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The Prehistory of the Mind: The Cognitive Origins of Art, Religion and Science [Paperback]

Steven Mithen
4.4 out of 5 stars  See all reviews (14 customer reviews)

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Book Description

April 1999
How do our minds work? When did language and religious beliefs first emerge? Why was there a cultural explosion of art and creativity with the arrival of modern humans? This ground-breaking book brings the insight of archaeology to our understanding of the development and history of the human mind, combining them with ideas from evolutionary psychology in a brilliant and provocative synthesis.
--This text refers to an alternate Paperback edition.


Product details

  • Paperback: 288 pages
  • Publisher: Thames & Hudson (April 1999)
  • Language: English
  • ISBN-10: 0500281009
  • ISBN-13: 978-0500281000
  • Product Dimensions: 23.4 x 15.7 x 2.9 cm
  • Average Customer Review: 4.4 out of 5 stars  See all reviews (14 customer reviews)
  • Amazon Bestsellers Rank: 1,840,297 in Books (See Top 100 in Books)
  • See Complete Table of Contents

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Product Description

Book Description

Award-winning science writer Steven Mithen explores how an understanding of our ancestors and their development can illuminate our brains and behaviour today. --This text refers to an alternate Paperback edition.

About the Author

Steven Mithen is Professor of Early Prehistory and Head of the School of Human and Environmental Sciences at the University of Reading. --This text refers to an alternate Paperback edition.

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The human mind is intangible, an abstraction. Read the first page
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Front Cover | Copyright | Table of Contents | Excerpt | Index | Back Cover
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Customer Reviews

Most Helpful Customer Reviews
29 of 31 people found the following review helpful
By A Customer
Format:Hardcover
This is a wonderful book. It starts with the question of whether we are fundamentally different from chimpanzies in the way our mind works. Taking the perspective of an archaeologist, and blending that with the views of evolutionary biology and of human developmental psychology and cognitive science, Mithen spins an extroadinary tale. The earliest and most primative primates probably had most of their cognitive world "hard-wired." They had all the specific knowledge they needed for survival. Primates really took off from the rest of the mammals when we developed "general intelligence," which could learn from trial and error, and which could make generalizations based on experience. However, this general intelligence was slow in acquiring new knowledge. To accomplish that, specialized intelligences, or programs, needed to evolve.
The first of these was social intelligence, which was the specialized ability to read and understand social heirarchies. Early empathy and the ability to infer from your own experience what other members of your species were thinking and feeling was the greatest power this new intelligence conferred, and became the origin of consciousness. The second specialized intelligence was that of natural biology. This was very helpful in expanding our observations of the world, and increased the food sources which were available to primitive ancestors of homo sapiens. The third specialized intelligence was technical intelligence. This enabled early man to fashion tools and to use them in ever more complex ways.

To these three intelligences -- psychology, biology, and physics, so to speak -- was added linguistic intelligence. This gave the conscious mind a voice.
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40 of 44 people found the following review helpful
4.0 out of 5 stars Methaphorical building blocks 5 Dec 2002
By Stephen A. Haines HALL OF FAME
Format:Paperback
Mithen makes a valiant effort to establish the evolutionary roots of human intelligence. It's a complicated task, with so little physical evidence to support his endeavour. Still, he uses what there is with commendable ability. In presenting the development of intelligence, he falls back on three metaphorical images - the Swiss Army Knife, cathedral architecture and a dramatic play. The Swiss Army knife is a collection of specialized tools, each applied without relation to the others. You don't decork a wine bottle while trimming your fingernails. His cathedral is comprised of a central nave with connecting chapels. The chapels only connect to each other as intelligence develops. The drama is the history o1f hominid evolution, vague and obscure in the beginning, growing more discernible with more fossil evidence.
As with most cognitive studies, Mithen's book summarizes what is known of the similarity of chimpanzee [our nearest relative] intellect and abilities in contrast with our own. As do many of his colleagues, he finds our primate cousins lacking in all but minimal skills. With the chimpanzees thus disposed of, he moves to examine the hominid record. This is the great strength of this work. Instead of the usual tactic of portraying what is known of today's human intellect and projecting backward, Mithen starts at the beginnings of human evolution to carry his argument forward. Along the way he utilizes anthropology, morphological studies, even climate and geography. He uses evidence well, assuming little and carefully building the model. Key points in the narrative are two periods of hominid brain enlargement, which he uses to enhance his model of special "intelligences.
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13 of 15 people found the following review helpful
4.0 out of 5 stars A thought-provoking and entertaining read. 5 Aug 1998
By A Customer
Format:Hardcover
From its title, it promised to be just what I was looking for -- and I was not disappointed at all by its subject matter. On the contrary, I found it a most thought provoking and entertaining use of my reading time.
My main complaint with the style would be with the occasional feelings of arbitrariness. I'm sure, if asked, the author would have the facts to justify his opinions, but he does not always convey this impression in the text. There is a feeling that Mithen is steering the theory in one direction when the presented evidence (or lack thereof) is less persuasive. It is not always conclusive that Mithen's is the only interpretation that can be made.
But then, aimed as it is at the Popular Science market, I suppose it would be unreasonable to ask for the book to offer rigourous proof, and yet still remain a light and entertaining read.
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24 of 28 people found the following review helpful
3.0 out of 5 stars A beautiful mind? 5 Dec 2010
Format:Paperback|Verified Purchase
"The prehistory of the mind" by Steven Mithen is a book dealing with some of the mysteries of human prehistory. We know that Neanderthals had larger brains than modern humans, and could manufacture spear points by a rather complicated process. We also know that they managed to survive in really forbidding territories during the Ice Ages. It's obvious that the Neanderthals weren't stupid. And yet, they never created anything resembling a human culture. They had no art, no religion, and even their technical skills were static. They never developed beyond making those spear points. Why? Similar problems arise during studies of even earlier humans. Homo erectus could manufacture hand axes and successfully spread from Africa to Asia and Europe. But once again, the hand axes never developed pass a certain point. The technology of Homo erectus also remained static. Nor did they develop a symbolic culture.

