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Liu, H. Neuroarchaeology. Encyclopedia. Available online: (accessed on 06 December 2023).
Liu H. Neuroarchaeology. Encyclopedia. Available at: Accessed December 06, 2023.
Liu, Handwiki. "Neuroarchaeology" Encyclopedia, (accessed December 06, 2023).
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Liu, Handwiki. "Neuroarchaeology." Encyclopedia. Web. 21 November, 2022.

Neuroarchaeology refers to a field of study that records neuroscientific history through archaeological methods of investigation. The term was first suggested and thus coined by Colin Renfrew and Lambros Malafouris first individually in 2004 and then collaboratively in 2008.It is a combination of the words "neuro-" from 'neuroscience' indicating its connection with the brain sciences and "archaeology" meaning study of human history and prehistory through excavations and other tools. Significant leaps in brain and cognitive sciences in the 21st century have opened up new areas of partnership between archaeology and neuroscience. This collaboration can help an archaeologist figure out biological and neural substrates of human cognitive abilities present in the archaeological objects. The knowledge of neuroscience can also be applied to critically review and challenge existing theories and assumptions about the inception of modern human cognition. The term implies a new area of research that could investigate issues relating to the collaboration between the brain and culture over the long term development of humans. So far, the goals of neuroscience and archaeology are the same- to understand human nature. But their disciplinary approaches diverge significantly. Neuroarchaeology aims at building the analytical bridge between brain and culture ""by putting material culture, embodiment, time and long-term change at centre stage in mind".

neuroarchaeology human history archaeology

1. Definition

The word "Neuroarchaeology" by implication allocates primary position to archaeology - thus implying it is archaeology informed by neuroscience. The combination of the term however, suggests broader aspirations to establish it as a separate and independent discipline of study. However, thus far the value of neuroscience on archaeology has been quite clear but the potential of archaeology has not yet generated any real interest among neuroscientists. Interdisciplinary approaches adopted by neuroscientists to understand the development of human mind are more likely to be referred to as evolutionary neuroscience than neuroarchaeology. The vision for a hybrid discipline combines using archaeological theories, tools and methods with sophisticated cognitive experimental models to explore evolutionary history and true human behaviour.[1]

In order to create a mutually beneficial hybrid discipline neuroscientists may have to incorporate a more naturalistic behaviour whereas archaeologists will have to subject their study to more rigorous experimental details and analysis of their behaviours of interest.

Neuroarchaeology appears set to take its place as a study of human cognitive evolution, based on empirical and hypotheses driven approach.[1]and is a combination of the words "neuro" from 'neuroscience' indicating its connection with the brain sciences and "archaeology" meaning study of human history and prehistory through excavations and other tools.

2. Development

The goals of neuroarchaeological study can predominantly have two distinct focuses, with the identification of location and timing being the primary purpose of initiating research for archaeological findings. The exponential growth and advancement in the area of neuroscience aided by technology and neuro-imaging methods have spawned a plethora of interdiscipilnary areas such as neuroeconomics, neurophilosophy, neuroergonomics, neuroeducation, neuroanthropology among others.[1]

Neuroarchaeology is a term introduced by Colin Renfrew and Lambros Malafouris[2]. The aim of neuro-archaeology is to include "neuroscience findings into cognitive archaeology and start a cross disciplinary dialogue. While archaeologists have used neuroscience tools to add weight to their research the enthusiasm among neuroscientists have been muted. There have been recent attempts to describe neuroanthropology as a "niche focus" within overall archaeology. The future of this cross disciplinary approach will hinge on the interest and appetite of neuroscientists to use the tools available to further their research.

Archaeology has made huge strides in the past three decades in helping understand the prehistory and evolution of the human mind. In the past 10 years, new insights based on empirical findings and advanced theoretical research have helped in greater understanding of the evolution of human mind. Alongside the developments in cognitive archaeology, neuroscience too has monumentally advanced with its research on brain functions.[1]

The evidence of the development in neuroscience is seen in the case of 'mirror neurons' and the theory of embodied simulation, which has shed new light on the neural mechanisms of imitation, and offer a new explanatory framework for approaching social cognition. Advanced research has also unearthed new insights on how "the brain facilitates and supports the transmission of cultural values, beliefs, and practices." The rapid advancements in both archaeology and neuroscience research have triggered hopes for an integrated approach for understanding human cognitive sciences in a much better way.[1] and is a combination of the words "neuro" from 'neuroscience' indicating its connection with the brain sciences and "archaeology" meaning study of human history and prehistory through excavations and other tools.[1] [2]

