Cognition and Material Culture
Culture is defined as a series of human activity and identity that
cannot be attributed to biological inheritance. It depicts the use of
symbols and other artifacts to enable human beings adapt to their
environments. Culture is divided into material culture, which is the
physical aspects of culture, and non physical aspects such as customs,
language, and social structures. Material culture is often a physical
representation of the cognitive cultures of a society. Thus, material
culture changes with the changes in the cognitive abilities of the
society. It should be noted that even non- human species too, have their
distinctive cultures. This paper shall discuss the connection between a
change in material culture and cognitive abilities over time.
Culture is better defined within a group because it is a learned
behavior through social interactions. It starts by innovation of a
culture by and individual or group of people. The innovation must be
consistent with the dominant culture or an aspect of the dominant
culture. The innovator then transmits the innovation to the rest of the
society who acquires the skills to use the innovated culture. This is
then spread across social organizations, and once the culture becomes
dominant across different generations, it becomes accepted as a culture
within the society.
An innovation requires cognitive abilities, which include the ability
to know objects, have the problem- solving skills, and categorize the
objects. These capabilities enable the society and its members to adapt
to the changing environment so as to survive (Klein, 2000). According to
Darwin’s survival for the fittest, species evolve over time and only
those that can adapt to their changing environments are able to survive.
This means that species that creatively use their cognitive abilities
are able to survive. This instinct to survive is what enables human
being to change their material culture creatively so as to survive.
The biggest human innovation with regard to material culture has been
the use of electronic technology. Traditionally, communication was
largely by word of mouth and depended on physical contact. With time,
there was a need to change communication so as to make it less time
consuming, hence the invention of the telephone. The first telephone was
a fixed line, and although it made communication easier, it was still
not very effective. Over time, the mobile technology took shape. This
creativity was aimed at solving the issue of the need for a person to be
at the same point with the fixed line, for communication to take place.
Thus, the mobile phone has become a significant, material culture in
modern times, and the invention has been driven by the cognitive ability
of Homo sapiens to improve communication.
Paleolithic archeologists attribute behavioral changes to changes in
cultural strategies. This is because cultures change over time to
accommodate changes in the environments. Cultural changes in modern
times are mainly driven by close cultural interactions between people
from different cultural backgrounds (Klein, 2000). This need to co-exist
gives rise to mutual exchange of material cultures for survival
purposes. Usually, the best material cultures are picked and modified to
better fit within the society. This is driven by human knowledge about
the environment. With increased knowledge, Homo sapiens are able to use
the knowledge skills to modify the material aspect of their cultures.
Klein (2000) argues that ancient human being did not have the cognitive
capacity to survive in historic societies. Their cognitive abilities
were limited, and they only had the capacity to manipulate their
immediate environment. These cognitive skills were simple and could not
efficiently manipulate nature to form a strong material culture. This is
evidenced by the uniformity of their material artifacts despite the
physical distances that existed between them. This shows that they had
standard cognitive capabilities. Thus, modern material artifacts and the
variations shows advanced cognitive abilities of modern human beings.
The continuous shrinking of the physical, material cultures has also
been as a result of changes on cognitive capabilities. The world
population has constantly been on the rise in modern times. This has
necessitated the reduction in size of material artifacts for portability
and accommodation purposes. For example, with the expansion of
populations in cities, there is the need to modify accommodation
facilities. This has been taunted as the need for the innovation of high
rise buildings. In previous societies, human beings lived in small
villages with vast land. Thus, even with expansion in populations, there
was no problem in accommodation facilities.
Thus, the problem of increased populations and decreasing lands led to
the creative innovation of forms of housing. Thus, a change in material
culture is triggered by a necessity, which prompts human beings to use
their cognitive abilities to manipulate their material cultures (Klein,
2000). This is, however, triggered by a change in cognitive capabilities
that lead to a change in material culture. Archeological evidence shows
that ancient man had limited cognitive capabilities, which explains the
simplicity in his material culture. Homo sapiens have so far the largest
cognitive abilities, and this is evidenced by the complexity in their
According to Buss (2004), cognitive skills come before material
cultural products. He further argues that artifacts and cognitive
capabilities evolve together. The mind is the one capable of changing
behavior based on the environmental circumstances at a given time.
Changes in human cognition are not visible (Hodgson, 2013). This leaves
the detection of such changes to the material cultures which impact on
society. Therefore, for scientists to detect changes in cognitive
capabilities, they study the complexity of material artifacts. These
artifacts are visible in society and have a direct impact in the way of
life (Klein, 2000). Usually, these changes are geared towards
simplifying human activities. They reduce the physical use of energy and
utilize more of cognitive skills to operate.
Human cognition does not just shape behavior which in turn shapes the
environment. Instead, the environment shapes cognition which then shapes
behavior. This is means that prevailing environmental situations trigger
human cognition to modify behavior so as to adapt to the changes. With
complexity in the environmental changes, the cognitive capacities change
(Buss, 2004). This change in cognitive capacities enables human being to
manipulate their material culture to accommodate the changes. Thus,
material artifacts are evidence of a change in cognition (Klein, 2000).
