Grant-in-Aid for Scientific Research on Innovative Areas (2019-2023)

Integrative Human Historical Science of "Out of Eurasia"
Exploring the Mechanisms of the Development of Civilization


Research Outline

Academic background of the Research

It was in the period of the development of civilization that the specific characteristics which greatly separate human from other animal behaviors, such as a large-scale and complex social structure, a high level of scientific technology, and a variety of religious beliefs including massive world religions, made their appearance. The past development of civilization, centering on northern Africa, the Middle East, Europe, South Asia, East Asia, Mesoamerica, and South America, despite changing through subsequent exchange and development, became the sociocultural foundation of later ages. Accordingly, in order to understand how mankind has reached its present state, it is necessary to clarify how the formation and development of civilization occurred.

Research focusing on the relationship between human biology and culture is gradually increasing, with research being advanced on how the human body (brain, genetics) and culture have co-evolved while mutually influencing each other (Richerson & Boyd, 2005), or through attempts at describing human history from the perspective of “niche construction,” which posits that organisms modify their immediate environments in ways that influence in turn the evolution of subsequent generations (Odling-Smee, Laland, & Feldman, 2003). There has been no advance, however, in comprehensive understandings of what has happened and in what manner over the period of the development of civilization. The reason is because insufficient consideration has been made of the role played by material culture which is produced by man. In multiple regions of the world, the shape of the material environment made by humans has greatly transformed both quantitatively and qualitatively over the past 10,000 years.

In order to think about how culture is produced through the interaction of mind and matter, which until now have been conceptually treated as distinct, research perspectives are needed which place the focus on the human body and behavior, and (1) while falling into neither biological determinism nor an extreme cultural relativism, take man the living organism plus humanly produced cultural variability as a single entity, and (2) overcoming the dualistic mind–body and mind–matter frameworks that have formed the basis of modern science, consider the transformation of matter, mind, and body as a single, tightly integrated system. Further, in order to examine how material culture influences humans, it is necessary to make an integrative analysis of "art" as the technological aspect which extends human physical functions, along with the artistic aspect which manipulates the heart by evoking symbolism and metaphor and engaging emotion.

In this regard the current research area focuses on the human being itself which links nature and culture, mind and matter, and on human action and cognition, and advances an unprecedented theory of the development of civilization. Specifically, the three vantage points are secured of the material realm physically produced by humans, the human body, and the mind which lies at the nucleus of the interaction of these two and produces culture. Based on these vantage points, and focusing on material culture of the period of the development of civilization, we construct an integrative history of humankind that will clarify how the specifically human niche (ecological position) has been formed.

Perspective of the research project

What is needed now is the establishment of a new research methodology which, by focusing on that basic mechanism, integrates research results on what happened in the period of the development of civilization and what is happening at present, and achieves outcomes that could not be obtained in either of those areas separately. In research taking currently existing societies and individuals as the subject, it is difficult to isolate innate characteristics from what is formed socially and culturally, so that in order to clarify the specific characteristic of human nature that creates civilization, or how diversity is born, or how the human body, society, and culture have changed through those processes, it is essential to have the integration of multiple approaches: the study of material culture, which requires archaeological research from an empirical basis on how and in what manner change has occurred; the examination of the interaction between the environment and human cognition and behavior as mediated by the body, needing ethnographic investigation and research on neurological and psychological mechanisms; and the investigation of the movement of groups and physical changes, through studies in biological anthropology and genetic research.

While it is not easy to integrate archaeology, which deals with long-term change, with fields that research short-term conditions and mechanisms through experiments or surveys of contemporary society, by executing while in close coordination the cycle of research in which historical events become evidence that reveal underlying mechanisms, and those events are in turn explained coherently by the mechanisms thus inferred, the current research aims to achieve the goal of "creating a newly developing and integrative field of inquiry that cannot be contained within the frameworks of previously existing academic fields."

In cases such as Western Asia, Europe, and China, of the development of civilization on the Eurasian continent, where there was frequent interregional and intercultural exchange, it is difficult to extract from the midst of the complex relations of influence the mutual interaction between human cognitive traits and the environment. In that regard the current research takes as its object the Americas, the Japanese archipelago, and Oceania, the regions of final destination for Homo sapiens who left Eurasia and dispersed by overcoming bottlenecks and extreme conditions (see the following Map). Through this strategic regional selection, in the midst of the process of adapting to an environmental "blank page" (frontier) that no longer existed in Africa or the Eurasian continent, we can observe in purer form human initiatives toward the natural environment, the emergence of specific cognitions or behaviors, and the construction of relations with cohabitant species. Also, for most of the regions targeted by this research, due to contact with Western civilization from the sixteenth century on, the material and spiritual worlds that had been constructed up to that point received destructive influences. Clarifying the actual state of the development of civilization in the extra-Eurasian region may lead to the proposal of alternative views of civilization which go beyond that of modern Western civilization, which has been the mainstream for contemporary society.

Results Anticipated Following the 5-year Research Period

Within the 5-year period of research, an integrated joint research team will be established surpassing the frameworks of region and specialized field, which will conduct quantitative analyses regarding changes in mind and body stemming from the cognitive bases and material environments related to the creation of civilization, and further, with expansions in the regions, periods, and fields involved, will enable a basis for research that can produce in sustainable fashion results drawing worldwide attention, as the core accomplishment that can be anticipated. The following are expected as representative examples of the academic significance and ripple effects of this research.

