Prehistoric Minds: Darwinism, Culture and Human Origins during the 19th Century
Kohn Centre, Royal Society of London

11 December 2009

The publication of Charles Darwin’s On the Origin of Species in 1859 is often treated as a watershed event within the history of the human sciences.  Yet, despite using the word ‘origins’ in the title, the book did not clearly spell out how his evolutionary views applied to the theories and practices being used by contemporary naturalists to understand human origins. This effectively left nascent paleoarchaeologists and paleoanthropologists to their own devices and they continued to use previously existing evolutionary frameworks and cultural assumptions in effort to interpret what they believed to be the artefacts and anatomy of early humans.  One of the concerns of such theories, as well as for Darwin’s published work in the 1870s, was to posit plausible attributes of early human ‘minds’ which could be used to interpret the various types of prehistoric evidence provided by the emerging fields of archaeology, anthropology and ethnology.  This conference investigates the contemporary reception and relevance of such attempts by looking at the types of evidence (symbols, skulls, tools, etc.), methods (transmutational, developmental, sexual, etc.) and models (monogenist, polygenist, etc.), that were used in practice and theory by ‘pre’, ‘pro’ and ‘anti’ Darwinian scientists, antiquarians and travellers to construct prehistoric minds.  The time period under consideration runs roughly from French Revolution forward to the end of World War I.  In addition to addressing a fascinating subject that connects with a rising interest in the contemporary relevance meaning of human prehistory, this topic corresponds to the 150th anniversary of the Origin’s publication.  It will not only shed more light upon Darwin’s views on the matter, but also on how pre- and post-1859 concepts of evolution were, or were not, used to discern mental attributes from artefacts and to postulate interpretive frameworks that were then applied to key concepts like race, gender and even morality in ancient human populations.

Conference Organiser

Dr Matthew D Eddy, Durham University, Department of Philosophy, 50/51 Old Elvet, Durham, DH1 3HN ([email protected]).



[dot] henderson [at] royalsociety [dot] org



(1) Primitive Minds: Hugh Blair and Early 19th Century Natural Histories of Language
Dr Matthew D Eddy
Senior Lecturer in the History of Science
Durham University, UK

(2) The Victorian Human-Origins Debate and ‘Darwin‘s Sacred Cause’
Dr Gregory Radick
Senior Lecturer in the History and Philosophy of Science
Leeds University, UK


(3) “Primitivity” and the Origin of Art
Prof Claudine Cohen
Professor of the History of Science
École des Hautes Études en Sciences Sociales, Paris, France

(4) Histories of the ‘Missing’ Link
Dr Peter C. Kjaergaard
Associate Professor in the History of Ideas
Aarhus University, Denmark[email protected]


(5) Changing Interpretations of Tools and Visual Representations of Human Phylogeny
Prof Robert N. Proctor
Professor of the History of Science
Stanford University, USA

(6) The Time Revolution of 1859: Mapping the Landscape for the Primeval Mind
Prof Clive Gamble
Professor of Geography
Royal Holloway, University of London

(7) Eoliths and the Mind of Primitive Man
PD Dr. Marianne Sommer
Science Studies, ETH Zurich, Switzerland

(8) Cave Men: Stone tools, Victorian Antiquarians and the Primitive Mind of Deep Time
Dr Mark White
Reader in Archaeology & Kent’s Cavern Excavation Team Leader
Durham University, UK

Dr Paul Pettitt
Senior Lecturer in Palaeolithic Archaeology & Kent’s Cavern Excavation Team Leader
Sheffield University, UK