Developing a Neuroanthropology of Social Space: Implications for North American Archaeology

By Trevor Duke


Ybor City

A few days ago I was walking around Ybor City, a place near downtown Tampa known for its eclectic feel and mix of restaurants, alternative shops, and party spots. While Ybor is often associated with divergence from more typical forms of social life in the area, the spatial layout of the built environment was entirely familiar to me. Most buildings were squarely shaped and streets were laid out in a fashion similar to that of any other city I’d been in.

This experience was in direct contrast to what I felt on a recent visit to archaeological sites in Peru. As a native Floridian, I found the experience of visiting Chavin de Huantar to be both incredible and disorienting. Sure, the altitude sickness may have accounted for some of the disorientation, but both the physical layout of the site and environment threw me slightly off. The location of the site between two extremely tall mountain ranges provided a visual depth of vertical structure that I wasn’t used to and the spatial layout of the many features of the site, including some of the narrow, underground tunnels that it is known for, left me feeling slightly out of sorts.


My initial encounter with Chavin

I encountered a similar experience at the coastal site of Chan Chan, where the winding, maze-like orientation of walkways and buildings threw me for a bit of a loop.

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Chan Chan, Peru

Mostly, the spaces that we move through daily are very similar and recognizable to us. That is, we can walk around in a city or neighborhood and not be alarmed by ambient spatial configuration, even if it is an area we did not grow up in. There are often similarities in the ways the spaces are built, and in how we understand, interpret and experience these familiar environments.

However, if we are suddenly placed in an area where space becomes unfamiliar, where shapes and distances are manipulated in a seemingly new or odd fashion, our actual thought processes may become affected. Evidence from a wide array of researchers surrounding the concept of spatial cognition have shown that the orientation of human space cannot be adequately explained using universal models, which try to explain how all humans do things.

Instead, the way we move and think through space may be strongly related to individual experience and exploration with the environment, whether built or otherwise. Such ideas have received neural support, suggesting that different neuronal firing occurs in areas that are intelligible to the individual versus those that are not.

Why Anthropology and Neurobiology?

Research on “space syntax” and cognition by Alan Penn shows that the combination of recurring features of the built environment (spatial affordances) and the decision making, sensory processing, and patterns of movement of individuals account for a large portion of the human-space relationship. Penn’s findings are important because they open a unique space for anthropological and neurobiological intersection. How we map previous experiences with the environment in our minds, informs how we think and move through space in future contexts.

In light of this research, and similar work on the plasticity of spatial cognition, it seems that future studies on the subject could gain immensely from detailed documentation of how things work out of the lab and in the real world. This is precisely what anthropologists do, such as work by Ed Hutchins on “cognition in the wild” and how the materiality of our lives can anchor our cognition. This type of approach offers a unique opportunity for anthropology to show how many findings in the brain sciences don’t work without anthropological perspectives. After all, we live in the era of Rick Scott and the like, whom are constantly reassuring us that our perspectives are not needed.

This interdisciplinary approach also provides new perspectives that may help anthropologists better understand the holism of how things actually work. Anthropologists have theorized for decades about how things supposedly play out in cultural settings, but our interpretations of life in the past and present can become more acute by understanding how brain and culture operate alongside one another.

Alleviating the Perils of Problematic Approaches

When it comes to how people move through and modify space, attention to certain “types” of human groups has been central to a variety of arguments across disciplines. These arguments have often focused on reference points and orientation of certain objects in space and how such things are conceptualized differently between people of allocentric and egocentric worldviews.

Allocentrism has typically been reserved for human groups that use frames of spatial reference that are grounded in the relation to some sort of group or absolute geographic variable or landmark. In contrast, egocentrism is often applied to people that conceptualize things in space in reference to oneself and is generally considered to be a more object-centered approach to spatial reasoning. Most who have used this approach to understanding human spatial reasoning have suggested that egocentrism is predominate among Western human groups and allocentrism should be reserved for everyone else.

However, such arguments may achieve unnecessary and constraining polarity by using an us vs. them sort of view to studying social space. What this does for a study of the indigenous presence on the North American landscape, is group all those that came before the modern western world into the them category. For example, both the prehistoric Chumash of California and Calusa of Florida used canoes to traverse the coastal landscape, but this does not allow us to assume that they both navigated through coastal space the same way because they were both non-western.

One way to make sure we attain a more comprehensive gaze, is to avoid an evolutionary approach to understanding complexities in site layout. What I mean here is not to dismiss the wide array of evolutionary commonalities that humans share as a species, but rather to avoid socio-cultural evolutionary typologies when developing an archaeology of human space. Evolutionary typologies of human social complexity assume that humans move neatly toward complexity and some make it there and some do not. However, such attempts to generalize about human behavior (and as a consequence, the human relationship with built space) constrain our view of how people and individuals actually live, and in the case for archaeology, may have lived at a specific place in time.

Here, I will make the case that the primary means of getting around such issues is an approach that is neuroanthropological. Recent challenges to the massively modular view of the brain have emphasized neural plasticity and neural reuse. These ideas, when brought into neuroanthropology, can prove critical to developing new ways of seeing the past human experience of changing space. We are typically fed the idea through media and outdated research, that human brain function is highly localized and that these areas of the brain are only meant to do certain things and human behavior can thus, be attributed to certain areas of brain function. In contrast, new findings suggest that this may not be the case. Instead, human behavior is often a product of involvement from a variety of areas in the brain that may interact differently among individuals who operate within different cultural settings.

