful cultural niche. While we are accustomed to literacy and dependence on written sources, they
were more adept with other media, particularly ceremonies and rituals, and the making of memory in
monuments, artistic representations, signs and systems of symbols.
2015 Elsevier Ltd and INQUA. All rights reserved.

1. Introduction out of material in ways that are without precedent in human evo-
lution; from that early start, the cultural facility with material signs
In this paper I argue that the material dimension of cognition is and symbols grew (and continues to grow) at an exponential rate.
essentially a cultural dimension, which we can see changing its The transformation that we can observe around the Pleistoce-
nature in a signicant way around the PleistoceneeHolocene neeHolocene transition in southwest Asia, however, represents a
transition in southwest Asia. We cannot think of the material remarkable expansion of these cognitive-cultural abilities. More-
dimension of cognition in any absolute sense, without concern for over, it was accompanied by the emergence of a way of life in
its cultural context in time and space. The material dimension of networks of large, sedentary communities that was fundamental
cognition among Homo erectus, for example, was qualitatively for all of later prehistory and the historical periods that have fol-
different from that among archaic Homo sapiens, which in turn was lowed. I seek to argue that these two processes e the emergence of
different from that among recent H. sapiens; and, because of the large-scale, permanently co-resident communities, and the devel-
diversity of cultural variation, it will present differently in different opment of monumental architecture and complex sculptural rep-
contemporary cultural contexts. As a prehistoric archaeologist resentations - are reciprocally interrelated, and can be understood
interested in the transformation that brought about the rst large, in the context of an extension of cultural niche construction theory.
permanently co-resident communities and established farming The conventional wisdom among archaeologists for a long time
economies in southwest Asia, I am exploring the way that those has been that the key element in the process of neolithisation, or
communities developed new systems of symbolic representation in the Neolithic revolution in southwest Asia was the domestication
material form. I want to understand the role of what appears to be of plants and animals and the development of farming economies;
the signicantly enhanced symbolic material dimension within accounts of the process typically reach back beyond the beginning
those new communities. For more than one hundred thousand of the Neolithic period into the last two or three millennia of the
years, modern humans have learned to make and share meaning preceding Epi-palaeolithic period. I see the process as taking place
over a much longer time-scale, beginning at least as early as the
inception of the Levantine Upper Palaeolithic almost 50,000 years
E-mail address: ago; in that long-term perspective, the terms neolithisation and
1040-6182/ 2015 Elsevier Ltd and INQUA. All rights reserved.

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2 T. Watkins / Quaternary International xxx (2015) 1e7

Neolithic revolution become misnomers. I believe that we can management on which they could rely. With animal domestication,
better understand the nature of the process if we see it in evolu- there was a series of changes in hunting, trapping and shing
tionary terms within the context of a profound re-shaping of the strategies before herding began and domesticated species appeared
cultural niche. (Stiner et al., 2000; Zeder, 2012). Reliance on their animal herds
First, I will sketch an outline of the multi-factorial components came a thousand or more years after domestication (Conolly et al.,
of the process. Then, I will introduce niche construction theory, 2011).
