Cambridge Archaeological Journal

Special Section: Steps to a ‘Neuroarchaeology’ of Mind, part 1

The Brain as a Cultural Artefact

Steven Mithena1 and Lawrence Parsonsa2

a1 School of Human & Environmental Sciences, University of Reading, Whiteknights, PO Box 227, Reading, RG6 6AB, UK; Email:

a2 Department of Psychology, University of Sheffield, Sheffield, S10 2TP, UK; Email:


Where does biology end and culture begin? While the human body is now widely accepted as being both biological and cultural, the brain is still considered by archaeologists as being a biological entity that provides the capacity for culture and is subject to no further change after the evolution of Homo sapiens. This article reviews recent research that suggests that the brain has continued to evolve at an increasing rate in recent times under the influence of culturally created environments and that both the anatomy and function of individual brains can be manipulated by cultural behaviour. It describes an experiment in which one of us successfully changed his own brain in response to his cultural activity.

Steven Mithen is Professor of Early Prehistory and Dean of the Faculty of Science at the University of Reading. He directs archaeological field projects concerning the Mesolithic in western Scotland and the Early Neolithic in southern Jordan and has broad research interests in the evolution of cognition, language and music.

Lawrence Parsons is professor of cognitive neuroscience at University of Sheffield. Trained in cognitive neurosciences at UCSD and MIT, he was professor at the University of Texas, and established the cognitive neuroscience program at the National Science Foundation. His present neuroscience research is on music/dance performance, reasoning, and the cerebellum.