What is it about?

The paper interprets Upper Paleolithic artifacts using a framework of material complexity, numeration systems, and timekeeping based on cultural categorizations, insights on the emergence of number terms in language, and astronomy practices of 33 contemporary hunter–gatherer societies. Key findings: (1) an absence of societies with minimal material complexity and later-stage numeration systems, suggesting that material scaffolding may be important to realizing explicit number concepts, (2) the consistency of material complexity with both early- and later-stage numeration systems, emphasizing that material complexity may precede and inform the development of complexity in numeration systems, (3) the compatibility of astronomical practices with the spectrum of complexity in material culture and numeration systems, suggesting that the awareness of time may precede both, and (4) the increasing quantification of time consistent with greater material and numeration complexity, suggesting the availability of numbers as a cognitive technology may enable the structuring of time. These findings suggest that astronomy originates in the ability to estimate and infer contextual relations among natural phenomena and transitions from these natural associations to material representations and cognitive technologies that mediate conceptual apprehensions of time as a substance that can be quantified. As artifacts can scaffold explicit concepts of numbers and numbers explicit concepts of time, prehistoric artifacts may represent similar scaffolding and conceptual development. Prehistoric societies making these artifacts may have possessed, in addition to material complexity, abilities for expressing quantities in language and using material externalization and cognitive technologies. Further, the Abri Blanchard artifact may represent externalized working memory, a modern mind–material interaction.

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I am interested in how societies become numerate by using and recruiting material forms into the cognitive system for numbers over generations of collaborative effort. The manuovisually engaged domain of material forms is a primary mechanism for realizing and elaborating numerical concepts. I also look at the effect this elaborational mechanism has on conceptual content, and what this might augur about the future of human cognition.

Dr. Karenleigh A. Overmann
University of Colorado at Colorado Springs

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This page is a summary of: Material Scaffolds in Numbers and Time, Cambridge Archaeological Journal, February 2013, Cambridge University Press, DOI: 10.1017/s0959774313000024.
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