3. Significance

The interdisciplinary approach provides us an opportunity to delve into the question of the evolution of the human mind, the journey of intelligence and its linkages with cultures and different aspects of the evolution of the human race. The strengths of the two disciplines also enable re-examination of the old hypothesis of human cognitive behaviour with a fresh perspective. It facilitates an enhanced understanding of the evolution of language, symbolic capacity, theory of mind, casual belief and the overall evolution of human cognitive behaviour[1] and is a combination of the words "neuro" from 'neuroscience' indicating its connection with the brain sciences and "archaeology" meaning study of human history and prehistory through excavations and other tools.[1]

4. Principles

Archaeologists use material remains as the fundamental basis for their understanding of human behaviour in the past. The strength of this discipline is the rigorous investment in understanding the evolution of the human species using material objects. It is widely acknowledged that evolutionary theory is fundamental to all biological sciences. This has helped foster cross disciplinary research. Archaeology offers long term evolutionary data which can be used to explore the cognitive behaviour of human species using the tools of neuroscience.

A key challenge facing neuro-archaeology is the reconciliation of the historical context and interpretation that flows from archaeology and the experiment based approach of neuroscience. "The approach of neuro-archaeology focused on explaining mutual constitution of brain, body and culture beyond skin and across the scales of time, may have much to offer to this end protecting us from a sterile neuro-centrism that has no place in the archaeology of mind," While both disciplines have shortcomings, the integration of evolutionary data to the study of cognitive human behaviour holds out enormous potential to offer fresh insights to evolution of human species.[3]

5. Methods and Applications

In merging archaeology and neuroscience to create an independent branch of study the benefits of both disciplines, have to be considered. However, the key challenge is to harmonise the historical context used to draw inferences in the case of archaeology with the rigour and precision of laboratory based experiments of cognitive sciences.[3]

The difference between cognitive archaeology and neuroscience lies in their contrasting approaches. While cognitive archaeologists want to decipher the complex realities of behaviours that shaped stone age tool making, neuroscientists follow recreate real life conditions within laboratories to understand behavioural aspects. Neuroarchaeologists may apply neuroscience based discoveries to analyse archaeological findings that may encourage neuroscientists to explore cognitive aspects of the cultural and civilisational interpretations through archaeological material. One may conclude that experimental archaeological approach that seeks to study detailed behavioural processes could prompt a mutually beneficial research if combined with neuroscience but much depends on how well the integration between the two disciplines is that can facilitate the study of complex behaviour in the physical world.

Neuro-imaging is considered to have ignited a promising new area of research in the world of neuroscience. Experiments conducted in the field of Paleoneurology with the help of brain imaging that involved non-skilled and skilled tool makers shows the immense possibility of deeper understanding of the evolution of the human brain.[4] Another experiment conducted with skilled tool makers threw up further potential understanding of the co-evolution of cognitive development and technology "Thus although imaging data derived from modern humans and their tool using abilities cannot offer a direct proof for the co-evolution of tool use and language they nonetheless clearly support the view that human technological social and linguistic capacities evolved together in a mutually reinforcing manner.[5]

The use of MRI can be useful for the study of neuroarchaeology particularly those linked to modern humans. These experiments also throw up some challenges and requirements that must be met to derive results. Archaeologists must learn about methods, data and hypotheses of neuroscience before deciding on the approach to experiments. Archaeologists must also ponder about the questions linked to the environment of the brain scanner and interpreting the data against the backdrop of present problems confronting archaeology. "The aim of this endeavour should be at establishing testable, empirical and conceptual links between brain structure, cognitive function and archaeologically observable behaviour" [6].

Although this comparative analysis offers immense potential there is caveat. Neuro-images may provide and help us unravel several aspects of the complicated human mental life through mapping of brain acidity but it may prompt a very "neurocentric" view of human intelligence. " This should be resisted by adopting a critical neuroscience perspective[7] and by explicitly grounding neuroarchaeology to the principles of material engagement theory and the distributed cognition approach."

Scientists have demonstrated how PET images help in explaining mental behaviour and pinpoint the exact points where brain activity happens during a particular task. But archaeologists sometimes express doubt about this aspect of neuroimaging. But it has the potential to make a huge difference in the study of human cognition.[2]

But some others have pointed out the shortcoming of neuroimaging." Moreover, neuroimaging techniques often fail to capture the dynamical aspects of thought and behaviour which consists of "softly assembled" patterns of activity that arise as a function of time.[8]

The scope of neuroarchaeology that encompasses brain, body and culture beyond the limitations of colour, and time has a lot to offer. This approach can go a long way in making neuroscience more vivid and dynamic rather than keeping it strictly within the confines of neuro-centrism.[1][2]

6. Discoveries

The scope of Neuroarchaeology is known to be vast as its focus is bidirectional- it may either lean to more neuroscientific or more archaeological findings. Each of the perspectives however are not independent of each other.