more particularly cultural niche construction theory. Niche con- The second strand is demographic. Based on the evidence of the
struction theory provides a conceptual framework for modelling reducing availability of prime hunting prey, the increasing pressure
the evolutionary process (Odling-Smee et al., 2003), is applicable to on hunted gazelle, and increasing time and effort invested in
many (most?) species, and is particularly useful for understanding obtaining small, fast-moving animals and birds, growth in popu-
the way of life of social animals. Cultural niche construction theory lation density in the Levant began from at least the Last Glacial
recognizes the important role that human culture plays in the Maximum and continued through the Epipalaeolithic period
human situation (Kendal, 2011; Kendal et al., 2011; Laland and (Davis, 1991; Stiner et al., 2000; Munro, 2004; Davis, 2005). Israeli
O'Brien, 2011). The arguments in this paper are underpinned by colleagues have estimated the number of settlement sites per
the evolutionary dynamic of the social brain hypothesis (Dunbar, thousand years through the Epipalaeolithic and Neolithic for
1998, Dunbar et al., 2014; Gamble et al., 2014); this proposes that different parts of southwest Asia (Goring-Morris and Belfer-Cohen,
the expensive, long-term increase in size of the human brain, 2011: Fig. 2). Their best quantitative data comes from the southern
particularly the pre-frontal cortex, was necessary to support the Levant. In the north Levant, we lack data on the Epipalaeolithic, but
exponential growth in the cognitive load of living in larger and the rise through the Neolithic is a similar gradient to that in the
more cohesive social groups. In that story of increasing social group south. In the early Neolithic in the southern Levant (9600e7000
size, culture has played an important role, and not just in terms of BC) the average size of settlements increased by a factor of 10, and
technology and material culture. In the latter part of this paper, I the density of buildings also grew dramatically by a factor of at least
will discuss how the PleistoceneeHolocene transformation illus- four times (Kuijt, 2000). Putting together those trends in size,
trates a major change in the functioning of the H. sapiens cultural density of occupation, and numbers of settlements, it is clear that
niche, which I call the cognitive-cultural niche. My thesis is that the there was a massive rise in overall population, as well as an
increasing population density and co-resident group size through equivalent rise in the size of co-resident communities (that is, the
the Epi-palaeolithic and Neolithic of southwest Asia is an acceler- population units that are represented in the archaeological record
ation of a long-term trend that is not accompanied by, and is indeed by the settlements that they built and in which they lived). By the
too rapid for, the biological evolution of the human brain. As H. latter part of the early Neolithic period, there were settlements
sapiens social group size in southwest Asia (and no doubt in other with populations estimated at 5000 to 10,000 (for instance, ata-
regions of the world) was at the physical limit of the social brain yk in central Turkey, see Cessford, 2005). Where there were
(Dunbar, 1998), human cultural ingenuity provided a means of typically Palaeolithic, small-scale, repeated occupations of cave-
growing community size beyond that physical limitation. I will mouths, rock-shelters, and open locations, in the Epipalaeolithic
argue that the material symbolising capacities of the cognitive- period cave and rock-shelter occupations sometimes expanded to
cultural niche were evolved to sustain the coherence of human cover extensive open areas, and open sites grew in size and began
communities of several hundred, and later several thousand to accumulate indications of long-term occupation. From quite
permanently co-resident individuals. This transformation of the early in the Epipalaeolithic period, there were settlements that had
human cultural niche opened the way for the relatively rapid accumulated clear stratigraphies of repeated re-buildings (e.g. Neve
development of the very large-scale human communities in which David in northern Israel: Kaufman, 1989; Uyun al-Hammam in
we have grown up and with which we are instinctively familiar. Jordan: Maher, 2007; Kharaneh IV, also in Jordan: Maher, 2010;
Maher et al., 2012; Richter et al., 2013); but in the early Neolithic,
2. Three strands in a long-term process of transformation settlements grew to become the typical mounded landscape form
that Arabic speakers recognised as a tell (or tepe or ho yk in
There are three aspects to this transformation: as they are other languages).
intertwined, we can think of them as strands. Most research has The third strand is the rise in the quantity, scale and complexity
been concentrated on the domestication of plants and animals and of symbolic representation in material form. Skipping over the
the development of farming economies, which we may take as the symbolic aspects of domestic architecture (though not failing to
rst of those three strands, but only because of the primacy that the mention my own contribution: Watkins, 1990), I must point to a
origins of agriculture has been given by researchers. The devel- series of large, circular, subterranean communal buildings at the
opment of effective farming economies came at the end of a centre of early Neolithic settlements from southeast Turkey,
sequence of important changes in subsistence and settlement through north Syria and Cyprus, as far as southern Jordan. These
strategy, for which the best evidence has been built up over many earliest Neolithic examples are pregured by similar, large, circular,
years from sites in the southern Levant. We know that people were (semi-)subterranean buildings that do not appear to be domestic in
harvesting, storing and processing wild grasses, cereals and pulses purpose from late Epi-palaeolithic sites such as Eynan in the north
for many thousands of years before pre-domestication cultivation of Israel (Valla, 1988), and Wadi Hammeh 27 in Jordan (Hardy-
began around the Epi-palaeolithiceNeolithic transition (Kislev Smith and Edwards, 2004; Edwards, 2009), and another such
