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.
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.
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.
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