Paleontology of human thought

One archeological attempt to illuminate the evolution of cognition appears in "La geste et la parole,'' a pioneering work by French paleontologist and prehis-torian Andre Leroi-Gourhan (1964), who saw the development of the modern human mind paleontologically as a process in which the physical evolution of the brain released new capacities for thinking. The early development of bipedal locomotion, for instance, not only freed the hands for technical actions but, with the shift of the foramen magnum, also enabled an increase in size of the occipital lobes. Subsequent simple technical solutions, like primitive stone tools, allowed the reduction of the masticatory apparatus, which made further change in skull architecture possible; specifically, the parietal and especially the frontal lobes could gain their modern anatomical forms and structures, and the mouth, with decreased nutritional functions, could be used for vocal communication. Brain volume is of secondary significance to Leroi-Gourhan; besides the anatomical features of an upright posture, a short face and hands not engaged in locomotion, the main marker of humankind has been the manufacture and use of tools.

Leroi-Gourhan posits that human cognitive evolution was dominated by increases in technical intelligence and vocal capabilities, capacities that developed slowly until H. erectus, and then became more sophisticated, although still mainly technical, in Neanderthals. Only with the unfolding of the prefrontal cortex, bringing capacities for foresight, consciousness, the control of affect, and the ability to discern and thus to reflect on behavior, could late Neanderthals and, later, anatomically modern humans develop nonfunctional actions, symbolic capabilities, and creative consciousness. Thus, development was not bound solely to biological evolution, with memory encoded predominantly in the genes and with individuals inventing technical operations on their own. Rather, the new cognitive capacities fostered the ethnic group as a social memory pool with true language as a cultural storage facility, allowing the development of operational sequences in super-individual processes: in teaching and sharing problems and solution attempts with other members of the groups. The result was the explosion of artifact varieties and symbols in the Upper Paleolithic. In sum, Leroi-Gourhan's focus lies on the physical basis of cognitive evolution with secondary support by archeological evidence. His model concentrates on the expansion of the phylo-genetic dimension of cognitive space, with the cultural-historical factor becoming important only at the end of the Middle Paleolithic.

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