et al., 1992; Weiss et al., 2004). We have the heavy ground-stone building at Tell Mureybet in north Syria, which dates to the very
implements for pounding and grinding from at least the begin- end of the Epi-palaeolithic; this last structure is very similar in
ning of the Upper Palaeolithic period (Wright, 1994); and, from the internal structural detail to two of those at early Neolithic Jerf el
Upper PalaeolithiceEpipalaeolithic transition at least 22,000 years Ahmar (Stordeur et al., 2000). The rst to become widely known
ago, we have direct evidence of the carbonised seeds of grasses, was found at Jerf el Ahmar, in the Euphrates valley in north Syria
cereals and legumes, and identiable starch residues on the sur- (Stordeur et al., 2000). It is the scale of the communal effort and
faces of grinding slabs (Piperno et al., 2004). While the focus has organization that was required to create the cavity (7 m in diameter
been on dening the moment of domestication, it still took a and about 3 m deep) in which it was constructed that is so
thousand years or more before people established crop impressive. These structures are clearly different from the general

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T. Watkins / Quaternary International xxx (2015) 1e7 3

run of much smaller, simpler buildings that make up the settle- 3. Cultural niche construction theory as a framework for
ment. We cannot make a simple one-to-one relationship between a understanding the transformation
communal building and a settlement, making a simple equation
between a community and a communal structure, because we do The transformation from Palaeolithic (Pleistocene) mobile
not have complete exposures of whole settlements. Nevertheless, it foraging bands to Neolithic (Holocene) large, permanently co-
is reasonable to think that these large, subterranean structures resident communities was complex and multi-factorial; attempts
required a large-scale, organized labour-force. to explain it in reductive terms as cultural adaptive responses to
Each of these communal buildings is unique in its structural nal Pleistocene climate change and the reduction in food re-
details. The cells in the rst Jerf el Ahmar example were used for the sources in a changing natural environment have proved unsatis-
mass storage of cereal grains and lentils. Several of these subter- factory, as Melinda Zeder, for example, has discussed at length
ranean, circular, communal buildings seem to share another note- (Zeder, 2009, 2012). I have argued that the critical transformation
worthy characteristic: they were ceremonially closed and buried at from life in small-scale groups of uid membership (a ssion-
the end of their lives. In the Jerf el Ahmar example, the headless fusion way of life that has roots deep in human evolution) to life
corpse of a young woman was laid spreadeagled on the oor, and a in large-scale and permanent communities required cultural ad-
human head e not hers e was placed in one of the empty postholes. justments of an equally critical kind (Watkins, 2004a, 2004b, 2006,
The roof supports were removed, the roof was collapsed and set on 2010, 2014). In company with a number of other archaeologists,
re, and nally the cavity was completely back-lled. biologists and evolutionary scientists, I believe that (cultural) niche
The most extraordinarily massive and visually powerful sym- construction theory allows us to articulate the nature of this
bolism is being revealed at the site of Go bekli Tepe, a huge mound, transformation. Niche construction theory says that many organ-
more than 300 m in diameter and 15e17 m tall, set on a bare isms modify their ecological niches (Laland et al., 2000, 2001;
limestone ridge near Urfa in southeast Turkey (Schmidt, 2011, Odling-Smee et al., 2003). By adapting the environment within
2012). In a large excavation area on the south side of the mound, which they live and reproduce, they create an environmental niche
the late Klaus Schmidt uncovered a group of massive, circular, to which they and their offspring in turn adapt. This was elegantly
subterranean enclosures, each 20e30 m in diameter. Each enclo- summarised by Levins and Lewontin (1985: 106): The organism
sure has a pair of central monoliths, and about a dozen more set inuences its own evolution, by being both the object of natural
around the perimeter. All the monoliths are carefully shaped to be selection and the creator of the conditions of that selection. Evo-
rectangular in cross-section; in shape they resemble a capital letter lution thus becomes a continual feedback loop, rather than a one-
T. The tallest standing monoliths are the central pair in Enclosure D way process of the environment acting to exert pressures that
at 5.5 m tall. All of the monoliths are sculpted with animals, birds, require adaptive responses from the organisms. Humans
reptiles, spiders or scorpions in raised relief. Some monoliths have throughout the history of the genus Homo, along with their primate
hands and arms in low relief, showing that the T-form is a highly predecessors and their closest primate relatives, have evolved
schematic anthropomorph. The central pair in Enclosure D also within different forms of social niche. Humans have used their
wear belts with an elaborate buckle and a fox skin loin-cloth unique capacity for culture and social learning in what has been
suspended from it. Like the circular, subterranean, communal labelled cultural niche construction (Kendal et al., 2011; Laland and
structures in the contemporary settlements, the enclosures at O'Brien, 2011). Thus, culture comes to play a signicant role in the
Go bekli Tepe were closed - probably quite soon after construction formation and maintenance of the selective environment. The
was nished e and buried in hundreds of tons of stone, soil, and unique plasticity of the human brain means that it is formed within
cultural debris as back-ll. the developmental environment of the cultural niche (Kendal,
In summary, then, there was a cultural, social and economic 2011). Thus, we modern humans are adapted to spending a long
transformation over 15,000 years; from the mobile forager band infancy, childhood and adolescence acquiring cultural and social
societies of the Upper Palaeolithic there emerged a densely popu- competences, skills, ideas, knowledge, and attitudes.
