Mittwoch, 20. Dezember 2017

Panel 2: “Cognitive Approaches to Natural Phenomena and Landscape”

A Weblog Entry by Sina Lehnig 

On the 6th of December, the speakers and audience gathered again at the beautiful location of the Institut Français to “resurrect the ancient mind” one more time. On this second day of our workshop, we were curious to find out more about how our ancestors and we ourselves engage with the surrounding environment, perceive and make use of its natural resources, influence the appearance of landscapes, and are, ourselves, in return inevitably shaped by nature. The second panel, “Cognitive Approaches to Natural Phenomena and Landscape” was designed to address these interesting issues of human-environment interaction. The PhD students Laura Borghetti and Mari Yamasaki had conceptualized and organized Panel 2 with the support of Prof. Tanja Pommerening. One of the major concerns of the organisers was to bring together researchers from different disciplines to achieve a varied and differentiated view on the topic of discussion. Therefore, representatives – including the organisers – of ecology, archaeology, anthropology and Byzantine Studies participated in the panel. 

Bridging the Gap between Human and Nature 


The first speaker of the panel was ecologist Prof. Almo Farina, from the University of Urbino. Beside being a founder of the new discipline of Soundscape Ecology, which uses the sound of an environment – including human, animal and weather-related sounds – to measure the health of a location, he is also interested in the development of human-nature relationships from past to present. The major issue of Farina´s presentation was the introduction of a new agency called the “Rural Sanctuary”. By Rural Sanctuary – a term usually associated with a holy place – he means an area where man and nature harmonise. He sees the developments of this relationship in modern times, the “Anthropocene Era”, in contrast to this concept: The human intrusion into the structure and function of many ecosystems results in the reduction of habitat for animals and a loss of biodiversity. On the other hand, the direct contact and communication between the individual consumers of resources like food and drink and nature is not given anymore. The acquisition of material and immaterial resources by humans passes through an abstract and diffuse system that does not allow building a relationship between the human consumer and the natural origin of the product. As a result, Farina calls for a revisiting of human-nature relationship. As a good reference to rethink the present lifestyle that excludes humans from their natural context, he draws attention to the heritage of ancient societies and their close interaction with the surrounding environment. The concept of the Rural Sanctuary is based on this natural, ancient relationship between man and nature. It has a dual mission: on the one hand, it provides resources that can be used by humans in a sustainable way, on the other hand, it offers support for the species that are adapted to the rural landscape: birds benefit from fields and plantations by eating remaining fruits which have not been harvested. Farina describes this condition as a “full world” where people and nature live in harmony, in contrast to an “empty world”, where nature is separated from people. In the Rural Sanctuary of Ortolando, Farina studies animal behaviour, eco-field recognition and ecoacoustic theories, and animal perception. In particular, in such sanctuaries, he could observe how new cognitive patterns develop in birds in connection to food procurement strategies. Similarly, the contact with nature opens to new thought pathways and new stimuli in the people engaged with it. Beside providing a good possibility to investigate the mutual impact on cognitive development of humans and animals, the Rural Sanctuary is also a place to educate people about sustainable land-use patterns. Farina states that humans need to understand the signs and messages nature sends to us to renew their relationship with it. 

Human Evolution in the Cultural Landscape 


The second speaker of the panel was archaeologist Dr. Fiona Coward from Bournemouth University. Her research focuses on the Palaeolithic periods of human history and particularly looks at how and why our ancestors were able to scale up their social lives from the small groups we lived in for much of our prehistory to the globalised world of today. In order to come closer to answering this question, she studies the interrelation between the physical and social environments in which this human evolution has taken place. 

In the framework of our panel, Coward made this last point a central issue of her presentation “Putting the 'fit' back into 'survival of the fittest': environments, landscapes, and multi-scalar evolution in the human lineage”. Beginning with Darwin's "survival of the fittest", she stated that his concept of fitness is often misunderstood as being the strongest, fastest or biggest, but actually should refer to how an individual fits into its surrounding environment, including climate, resources, etc. In this context, Coward highlights the social and cultural aspects – knowledge, artefacts, structures – that characterise a landscape. From her point of view, fitting into a special environment is equally important for evolution, as fitting in socially. In the creation of social and cultural landscapes, which becomes visible in the marking of and name assignment to special places, but also in the negotiation of landscape by drawing boarders and putting them down in maps, in which she sees an important factor that contributes to the shaping of the human behaviour and cognitive development. Against the hypothesis that these cultural landscapes emerged in the Upper Palaeolithic, she argues for a more gradual development that already began with chimpanzees that, for example, mark “special” places through accumulating stones and other objects in specific tree hollows or niches. As a result of cultural landscape formation for the human behaviour evolution, Coward sees features she refers to as "promiscuous sociality" involving non-humans, which resulted in phenomena that include the emergence of architecture, sacred places, animals that enter into relationships with human, tool making and trading networks. In her future research, she aims at clarifying whether cultural landscapes have the same impact on cognitive development in different climatic environments. 

Final Discussion 


The final discussion was guided by the chairs of Panel 2, Laura Borghetti and Mari Yamasaki. By providing an insight into their own research – connected to the topic of human-environmental interaction –, they intended to give a stimulus for further discussion. The objective of Mari Yamasaki's PhD project “Evolving concepts of seascape and marine fauna in the eastern Mediterranean Bronze Age”, is to find out how coastal communities conceptualised and interacted with their maritime environment. As indicators for human-seascape-interaction and a way to measure its intensity, she investigates parameters like the use and consumption of marine resources (shells, snails, fish etc.), the material culture that was developed for the exploitation of seafood (fishhooks, fishing nets, boats etc.), the location of sites and their orientation towards the sea, as well as the architecture of the coastal settlements. All these factors may also suggest whether a liminal environment, such as the coast, might have played a significant role in the development of specific cognitive patterns relating to the exploitation of its resources and potentials. 

Laura Borghetti and Mari Yamasaki delivering their joint presentation (photo by Sandra Hofert). 

Laura Borghetti presented her PhD project “The depiction of natural phenomena in the Byzantine literature of the 9th to 11th century”. The major aim of her study is to acquire an insight into how people from the Byzantine world perceived the appearance of natural phenomena like wind, storms, rainbows, tides, dew, etc. Therefore, she investigates mainly textural remnants of this period, including poetry, historiography and epistolography. 

After providing this trigger for further discussion, the guiding questions for the presented topics of the chairs and invited researchers were: 

  • Does the environment affect human cognitive development? 
  • Is it possible to apply cognitive paradigms to the study of landscape and natural phenomena? 
  • What archaeological evidence is there for the interaction between environment and cognitive development? 

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