2015     The cultural dimension of cognition
  • Around the transition from the Pleistocene to the Holocene in southwest Asia, human skills in cultural 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 symbolic action and representation. The transition from small, mobile forager bands to networks of large permanent communities that occurred between 22,000 and 8500 years ago was enabled by the significant 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 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.