lated landscape of large, permanent communities. Over this period For other species it is enough to say that their engineering of
we can also note that communities engaged in increasingly intense their ecological niche produces an ecological inheritance. Biologists
local, regional and supra-regional networking, involving the ex- working with cultural niche construction theory have been inter-
change of goods and materials of symbolic value, and the sharing of ested in the gene-culture co-evolution (Laland and O'Brien, 2010;
signs, symbols and cultural types (Watkins, 2008). We have known Laland and O'Brien, 2011; Odling-Smee and Laland, 2011); some
of the long-distance transfer of central and eastern Anatolian have picked on plant and animal domestication as a strong example
obsidian in the Neolithic period since the pioneering work of (e.g. Smith, 2007; Rowley-Conwy and Layton, 2011; Smith, 2011;
Renfrew and his collaborators (Renfrew et al., 1966; Renfrew and O'Brien and Laland, 2012), or the emergence of lactase tolerance
Dixon, 1968, 1976). Recently, a new and related phenomenon has within populations dependent on the milk products of domesti-
begun to be recognised in the form of small, at, stone plaques that cated animals (e.g. Itan et al., 2009; Gerbault et al., 2011). There is
would t in the palm of a hand, and that bear incised signs. Early already a diverse literature of applications of cultural niche con-
examples came from Jerf el Ahmar (Stordeur, 2003), but others, struction to aspects of human culture and cultural practice (to cite
bearing similar or the same signs, have been found at a number of only an arbitrary selection: Bickerton, 2009: Clark, 2005; Collard
other early Neolithic sites in north Syria and southeast Turkey, et al., 2011; Kendal, 2011; Kendal et al., 2011; Rendell et al.,
including Go bekli Tepe. An outlier of this north Levantine distri- 2011); three international journals have published special issues
bution was found at Netiv Hagdud, near Jericho (Bar-Yosef et al., on cultural niche construction theory (Biological Theory 6(3), 2011;
1991: Fig. 12), and it seems possible that the our knowledge of Journal of Archaeological Method and Theory 17(4), 2010; Phil
the distribution network stone plaques may be biased towards the Trans R Soci B 366(1566), 2011). Kim Sterelny in particular has
north Levant simply because of the number of recently discovered worked with niche construction theory on human evolution to
sites in salvage excavation programmes in north Syria and south- good effect (Sterelny, 2001, 2005, 2011). He describes how cultural
east Turkey. The signs on the plaques may be components in a niche construction has produced the ability to store, transmit and
system of what may be termed a non-textual writing system, that accumulate huge amounts of complex cultural knowledge by
is, a system of signs that have meaning but do not relate directly to means of what he calls apprentice learning. Crucially, he recognises
specic words (Morenz, 2009, 2012). that cultural niche construction came to involve epistemic, as well

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as ecological engineering, and thus an epistemic inheritance. One obsidian or marine shells were present from the Upper Palaeolithic,
aspect of cultural niche construction, in this view, is the provision of but grew in intensity through the Epipalaeolithic and particularly
a learning environment that supports the transmission of cultural the early Neolithic periods. Communities shared their values for
knowledge, beliefs and behaviours, as recognized, for example, by such materials, and the exchanged things demonstrated that peo-
Laland and O'Brien (2011), and Kendal (2011). ple belonged within, and actively shared membership of, extensive
Thus, in the view of Sterelny, and others, for example, Dunbar, networks of communities (Watkins, 2008). They also shared values
Gamble and Gowlett, the leaders of the Lucy to Language research for other material goods, such as intricately stylised projectile
project (Dunbar et al., 2010, 2014), modern humans around 40,000 points (now valued by lithics specialists for their typological po-
years ago possessed highly sophisticated modes of cultural storage tential). We have only recently come to know of the existence of the
and transmission that we can comfortably accept as similar to our large, circular, subterranean communal buildings at the centre of a
own contemporary experience, and which a number of scientists number of early Neolithic settlement sites. We have yet to inves-
therefore label as modern. Renfrew challenged this kind of tigate how the forms that they took and the labours that were
