The Prehistory of the Mind

The human capacity for art, religion and science didn’t come from nowhere. Nor did it drop from a cloud one day a few thousand years ago. It has been millions of years in the making. Steven Mithen ( offers an account of how we got our creative imagination, our passion for metaphor, and how we built systems of symbolic representation, becoming an advanced cognitive animal.


The Prehistory of Mind offers a lucid synthesis of modern thinking in evolutionary psychology and the archaeology of human evolution. The fossil and archaeological evidence of human prehistory reveals several, presumably interrelated patterns. First, the size of the brain tripled from a level equivalent to that of an ape brain, beginning 2.5 million years ago and possibly in several bursts. Stone tool technology also made its first appearance 2.5 million years ago. This increased in sophistication, again in a series of step-like changes, but is characterised principally by long plateaux lacking in innovation. It is only within the past 100,000 years that the technical repertoire of our ancestors displayed a degree of innovation that we would recognise as human.


In this same period the first evidence of symbolic behaviour, such as body ornamentation, other forms of art, and ritualised burial, also appeared. Mithen refers to these dramatic changes in human behaviour as ‘the big bang’ of human culture. This, he says, is the key to the origin of the modern human mind. Briefly, Mithen suggests that the human mind passes through three stages during our prehistory. The first is characterised by a generalised intelligence, lasting until about 2.5 million years ago when the first species of the genus Homo evolved. In the second stage, specialised realms of intelligence developed, including social intelligence, natural history intelligence, and technical know how. These operated independently of each other (the Swiss Army knife view of the mind). The third stage sees the emergence of what Mithen calls ‘cognitive fluidity’, linking these separate intelligences, leading the way to the creativity of the modern human mind that ignited Mithen’s big bang.


The midwife for this crucial emergence, argues Mithen, is an ‘extension of the period of cognitive development’ created by the prolonged childhood of modern humans. There are strong reasons for believing that both language and consciousness evolved as tools to facilitate social interaction, the domain of social intelligence. Language may have emerged first as a means of social cohesion. Social intelligence depends first on an individual’s knowledge of the other individuals in the group. But, more crucially, it rests on ‘the ability to infer mental states of those individuals’, says Mithen, drawing on Nicholas Humphrey’s theory of the social function of intellect. Reflecting on your own behaviour allows you to predict the behaviour of others.


Mithen continues to argue that extending this social intelligence to the non-social world transforms that world in important ways. ‘Modern hunter-gatherers do not live in landscapes composed merely of
animals, plants, rocks, and caves. Their landscapes are socially constructed’.  Hunter-gatherers’ physical and biological environments become an integral part of their cosmos, imbued with human (and superhuman) essence and motivation. Through anthropomorphism, animals take on human aspects, and through totemism, humans take on links with the animal world.



Evolutionary psychology and research in human evolution has progressed hugely since this publication in 1996, but it seems to me that Mithen has asked all the right questions and his synthesis is a bold one. Check if this influential work of popular science is in stock at your local library by consulting the online catalogue at


288 pages in Thames & Hudson

First published 1996

ISBN  978-0500050811


Professor Steven Mithen

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