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Wenner-Gren International Symposium #139 group Photo
Seated: A. Nowell, A. Belfer-Cohen, A. Sumner, L. Wadley, L. Aiello, F. Pinto, M. Haidle Back: F. Aboitiz, S. Ambrose, R. Welshon, T. Wynn, E. Reuland, M. Rossano, R. Engle, F. Coolidge, I. Davidson, M. Martin-Loeches, P. Barnard Not Pictured: E. Bruner

WENNER-GREN INTERNATIONAL SYMPOSIUM #139
March 7-14, 2008
Fortaleza do Guincho, Cascais, Portugal

 

PUBLICATION: "Working Memory: Beyond Language and Symbolism" Guest Edited by Thomas Wynn and Fredrick L. Coolidge. Current Anthropology 51(Supplement 1), June 2010.

 

PARTICIPANTS:

Current Anthropology CoverLeslie C. Aiello (Wenner-Gren Foundation, USA)
Francisco Aboitiz (Pontificia U. Catolica de Chile)
Stanley H. Ambrose (U. Illinois, USA)
Philip Barnard (U. Cambridge, UK)
Anna Belfer-Cohen (The Hebrew U., Israel)
Emiliano Bruner (Centro Nacional de Investigacion sobre la Evolucion Humana, Spain)
Frederick L. Coolidge, organizer (U. Colorado, USA)
Iain Davidson (U. New England, Australia)
Randall Engle (Georgia Institute of Technology, USA)
Miriam Haidle (Eberhard Karls U., Germany)
Manuel Martin-Loeches (Center UCM-isciii for Human Evolution & Behavior, Spain)
April Nowell (U. Victoria, Canada)
Fatima Pinto (Wenner-Gren Foundation, Portugal) 
Eric Reuland (Utrecht U., Netherlands)
Matt Rossano (Southeastern Louisiana U., USA)
T. Alexandra Sumner, monitor (U. Toronto, Canada)
Lyn Wadley (U. Witwatersrand, South Africa)
Rex Welshon (U. Colorado, USA)
Tom Wynn, organizer (U. Colorado, USA)

Final Report

The last two decades have witnessed an intense and often contentious debate in paleoanthropology concerning the evolution of modern humans and the modern human mind. Perhaps the most remarkable feature of this debate has been its naivety concerning the modern mind itself. Instead of incorporating the great strides made by recent cognitive science in understanding the nature of the brain and cognition, paleoanthropology (with the exception of a few paleoneurologists) has eschewed this literature almost entirely, preferring instead to fall back on vague, ill-defined terms from the common lexicon (e.g. ‘abstract', ‘complex', and ‘symbolic') or, equally as often, on concepts drawn from the anthropological literature most connected to cognitive science – linguistics. However, when psychologists and cognitive scientists themselves think and write about the modern mind, language is not the only cognitive ability to receive attention. Indeed, it is only one of a number of cognitive abilities considered to be essential to modern thinking. Among these is a set of abilities known as executive functions, which encompass the abilities to plan and strategize. More controversially, recent research in cognitive science has linked executive reasoning ability to Alan Baddeley's concept of working memory, which is the ability to hold information in attention and process it. Executive functions in general, and working memory in particular have been the focus of voluminous research in cognitive science. Research has established that working memory capacity varies in (but not between) modern populations, and that this variability may be under comparatively simple genetic control. As such it makes a good candidate for a recent evolutionary development.

Anthropologist Thomas Wynn and Psychologist Frederick Coolidge organized this Wenner-Gren international symposium in order to investigate the hypothesis that working memory capacity evolved over the course of human evolution, and that a final enhancement of working memory capacity occurred in the relatively recent past