In 2017 it was reported that brain imaging techniques may be used to "reconstruct" evolutionary brain activity, thereby giving new insight to biological origins of human behaviour.[9] Derek Hodgson's 2019 published, "The Roots of Visual Depiction in Art: Neuroarchaeology, Neuroscience and Evolution" discusses the origins of aesthetic and artistic sensory perceptions as evolved from early humans to the present day by drawing from fundamental neuroarchaeological questions about the depiction of early culture, knowledge about flora and fauna among other things.[10] John Onians concludes that "Neuroarchaeology" enhances understanding about the reasons behind why 'subjects' were painted in specific styles, locations and times, "thus providing origins to representation. He adds that "as a theoretical framework it may also help to solve many other problems that archaeologists have found intractable using existing methods"[11].

Neuroarchaeology also includes research into genetic origins of brain disorders. Researchers from the University of Santa Barbara found an unusual mutation that is linked to Alzheimer's disease in adults, an advancement considered a "breakthrough" in expanding knowledge about the hitherto unknown Alzheimer's disease[12]. Yehezkel Ben-Ari highlighted the evidence for the importance of evolutionary based approaches to understanding brain disorders in his article on the role of neuroarchaeology in neuropaediatrics.[13]

7. Related Fields

  • Neuroanthropology
  • Neurobiology
  • Neuroeconomics
  • Neuroscience
  • Archaeology
  • Neurophilosophy
  • Cognition
  • Cognitive Neuroscience
  • Evolution
  • Darwinism


  1. Stout, Dietrich; Hecht, Erin; Bruner, Emiliano (2015). Human Paleoneurology. Springer Series in Bio-/Neuroinformatics. 3 (Springer Series on Bio/Neuroinformatics Volume 3 ed.). National Research Center on Human EvolutionBurgosSpain: Springer,Cham. pp. 145–185. doi:10.1007/978-3-319-08500-5. ISBN 978-3-319-08500-5.
  2. Malafouris, Lambros (21 February 2008). "Between brains, bodies and things: tectonoetic awareness and the extended self". Philosophical Transactions of the Royal Society of London. Series B, Biological Sciences 363 (1499): 1993–2002. doi:10.1098/rstb.2008.0014. PMID 18292056.
  3. Malafouris, Lambros. "Metaplasticity and the human becoming:principles of neuroarchaeology". Journal of Anthropological Sciences 88: 49–72. PMID 20834050. Retrieved 15 May 2019. 
  4. Bruner, Emiliano (June 2010). "Morphological Differences in the Parietal Lobes within the Human Genus". Current Anthropology 51 (S1): S77–S88. doi:10.1086/650729. ISSN 0011-3204.
  5. "Kathleen R. Gibson and Tim Ingold, eds., tools, language and cognition in human evolution, Cambridge university press, Cambridge, Uk, or New York, N.Y. isbn 0 521 41474–1993". Behavioral Science 38 (3): 235–237. 1993. doi:10.1002/bs.3830380308. ISSN 0005-7940.
  6. Wynn, Thomas; Coolidge, Frederick L.; Bright, Martha (February 2009). "Hohlenstein-Stadel and the Evolution of Human Conceptual Thought". Cambridge Archaeological Journal 19 (1): 73–84. doi:10.1017/S0959774309000043. Retrieved 28 May 2019. 
  7. Choudhury, Suparna; Nagel, Saskia Kathi; Slaby, Jan (1 March 2009). "Critical Neuroscience: Linking Neuroscience and Society through Critical Practice". BioSocieties 4 (1): 61–77. doi:10.1017/S1745855209006437. Retrieved 2 June 2019. 
  8. "PsycNET" (in en). 
  9. "How Smart Were Early Humans? "Neuroarchaeology" Offers Some Answers" (in en). 
  10. "Cambridge Scholars Publishing. The Roots of Visual Depiction in Art". 
  11. Onians, John; Renfrew, Colin; Morley, Iain (2007). Image and Imagination. McDonald Institute,University of Cambridge,UK: McDonald Institute for Archaeological Research University of Cambridge. pp. 307–320. ISBN 9781902937489. Retrieved 15 May 2019. 
  12. Cohen, Julie. "Origin of Alzheimer's Gene Mutation Discovered". The Current. University of California,Santa Barbara. Retrieved 20 May 2019. 
  13. "Neuropaediatric and neuroarchaeology: Understanding development to correct brain disorders" (in en). 
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