  1. The most salient of human cognitive idiosyncrasies are imaginative powers, the sharing of ideas, and through environmental construction based on these, the ability to create new "realities". Through comparative analysis of this process as it unfolded mutually independently during the period of the development of civilization, regarding the manner in which material culture came to take on the role of information storage external to the brain, and how through such cognitive systems and shared information extending beyond any individual body, culture as a system of knowledge surpassing the abilities of individuals as biological creatures came to be formed, the actual state of affairs for various places in the Japanese archipelago, Mesoamerica, the Andes, and Oceania will be made clear. By putting light on the actual state of material culture, not merely as an extra-physical means of adaptation or as a reflection of interior phenomena, but as a vital constitutive element of human cognitive activity which shapes the human mind, body, and social relations, a basis can be achieved for promoting a further deepening of research.
  2. Through archaeological, anthropological, and psychological analyses of the phenomenon by which the environment is humanized and humans are artificialized through art (technology, fine art), the historical process by which unique social realities (subjective realities that serve as norms for behavior) are formed will be clarified, providing new understandings of man and culture. Through experimental research utilizing data on social backgrounds that can be inferred archaeologically, the relation between artistic behavior and social change, and the relationship of cognitive functions supporting that behavior will be made evident. Knowledge can thus be gained regarding why human artistic behavior, held to be "impractical", has progressed.
  3. By mutually matching material changes with human physical changes, the actual conditions of physical change resulting from artificial niche formation and adaptations to it will become clear. For human groups that advanced everywhere into the Japanese archipelago, Middle and South America, and Oceania, along with clarifying in concrete fashion the manner in which the processes of constructing social and cultural environments are involved with (1) the relations between the processes of group and civilization formation with infectious diseases, conditions of health, and changes in population on the one hand, and (2) differences in the ratios of particular types of genetic polymorphism that are connected to cognitive trends on the other, the level and the manner in which interaction with artificial environments, diet, and behavior influence the brain and cognition will be made clear in empirical fashion.
  4. It will be possible to clarify concretely the manner in which, in the process of social stratification, the aggravation of inter-group disputes and intra-group hierarchical differentiation are related to material culture and physical changes. Also, cognitive and environmental factors related to the promotion and suppression of the strengthening of group identity and inter-group violence will become evident.
  5. By taking the perspective of niche construction and material culture research as the core of integration, and bringing together mutually the results of various fields, with regards to the relationship between cognitive niche construction and forms of environmental utilization and transformation including domestication, a theoretical model can be constructed which integrates phenomena observed on a short-term basis with long-term change. By so doing, a coherent view of human history linking the past and the present can be presented.

Also, the following may be included among the social significance and ripple effects of this research: (1) as the peculiarities of modern warfare (including disputes and terrorism) and the characteristics of relationships between nation-states are thrown into relief, concrete proposals can be formulated that will lead to relieving social stress and violent behaviors, and the formation of a sustainable society; (2) new viewpoints can be obtained for deciphering the relations between designs and formative characteristics in contemporary society and social conditions, and proposals can be made for guidelines for the creation of artificial environments with cognizance of their social functions; (3) a basis can be obtained for considering, as globalization progresses more and more in the future, how the body and culture will change, and the significance of maintaining diversity.

Basic Research Strategy

As a model for conducting comparative analysis of large-scale material environmental construction seen in the period of the development of civilization, we will place a model of the mutual permeation of matter and mind as mediated by the body as the basis of our research strategy (see the Figure below).

Rather than taking individual cognition as confined within the brain, this perspective is based on lines of research on concepts such as the "extended mind" and "distributed cognition" which hold that cognition is inextricably related to the material world as mediated by the body, and also develops the theory of material engagement of Malafouris (2013), which holds that in archaeology, material culture must be analyzed not simply as a product in which the mind may be partially reflected, but rather as something which constitutes cognitive processes. This model aims to overcome both the established theory of biological determinism which regards man's nature as genetically determined, and the position of cultural relativism which asserts that human society and culture should be thought of independently of biological factors.

Based on this model, as a theoretical framework for considering temporal change, we adopt the theory of niche construction which holds that organisms change their environments on their own, and such changes influence the evolution of succeeding generations. Also, based on experimental research with monkeys, showing that cognitive change emerges through the use of tools while the brain changes as well, the “triadic niche model” (Iriki & Taoka, 2012) holds that with the emergence of new ecological niches further changes occur in cognition and the brain, and this perspective is gaining worldwide attention as an explanatory model for the particularities of human evolution. The current research will greatly advance this theory using an integrative approach centered on archaeology.

Through this integrative approach we aim to achieve understanding of the dynamic process in which man as a biological organism (genes, body, brain) produced culture, while the man-made environment and social norms formed thereby became the uniquely human niche (environment of adaptation), acclimation to which produced further changes in the human body and cognition.


  • Iriki, A., & Taoka, M. (2012). Triadic (ecological, neural, cognitive) niche construction: A scenario of human brain evolution extrapolating tool use and language from the control of reaching actions. Philosophical Transactions of the Royal Society B: Biological Sciences, 367, 10–23.
  • Malafouris, L. (2013). How things shape the mind: A theory of material engagement. Cambridge, MA: MIT Press.
  • Odling-Smee, F. J., Laland, K. N., & Feldman, M. W. (2003). Niche construction: The neglected process in evolution. Princeton: Princeton University Press.
  • Richerson, P. J., & Boyd, R. (2005). Not by genes alone: How culture transformed human evolution. Chicago: University of Chicago Press.