Cognition and Cosmology: New Models for Understanding Mesoamerican Southwestern and Southwestern Relations and Culture Change during the Prehistoric Era

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In June of 2005, a group of scholars met at the School of American Research to discuss the importance of cosmology and cognition in understanding the pre-Columbian history of Northern and Middle America. Many previous studies had addressed this issue, but from a relatively limited theoretical, methodological, and geographic perspective. The scholars agreed, however, that more sophisticated research promises to significantly enhance our ability to answer key questions about culture change in the regions in question and culture change among human groups more broadly. Because of the breadth of the discussion during the summer 2005 seminar and the scope of the endeavor to be pursued, the group did not have sufficient time to either formulate an agenda for an initial large workshop or to identify the scholars who should be invited to contribute. However, they did conclude that significant progress would require the collaboration of archaeologists, social anthropologists, linguists, art historians, historians of comparative religion, cognitive psychologists, and archaeo-astronomers, along with individuals with experience in modeling complex processes.

Our one-day Working Group is intended to isolate the most productive means to investigate the relationship between cognition and cosmology and to set the agenda of a larger workshop, currently planned to take place at the end of 2006 or the beginning of 2007. We believe that understanding cosmology involves squaring the relationship between the universals of human cognition and the particulars of religious beliefs—based in turn on the contingent engagements of people with the material and spiritual world. We also believe that such an understanding will derive from bringing alternate disciplinary perspectives to bear on comparative historical data at very large and very small scales. Such multi-scalar data are readily available in the related pre-Columbian Mesoamerican, Southwestern, and Southeastern cosmologies, allowing us to pose such questions as:

  • How and why are they related, and what will this tell us about evolution and history?
  • To what extent are cosmologies “systems”?
  • Were the sacred propositions inviolate, or were they subject to change at different scales or contexts?
  • Is there a structural analysis of cosmologies that allows us to predict which elements will be open to change and which will not be?
  • What was the relationship between landscapes, physical movement or migration, and cosmologies?
  • Are there institutions that are cross-culturally associated with cosmologies?



Gell-Mann, Murray

Gumerman, George

Hays-Gilpin, Kelly

Lekson, Steve

Murdock, Jerry

Nelson, Ben

Pauketat, Tim

Rice, Prudence

Smith, Eric

Toll, H Wolcott



The following agenda will guide our one-day Working Group:


1. Definitions and Systematics: Culture, Knowledge, Cognition, Cosmology, Deep History

2. Perspectives on cosmologies

a. functional and historical

b. ethnographic and archaeological

3. Variations and origins of cosmologies

a. Dimensions (sensual, conceptual, material, spatial)

b. local cultural-historical variability vs. larger scaled patterned regularity

c. official/orthodox vs. unofficial/vernacular

d. analogous vs. homologous (especially with respect to New World)

4. Transmission

a. cognitive universals vs. historical particulars

b. Role of individual specialists vs. collective or embodied knowledge/experience


1. Pan-American cosmology/cosmologies

a. Mesoamerica, Southwest, Southeast

b. Modes of transmission

c. Scales of analysis

2. Identifying central foci

a. Which aspects/scales

b. Mix of perspectives to consider

c. Individual researchers

3. Anticipated outcome

a. Audience, publication