perspective when he described the sapient behaviour paradox in involved in their creation embodied meanings, equally, the func-
the context of a conference concerned with Modelling the early tions that they accommodated remain elusive. It is notable that
human mind (Renfrew, 1996); if H. sapiens was fully modern by many of these massive constructions were ceremonially decon-
the time of the European Upper Palaeolithic, he asked, why do the structed and buried at the end of their lives; and it seems to me
cultural remains from that period seem so strange and difcult for that the massive circular enclosures at Go bekli Tepe were not
us to comprehend, and why are there so many things that we designed to accommodate large-scale ceremonies. Further, given
associate with more recent times (from the Neolithic onwards, in the way that the multi-ton pairs of central monoliths were carefully
Renfrew's case) that are absent from the Palaeolithic record? poised vertically, it is improbable that they were designed to stand
Renfrew (2008) has taken the view that the earliest Holocene indenitely; these were not monuments in the sense that we today
communities, who were part of what he calls the sedentary rev- commonly think of monuments as creations that are revered for
olution, began to be able to devise abstract concepts of value and their antiquity, as much as their scale, grandeur, or symbolic
the sacred, but he does not go much further in explaining how signicance.
such cognitive and cultural facility arose. At the end of his book, The One function of one of the communal structures at Jerf el Ahmar
Evolved Apprentice, Sterelny (2011: Chap. 8.4, The Holocene e A has been determined: its doorless cells had served as a communal
world queerer than we realized) confessed that he found it very bulk storage facility for harvested wild cereals and lentils (Willcox
difcult to see how to carry the story of human cultural and social and Stordeur, 2012). But how the open oor area of the rest of the
evolution forward into the Holocene. At the completion of the Lucy structure, consisting of carefully demarcated, low platforms, was
to Language project, its co-leaders have sought to do that in the intended to function remains unclear; and we are still quite unclear
nal chapter of Thinking Big (Dunbar et al., 2014: Chap. 7, Living in about the intended function of the other communal buildings at Jerf
big societies). Staying within the framework of cultural niche el Ahmar and elsewhere. Equally, we are still groping to grasp
construction theory, I want to return to the neolithisation process in whatever meanings were encoded in their complex forms. What is
southwest Asia, because I believe that we can extend the concept of impressive, however, is the huge amounts of labour and attention
cultural niche construction in a way that will help us to understand that were devoted both to their construction and their de-
the extraordinary transformation that took place over the end of construction and obliteration. It seems to me that the communal
the Pleistocene (in southwest Asia, the Epipalaeolithic period), and rituals of construction, the making of symbols, the reconstructions,
into the earliest Holocene (the early, or aceramic, Neolithic). and the nal deconstructions may have been the main purpose,
A key feature of that period was the growth of population rather than the creation of spaces within rituals or ceremonies
density, and in particular the increasing permanence and scale of could take place (Watkins, in press-b, in press-a). Such shared,
population units. There were benets of scale and cooperation as communal labours could serve as the commitment mechanisms,
the size of community grew, but the demands of cooperation would the means of costly signalling, and at the same time the assurance
become more onerous, and living close together in large numbers of shared values and ideology (Sterelny and Watkins, 2015).
could be psychologically and psycho-somatically stressful (Dunbar,
2013; Dunbar et al., 2014). The change from living in a small group 4. The cognitive-cultural niche
of people who were almost always inter-visible to, and in touch
with, one another to sharing a built settlement within which people The new kind of cultural niche that people began to build was a
lived in intimate proximity but often out of sight of one another cognitively powerful form of cultural niche construction. For a very
required signicant psychological adaptation (Wilson, 1988). In long time in human evolution, the human cultural niche had
such conditions, the risks of free-riders and cheats grew, together comprised an element of ensuring that the cultural knowledge of
with the difculty of detecting and the costs of punishing them the community was effectively transmitted to the new generation.