The plot thickens when we realize that originally not even our own species, Homo sapiens sapiens, had a culture. The first artwork has been dated to 40,000 years BP. Yet, Homo sapiens sapiens was around already 100,000 years BP. For about 60,000 years, "modern" humans (with large brains and all) lived on the same level as the Neanderthals - smart, perhaps, but not smart enough to creatively develop new technologies, let alone art or religion. Even more curious, culture seems to have come into being all of a sudden, without a gradual transition from more primitive forms. What on earth is going on?

Some people have drawn supernatural conclusions from this. Perhaps creative human intelligence can only be explained by invoking gods, spirits or space aliens? An example of such a wild approach is Graham Hancock's book "Supernatural" (which I reviewed some years ago).
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Most Recent Customer Reviews
4.0 out of 5 stars Prehistory of the Mind
I did not expect to feel as strongly about this book as I do. As my previous reading had centred only around History and Archaeology I found its contents absolutely stunning. Read more
Published 8 months ago by Virginia
5.0 out of 5 stars 'A' Prehistory of the Mind
Those of you who have read Steven Mithen's latest offering 'To the islands', describing his pathway through research, excavation and academia, will know that he originally intended... Read more
Published on 3 July 2012 by Mr. W. Bailie
4.0 out of 5 stars A mind less boggled
At first I found this book both daunting and mind-boggling, even though the author hopes that it would be ". . . Read more
Published on 3 May 2012 by Mac McAleer
5.0 out of 5 stars Evolution of the modular mind
The most rewarding books are often those written at the interface between two disciplines. In this case Professor Steven Mithen works with a combination of developmental psychology... Read more
Published on 1 April 2011 by anozama
2.0 out of 5 stars He left out the letter-box
All very entertaining in a limited kind of way. Pocket-knives, cathedrals, and drama are all very well, but they're not far removed from the 'little-men-in-the-head' and... Read more
Published on 27 Dec 2010 by Anthony Long
5.0 out of 5 stars Insight into Hominid and Early Human mentality
I found this book very enlightening. Mithen may not be right in all the details but he gives the reader (this reader, anyway) a new way of looking at our ancestors. Read more
Published on 10 July 2010 by John Hine
5.0 out of 5 stars Cognitive fluidity: the basis of art, science and religion
Figuring out how our minds work is hard enough without also asking how they got that way. What hope is there of ever pinning down something as intangible as a million-year-old... Read more
Published on 13 April 2010 by Sphex
5.0 out of 5 stars How evolution built the human mind - maybe
Mithen, an archaeologist, offers a plausible account of how the human mind evolved, with separate modules for language 'folk physics' 'folk biology' and folk psychology' emerging... Read more
Published on 12 May 2009 by R. N. F. Skinner
5.0 out of 5 stars Exciting evoultionary theory of the asent of consciousness.
This book dovetails remarkably with G. Edelman's theory of consciousness (Bright Air, Brilliant Fire - dumb title but brilliant book) based on neurological adaptations. Read more
Published on 17 Mar 1998
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