Cognitive Archaeology and The Importance of Cultural Relativism

As we have evolved, our species has faced a plethora of challenges, some of which have manifested into massive cognitive strides. Our minds have been shaped by the pressure to survive and reproduce. We created language and symbols, which are critical devices for communication and ultimately survival, to represent the phenomenon we experience. The notion of expression along with the pressures of survival have led us to the idea of self-consciousness and our relationship with the ever-shifting world. The way in which archaeologists interpret information provided by the past may pose as a challenge due to ethnocentric bias, but the goal of cultural relativism exists. Archaeological contributions can be made by observing the evolution of consciousness, but with a view that incorporates the notion of cross-cultural differences.

One of cognitive archaeology’s objectives is to observe the occurrence of symbolism in various societies in order to understand the links in cognitive processes between cultures despite observable differences. We all ask similar questions about where we come from or who we are as people, and we strive to describe the human experience in order to establish our identities.

Rattlesnake Disk (1000 CE) Mississippian Culture—believed to symbolize entry into Upperworld (Heaven)

The assumptions and biases that witnesses of archaeological evidence have prevent us from fully contextualizing what is found in relation to certain cultures. Oftentimes, Eurocentric ideas overshadow the validity of other peoples’ values. For instance, the swastika has been a universal symbol of hate ever since Hitler in the modern western world. But in many other cultures, it means something else entirely (it translates to “good fortune” in Sanskrit). The symbol originated from Neolithic Eurasia around 3000 BCE in the Indus Valley, initially representing the movement of the sun through the sky. Persians believed it to symbolize eternity and continuing creation. There was a similar interpretation, especially regarding eternity, in much of East Asia dating as far back as 2400 BCE in Neolithic China. To have a meaningful symbol be corrupted by the heinous motives of a tyrant shows not only the toxic influence of European domination but also the tendency to undermine other cultures for the sake of selfish promotion. This inclination still exists today—one example being cultural appropriation, when an aspect of a marginalized culture is indifferently exploited for another’s personal benefit.

Yaks and Swastikas Drawn Onto Rock (Protohistoric Period) Tibet

By comparing cultures, it can be easy to fall into the rhythm of making judgements based off of ethnocentric biases, but the diversity that can be observed among various cultures should be seen as a broad network of connections that we, as humans, have with one another on top of our common motivations to survive and be understood. Placing bias aside, we all cognitively think alike and have the same incentives to define ourselves and what we know to be the world around us. By employing a sense of cultural relativism in day-to-day life, people could learn to respect cultures apart from their own and curtail any sense of superiority.


Fernando, Mayanthi. “Cultural Relativism.” Oxford Bibliograhies. June 2013. Retrieved from:

Funo, Shuji, Pant, Mohan. “Stupa and Swastika: Historical Urban Planning Principles in Nepal’s Kathmandu Valley.” NUS Press, 2007, pp xvi. Retrieved from:

Heller, Steven. “The Swastika: Symbol Beyond Redemption?” Skyhorse Publishing Inc., 2010. Retrieved from:

Lee, Jonathan H. X., Nadeau, Kathleen M. “Encyclopedia of Asian American Folklore and Folklife.” ABC-CLIO, 2010, pp 87-88. Retrieved from:

Mithen, Steven. “Cognitive Archaeology, Evolutionary Psychology and Cultural Transmission, with Particular Reference to Religious Ideas.” Archeological Papers of the American Anthropological Association, Vol. 7, No. 1, January 1997, pp 67-74.

Thornton, Chris. “Renewing the link between cognitive archaeology and cognitive science.” Journal of Archaeological Science, Vol. 39, No. 7, July 2012, pp 2036-2041.

Winkelman, Michael. “The Evolution of Consciousness? Transpersonal Theories in Light of Cultural Relativism.” Anthropology of Consciousness, Vol. 4, No. 3, September 1993, pp 3-9.

Image Sources:

Bellezza, John Vincent. “Flight of the Khyung.” Tibetan Archaeology and All Things Tibetan, May 2016. Retrieved from:

Bryant, Chris. “100 years following the first extensive excavations of the famous Mississippian Indian site, questions remain…” University of Alabama, 2005. Retrieved from:

Further Reading:

“Cultural Appreciation or Cultural Appropriation?” Unsettling America: Decolonization in Theory & Practice, September 2011.

Skidmore, James M. “How Nazis Twisted the Swastika into a symbol of hate” The Conversation, August 2017.

One thought on “Cognitive Archaeology and The Importance of Cultural Relativism

  1. Does cognitive archaeology seems to be attempting to create universal laws to understand symbols, yet as you pointed out many symbols take on different meanings depending on the culture, even within a culture a symbol may experience polysemy? is there case where cognitive archaeology has successfully worked/ found a cognitive link across cultures?

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