(Dubreuil, 2008). The new, large-scale, permanent communities The mechanisms that served apprentice learning have been well
demanded the reinforcing and strengthening of the norms of social described by Sterelny (2011). In this sense the cultural niche was
behaviour, and their extension to accommodate the new situation; also a cognitive niche, involving, as Sterelny called it, epistemic
and, more signicantly, it was essential to devise novel kinds of engineering. The evolution of language, and particularly the
social institution, in the sense that the philosopher John Searle emergence of fully modern language within the last 100,000 years,
denes the term in his work on the construction of social reality, has been of great cognitive importance to the cultural niche, as
and as we today live with such constructs as marriage, money, linguists have been eager to explain (e.g. Pinker 1994, 2010;
football, or being good neighbours, or responsible citizens of a Bickerton, 2009).
nation-state (Searle, 1995, 1997, 2010). In that sense, the cognitive-cultural niche had been in existence
In this enterprise, material culture in monumental form served a for a long time before the transformational period with which we
purpose in the emergent, large-scale communities and networks of are concerned here. As Pinker (1994: opening paragraph) has
communities of southwest Asia: the cultural dimension of cogni- expressed it, the faculty of language enables humans to shape
tion began to take new and powerful material forms, and at events in each other's brains with exquisite precision. In the new,
different scales. The social exchange networks of materials such as large, permanently co-resident communities, however, speech was

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not enough; there was a need to store, share and transmit infor- language (Donald, 2006). Elsewhere, he wrote that, symbolizing
mation and ideas that could be the common knowledge of a great minds, as we know them, are not self-sufcient neural devices, as
number of people. Human social groups depend on the condence are eyes. They are hybrid products of a brain-culture symbiosis.
of members in the reliability and cooperation of others. In small- Without cultural programming, they could never become symbol-
scale groups, whose numbers are small, each can track the behav- izing organs (Donald, 2000: 23).
iour and relations of others. In large-scale groups, and particularly We e and our nal Pleistocene and earliest Holocene pre-
in networks of groups, there need to be ways of ensuring that all decessors, because of the large-scale societies in which they began
share conventions of behaviour, and all can condent that others to live e depend on an intense enculturation process. While some
can be expected to cooperate appropriately, and even behave of that enculturation process for us is explicit and formal (in the
altruistically when required. form of schools and universities, or apprenticeships, for example),
While sharing in rituals is a common way of ensuring group much of it takes place below the horizon of conscious awareness; it
harmony, there is a school of thought that argues that there is a is a subject that Donald (2001) has investigated and described
correlation between large-scale communities and very prominent wondrously. It seems to me that Donald has in mind a profoundly
and demanding religious beliefs and practices. The emergence of affecting human cultural niche, although he does not specically
demanding rituals is argued to be a necessary vehicle for costly refer to cultural niche construction theory. The new, large, per-
commitment displays (for example, Henrich, 2009; Bulbulia and manent communities of that time needed symbols of collective
Frean, 2010; Bulbulia and Sosis, 2011). Henrich (2009: 247e8) identity and shared cultural memory. The cognitive-cultural niche
discusses how societies conserve and transmit prosocial behaviours that they evolved was essential to support their networks of large,
through the establishment of leading gures who serve as exam- permanent communities. Cultural niche construction, as described,
plars for emulation; such gures emerge through their perfor- for example, by Sterelny (2011), taught how to shape an arrowhead,
mance of costly acts of commitment, which he terms CREDS e how to make an arrow, how to track, how to hunt, how to butcher,
credibility enhancing displays. Bulbulia and Sosis (2011) also how to cook. Cultural niche construction taught how to build and
discuss the role of costly signalling of commitment in promoting maintain a house, but cognitive-cultural niche construction
general prosociality; demanding rituals in particular constitute instructed how to understand household as an institution, the
occasions for credibility enhancing displays for their leading par- norms of behaviour expected both within the household, but also
ticipants, in addition to their capacity for arousal, focusing group how to regard neighbours, and how to recognize other, more
attention, exciting memory, and corporate strengthening (Bulbulia distant groups as members of one's super-extended network.
and Sosis, 2011: 365). However, such costly signalling cannot work Within the cultural niche the individual learned to harvest, store,
in communities that are too large or too dispersed to allow for the process and cook cereals and legumes, but the cognitive niche
sustained interaction between individuals that accommodate the taught how the communal food-store was an expression of com-
necessary observation and learning processes. Bulbulia and Sosis munity cooperation and trust.
