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3.0 out of 5 stars cognitive-neuroscience take on neolithic society, religion, and artifacts, 4 Feb. 2014
This review is from: Inside the Neolithic Mind: Consciousness, Cosmos and the Realm of the Gods (Paperback)
This is an interesting, if uneven, book that attempts to penetrate the thought processes of neolithic peoples in the Near East and Western Europe. For anyone who is familiar with the issues, the sudden appearance of cities, stone structures, and art objects constitute a great mystery. Sure, they accompanied the adoption of agriculture, but what did they mean? Why did they share certain characteristics? How did the creators think of them at the time? How did they conceive of life and the cosmos?

The authors attempt, via the precepts of cognitive neuroscience, to answer these questions. While I have doubts about the approach, archaeologists currently view cognitive neuroscience - maps of how brains process information - are a fundamental step forward in their methodology, on the same level as radio-carbon dating and the application of population genetics were in the latter half of the 20C.

The principal ideas are strikingly clear. First, the human mind is "hard wired" with certain concepts, which are universally found in all cultures. In this case, the relevant ones involve a kind of cosmological hierarchy, whereby there is an underworld (death/birth), the mundane world of the everyday, and an ethereal realm of transcendence (afterlife/realms of the gods). Second, this hierarchy is displayed in everything that survives of neolithic culture, from the burial sites and stone architecture to the hallucinogenic states of ecstatic religious visions so central to religious experiences. Third, as supported by anthropological evidence in existing primitive cultures, the mental categories of the neolithic mind were more fluid than ours are today, melding into each other, e.g. so that a person can be in a trance and thus elsewhere as well as momentarily dead, only to return to life later. It also meant that religious authorities represented power relationships, reflected in the division of labor, class. In this way, society, religion, cosmology, art, architecture, and even work are all of a piece, hardly distinguishable as mental categories but seen as part of a continuous spectrum. Fourth, religion can be defined as a) experience; b) the beliefs that come therefrom; c) the practices that are hence adopted to support them. Fifth, and this was really new to me, the authors argue that this hierarchical ideology took hold BEFORE the adoption of the agricultural innovations that have come to define the period.

Everything in the neolithic can, the authors assert, be understood in accordance with this framework of ideas. Not only are architecture, design motifs, and sculpture a reflection of this hierarchy, but so were the organization of society and religion. This provides a tidy way to interpret things. With the urbanization that was made possible with farm-food surpluses, elites could justify themselves and their place in the hierarchy by their monopoly on visions and access to other realms. Even animal totems are explainable: as water is a nether realm, so snakes that inhabit land and water are gateway beings between the hierarchical levels, hence merge with man in certain visions.

This is all fine, but there are some serious problems with the approach. Most importantly, the authors never defined to my satisfaction what they meant by "neurologically hard wired". On the one hand, they say it is the common basis of all mankind, but never explore whether we are born with it, whether the brain's structure is the reason, or if experience programs it in. On the other hand, they repeatedly assert that their argument in not deterministic. This is irreconcilable in my opinion. In addition, there is no way to prove or disprove their conjectures scientifically, except to fit all available archaeological observations into their framework. Finally, they apply as support for their argument many observations from contemporary cultures, such as the bushmen of south Africa. Perhaps it wasn't always so. At any rate, the jumps in logic were often too much for me, for example when they state what the meaning of red paint would have been (blood, underworld, or some such as sacred).

Regarding the book's scope, there were too many loose ends for my taste. Without more on the cognitive neurosciences, I often felt adrift with the jargon and could not accept their assumptions. Then, why did this hierarchical politico-religious ideology arise at the time it did? I think it is easier to assume that it followed the spread of farming rather than the other way round, as the authors continually argue, but this theme, too, is glossed over and not explored in the depth that such a revolutionary claim deserves.

This is an interesting book and it is a fun read. Unfortunately, I found the prose rather clunky and academic, too abstruse, if often well expressed. Recommended with these caveats in mind.
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Location: Balmette Talloires, France

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