For example, ancient man used simple tools for farming. However, modern
man uses complex machinery that requires less human effort to operate,
and more mental effort. This shows a growth in mental capacities and a
change in cognitive capacities.
A change in material artifacts also results in changes, in body use.
This is because different skills are used to use different material
artifacts. This has to be altered by the cognitive capacities of human
beings (Hodgson, 2013). Thus, a change in cognition also influences the
use of material cultures. Modern human do not heavily built body
structures because they do not use their physical bodies as often. The
material aspects of modern culture require less physical effort due to
their complexity and automation (Klein, 2000). This complexity is
brought about by a change in cognition, to alter the physical
environment. Thus, a change is the material culture is also represented
in the physical bodies of modern man.
Material artifacts are the physical representation of human beliefs.
These beliefs must be brought into physical existence for permanent
existence. Human beings are always changing with regard to their
environments (Buss, 2004). Their environments change their beliefs and
ideas and these changes are then turned into tangible forms. The
physical changes in material cultures indicate a change in cognition and
mental capacities. For example, the invention of the wheel was as a
result of changes in the ideas of how to make goods and people move with
less effort (Klein, 2000). Thus, the belief that movement could be made
easier triggered the cognitive perception of movement, which led to the
innovation of the wheel,
Environmental changes trigger innovation. In stable environments,
people tend to learn from one another, the cultures of their society. In
such societies, innovation is limited as there is general conformity due
to stability. The young learn from the old and this goes a long way in
maintaining the material cultures of that society (Hodgson, 2013).
However, societies that undergo rapid environmental changes trigger
innovation and creativity. These changes are usually brought about by
interactions with people from other societies and cultures (Buss, 2004).
Individual knowledge is brought to use, and this is aimed at adaptation
to changes which were not possible in traditional structures of
In such situations, individuals conduct a cost- benefit analysis to
determine whether the changes occurring will require individual or
collective knowledge in order to adapt to them (Buss, 2004). The
individuals determine whether individual knowledge or communal knowledge
will help be useful in adapting to the environmental changes. During
such periods of instability, innovation is stepped up, and the
behavioral changes that result from these innovations accumulate to form
new material cultures (Hodgson, 2013). These innovations in the form of
new technologies become the dominant material cultures of that time.
They are instrumental in helping communities to adapt to environmental
changes for survival purposes.
In order for material cultures to survive, they need to be transmitted
to the whole society. This then leads to further changes and
modifications to make them more responsive to the changes in society
(Hodgson, 2013). This refinement is as a result of accumulated knowledge
and skills. These are then transformed collectively to respond to any
changes. In order to learn new skills and utilize them, human beings
undergo changes in their cognitive skills (Klein, 2000). This enables
them to be able to further refine the knowledge and make it more
adaptive to changes (Buss, 2004). This indicates that the ability for
material cultures to be invented and spread across the society, human
cognition undergoes changes which enable human beings to copy skills
accurately so as to use material artifacts (Hodgson, 2013).
Traditionally, human culture was majorly stored in the physical
environment in terms of material artifacts. The human mind was largely
underutilized as knowledge and skills were physical in nature. Human
beings majorly needed food in order to survive. This food was readily
available in the physical environment (Buss, 2004). The only skills
required were how to acquire this food and make it edible. Thus, there
was no complexity in human survival. However, in modern times, the basic
human needs are not readily available. This requires mental skills on
how to acquire these needs (Klein, 2000).
Thus, knowledge and skills are stored in the human mind and utilized
according to the need. This requires changes in cognition in terms of
how information is stored. The material artifacts also need to keep
changing in order to be more efficient (Hodgson, 2013). For example,
ancient man depended heavily on hunting and gathering in order to
acquire food. However, environmental changes have forced man to look for
alternative ways of acquiring food. This has led to innovation of food
technologies and thus, changes in the materials that need to be used
In conclusion, it is clear that changes in material culture are
triggered by changes in cognition. The changes in cognition are
triggered by changes in the environment which require a human being to
alter their material artifacts creatively, for survival purposes
(Hodgson, 2013). The ability to acquire knowledge, skills and creatively
solve problems points to a change in cognition. This change is evidenced
by changes in material cultures as they are a physical representation of
changes in ideologies. Thus, material cultures change as a result of
changes in cognition (Klein, 2000).
Buss, D, M. (2004). Evolutionary Psychology: The New Science of the
Mind. Boston: Pearson/ A and B.
Hodgson, D. (2013). Cognitive Evolution, Population, Transmission, and
Material Culture. Netherlands: Springer Netherlands.
Klein, R, G. (2000). Archeology and the Evolutionary of Human Behavior.
Evolutionary Anthropology. New York: Wiley- Liss Inc.
COGNITION AND MATERIAL CULTURE PAGE * MERGEFORMAT 8
COGNITION AND MATERIAL CULTURE 1
Cognition and Material Culture