(2011: 373) turn to cultural niche construction theory, arguing Humans had been making and using signs and symbols for tens of
that it allows the possibility of creating exogenous designs that thousands of years. For some tens of thousands of years humans had
express and synchronise the cooperative motives of a large com- been in possession of a fully modern language capacity, implying
munity of people who rarely come into contact with one another. that they had the cognitive capacity to think recursively (Corballis,
They call this sophisticated form of cultural niche the cooperative 2011), with all the cognitive sophistication that follows from being
niche, since one can imagine that it can evolve to strongly govern able to think, communicate and share through a fully modern lan-
the behaviour of cooperative populations, ofoading strategic guage ('mythic' culture, in the terms of Donald, 1991). But, for the
control from individuals to the information properties of their rst time in human evolution, communities had devised material
worlds (Bulbulia and Sosis, 2011: 380). The key phrase is that systems of symbolic representation. The cognitive-cultural niche
ofoading to the information properties of their worlds. Here, I was made of things that have meaning, and actions that make
would argue that the making, re-modelling, remaking, and nally meaning. Material culture began to play an extended and major role
replacement of large-scale communal monuments, such as those at in the symbolic construction of community (a deliberate allusion to
Go bekli Tepe, or the communal buildings within settlements such Cohen, 1985) and cultural memory (Watkins, 2012). In many ways,
as Jerf el Ahmar, constitute the extravagant ritual performances we can recognize the emergence of cultural and cognitive skills at
that are communal acts of costly commitment. this period that are integral to our own experience. At the same time,
Their further purpose was the building of community identity we can see that the systems of symbolic representation on which we
and the sharing of cultural memory by means of new kinds of often depend, and which shape our ideas, thoughts, and understanding
visually striking symbolic representation. In seeking how to un- (whether printed books, newspapers, or tweets) are different from
derstand changes in the human modes of symbolic communication theirs. The cognitive-cultural niche and its material systems of
over evolutionary time, our best guide is Merlin Donald, who has symbolic representation that we have been learning about from
linked the process of human social evolution with developments in recent excavations in southeast Turkey and northwest Syria oper-
human cognition and changes in the way that humans have ated somewhat differently, with different uses of symbolic material
communicated (Donald, 1991, 2001). What he proposed is a tra- culture, from the form that operated in other parts of southwest Asia
jectory of cognitive and cultural co-evolution that has allowed at the same time. Thus, there is no universal formula for the cultural
human communities to grow in scale and complexity. The key relations of the material dimension to mind.
feature for us modern humans is our facility with material systems
of symbolic representation. Donald calls it theoretic culture, Acknowledgements
characterised, in his terms, by external symbolic storage. For us in
today's world, the most familiar, exible and powerful forms of The research that underpins this article was undertaken in the
external symbolic storage are written language, the printed book, context of the research programme Our Place: Our Place in the
the eebook, or mathematical or musical notation. But Donald says World, funded by the John Templeton Foundation 20696, of which
that people had learned how to make repositories of symbolic the author and the late Prof. Klaus Schmidt are the co-directors. In
cultural memory through art, sculpture, and architecture before particular, this work has greatly benetted from collaboration with
external symbolic storage was applied to language to create written Prof. Kim Sterelny, who has been an active participant in the Our

Please cite this article in press as: Watkins, T., The cultural dimension of cognition, Quaternary International (2015),
6 T. Watkins / Quaternary International xxx (2015) 1e7

Place research programme. The original article has been much Prehistory, International Series. British Archaeological Reports, Oxford,
pp. 275e286.
improved by the helpful advice and comments of reviewers, and
Kendal, J., 2011. Cultural niche construction and human learning environments:
the Guest Editor, Duilio Garofoli. I am grateful to them for the time investigating sociocultural perspectives. Biological Theory 6 (3), 241e250.
that they have given and the trouble that they have taken, and to Kendal, J., Tehrani, J.J., Odling-Smee, J., 2011. Human niche construction in inter-
Antonis Iliopoulos for his invitation to contribute, and his encour- disciplinary focus. Philosophical Transactions of the Royal Society B: Biological
Sciences 366, 785e792.
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