Certain areas of the brain, such as the posterior parietal cortex, seem to be particularly involved with our movement and organization of space. However, that is certainly not to say that other centers are not; they are, as this review of spatial cognition and the brain shows. Patterns of interactions in the brain take on their own character in different cultural settings, whether through the impact of different forms of writing to how self construals work.

This approach is in agreement with the idea that the brain is part of a larger cognitive apparatus that extends beyond our brains and bodies and is susceptible to the character of its environment. That is, culture affects brain functioning and development, and brain functioning also influences how culture plays out.

These concepts help us fight the concerns raised earlier regarding the constraint posed by egocentrism and allocentrism. Evolutionary modes of thinking about culture and modular views of the brain and human behavior oversimplify and distort our view of people of the past and present. Brain and culture do not grow separately, but grow together, each being highly dependent upon one another. However, most brain/culture research has focused on the present. Using these recent re-conceptualizations of how brain and culture operate, we can also begin to rethink the possibility of how people thought about and organized spaces in the past.

Building a framework around these ideas should allow us to better explain how these built environments may have been conceived both outside and inside human brains. I propose that we view the human experience of past human spatial organization as an exploratory activity; one that is based on a constant interaction between bodily experience with the ambient environment, sensory perception and how our brains map these things internally, all of which inform and intricately define one another. In doing so, we can avoid resorting to purely social or ecological explanations to define the human experience of sedentary life in the past and can provide frameworks that are formed in the type of holistic reasoning that still serves as one of the unwavering strengths of anthropological research.

Tailoring an Regional Approach: An Example from the Southeastern US

We know, at least on general terms, that Native Americans living in the southeastern United States prior to European contact eventually began aggregating in large, sedentary villages. This increase in sedentism was accompanied with an increase in the building of permanent structures and monumental architecture at living spaces. While it now well known that monumental architecture was present during the Archaic Period (8,000-1,000 B.C.), the erection of objects in permanent space became more geographically broad during the Woodland Period (1,000 B.C.-1,000 A.D.). However, the configuration of monument and structure at each site is often unique.

These newly-formed spatial characteristics are generally viewed to be derivative of social process, but the potential cognitive effects of transitioning into lifestyles emphasizing permanent, organized space have yet to be delineated. The majority of an archaeology dedicated to spatial arrangement at this point has focused on social and environmental issues that may structure space. Previous approaches to studying southeastern spatial arrangement and settlement pattern have largely centered on access to material resources, meaning and the symbolic landscape and how space is organized among different social groups at sites. However, by not engaging how culture and neurobiology work together to structure such things, we have left a lot to be desired.

For example, Crystal River, a Middle-to-Late Woodland Period site located on the Florida Gulf Coast, contains both a plaza area and multiple mounds that encompass some of the broader chararcteristics of Woodland Period spatial organization. However, Crystal River’s plaza area in association with adjacent monuments and mounds is considered to be oddly configured in comparison with other sites located in the Southeast . Previous research suggests that plazas may be empty spaces, but are far from being spatially meaningless. In fact, it appears that in some areas, sites may have been intentionally reconfigured to expand and rework plaza areas and thus, serve as integral to site interpretation and spatial organization at archaeological sites.


Overlooking an excavation unit and southern end of the plaza from Mound A, Crystal River, Florida

Ok, so we know that these plaza areas are important at sites in the Southeast, but an inclusion of spatial cognition may allow us to go a bit further. The neuroscience dedicated to spatial cognition suggests that shapes and distances play a profound role in how humans create and move through space. A joining of anthropology and neuroscience, in particular understanding the way shapes and distances are maintained and recreated both outside and inside of our brains, should provide us with a more detailed picture of how these things may have worked and why they are so significant.

Making it Into the Real World

Using this idea of exploratory spatial experience, we also may be able to better understand a more recent past of those who have been disenfranchised and disregarded in historical accounts. If spatial experience is indeed an exploratory one, then the way we experience space cognitively may vary widely between spatial settings. Our living spaces are configured in a wide variety of ways, and some, particularly low-income, urban neighborhoods, vary quite remarkably from those located in more affluent settings. To account for these unrepresented historical accounts of life, some archaeologists have focused their gaze on the excavation of urban neighborhoods.

Because spatial navigation and the mental representation of space is largely grounded in experience, the experience of different space among groups of individuals may have implications for the shared cognitive experience of urban environments. Therefore, inequality may not only be associated with social factors, but also with the ecological and mental experience of space. By adding a consideration of the way the brain acts alongside culture in space, the experience of inequality of historically underrepresented people can be delineated in a fashion that focuses on nuanced, site-specific experience, along with the way that the brain, experience, and culture may have structured the broader experience of human social inequality in the past.

So, let’s not allow the determinists of previous generations keep us from engaging the brain in anthropological research. As perspectives grow in both anthropology and neuroscience, we may find that one does not work well without the other, and that arguments made through essentialism, in any form, should serve as little more than cautionary tales to future research aimed at understanding the human experience of space.

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