AN INTRODUCTION TO CONCEPTUAL ANTHROPOLOGY*

 

 

 

PREMISE

 

Conceptual anthropology is the discipline studying the spirit of culture, arts, beliefs, traditions, and other intellectual and spiritual expressions. It is the subject topic of EXPRESSION, a quarterly journal published in English, and of books issued by ATELIER, Research Center for Conceptual Anthropology. ATELIER is an experimental laboratory created and directed by Prof. Emmanuel Anati. The headquarters are in the Alpine village of Capodiponte, Camonica Valley, Italy, a major center of prehistoric rock art, which is on the UNESCO list of the world’s cultural heritage, and where the scientific discipline of rock art research was conceived and implemented over half a century ago.

 

 

HOW CONCEPTUAL ANTHROPOLOGY WAS BORN

 

The idea of creating a unique base for the study of art, religion, social relations, and other intellectual and spiritual aspects of human culture had been maturing for some time. It took a first formal step during the International Congress of Prehistory at Florianopolis, Brazil, in 2011. The debate at first concerned the need to change the basic orientation of prehistoric studies. Traditional archeology is a discipline mainly based on recording, describing, and dating. The new archeology had to go further, treasuring the findings recorded by the old archeology, using them to understand their spirit, motivation, and conceptual context.

 

But was it easier to change the orientation of a traditionally well-established discipline or to create a new discipline? In the fields of prehistoric archeology and anthropology, the presence of different orientations is a healthy factor to be preserved. Within this frame, a new discipline was born. First it was proposed to name it new archeology and in fact this is what it is. However, ultimately, the name of conceptual anthropology was agreed upon.

 

Participants at the session of CISENP (International Scientific Commission on the Intellectual and Spiritual Expressions of Non-Literate Peoples) chaired by Prof. Anati decided to recognize the fledgling discipline of conceptual anthropology as a commitment of the commission. With CISENP collaboration, the ATELIER research center started operating in 2013, organizing meetings and debates, and an editorial section producing books and EXPRESSION quarterly journal. To date, October 2021, 250 authors from 50 countries in five continents have contributed texts in the 34 issues of EXPRESSION and in the 60 books published so far by Atelier. They form the basis of the new discipline, conceptual anthropology, alias the new archeology.

 

 

THE PURPOSE OF THE NEW DISCIPLINE

 

The purpose of this new discipline is the understanding of the spirit and conceptual background of human behavior, its context, and the processes of change and development. It combines the experiences and methods of different disciplines, from psychology to history, from archeology and anthropology to sociology, art history, philosophy and the history of religions.

 

Each discipline of the humanities is a fount of conceptual enrichment for the others. Multidisciplinary research is proving to be a source of innovation for each one of the single traditional disciplines. Aimed at first at studying the intellectual and spiritual expressions of prehistoric and tribal communities, conceptual anthropology is opening up to new sectors such as trends in contemporary societies, opinions, and the conceptual phenomena that characterize them, as emerging from Atelier’s recent books.

 

 

THE CONCEPT OF CONCEPTUAL ANTHROPOLOGY

 

Conceptual anthropology studies the concepts and motivations of human behaviors emerging from archeology, anthropology, history, sociology, and other subjects of the humanities. The aim is to understand the meanings of patterns and trends. Every event and every detail express part of a wider reality. Humanity is the set of humans, culture is the set of cultures. Conceptual anthropology opens up landscapes in the dynamic vision of values that are evolving and changing, but always remain the core of human identity. Awareness in the processes of affirmation, stabilization, or change and evolution followed by art, religion, human relations, and social and economic trends helps to understand tendencies which determine behavioral patterns and collective identity.

 

Each discipline has its own memory that is the basis of research and forms the advancement of the discipline itself. The combination of disciplines is also the union of memories on which to draw for a wider research landscape. Today the media and encyclopedias make some types of technical data easily available. But the human mind is still irreplaceable in its instinct, intuition, imagination, association, and emotions. Traditional research in archeology and anthropology usually avoids the concern in emotions, imaginations and intuitions. Conceptual anthropology does not ignore these aspects. Research is a human ability and relies on the natural functioning of human minds. Every discipline, like every being, focuses on certain sectors of memory and neglects others. The memory of various disciplines grants a wider visualization than that of a single discipline and is an aspect of the research system applied by conceptual anthropology. Trials and errors are not only the main causes of the advancement of scientific research, they are also the source of emotional aspects that make research alive and stimulate the minds to do research.

 

In the face of extreme specialization which reduces researchers to technicians, conceptual anthropology goes against the current. It tends to encourage the acquisition of broad humanistic values and to train intellectuals, a derogatory term for a kind of experts but relevant to conceptual anthropology. Technicians and intellectuals have different backgrounds, different roles, and different mental orientations . No doubt technicians are needed and this is the trend of higher education in many cases: to create specialists, trained with technical knowledge to be employed in a given functional sector. The conceptual anthropology scholar is also a specialist but with different criteria and a different broad-minded humanistic, philosophical orientation.

 

Conceptual anthropology is a mental gym. Vast ranges of knowledge open wide horizons and promote a panoramic insight into understanding the spirit of man in his conceptual conditioning, decision-making, feelings, emotions, and imagination. Knowledge is supposed to generate the acquisition of consciousness. The degree of understanding determines decision-making faculties as well as human relations and actions.

 

 

NEW GOALS OF SCIENTIFIC RESEARCH

 

Both archeological and social anthropological research are evolving. Detecting, describing, and dating objects, traditions, and habits has led to knowing them or their apparent aspects. Thanks to this demanding work, today we enter a new era of research, in which we reach through finding the thoughts, intentions, dilemmas, messages, minds, and actions of those who produced them. This is particularly relevant and rewarding for prehistoric and other little-known or forgotten societies. The object and the fact become the raw material to produce the history of past ages and of people so far considered to be prehistoric or practically ignored by history.

 

The finding of material elements in archeology and anthropology is usually followed by study. Recording and descriptions are usually followed by the conjectures and conclusions of the researchers. A major conceptual step was that of conceiving to move on from the level of knowing to the level of understanding: understanding not only the logic and conjectures of the researcher and his/her scientific conclusions, but also the logic and conjectures of those who produced what the researcher is describing and evaluating, visual art, material culture, living shelters, shrines, and so on. The new archeology is changing the goals and perspectives of the discipline, from the knowledge of remains of the past to the thoughts, purposes and emotions of the people that produced them. The initial main efforts of conceptual anthropology were devoted to reading, or rather to deciphering, prehistoric and tribal art, a target and challenge of the new archeology. Most of what we know of prehistoric art is painted or engraved on rock surfaces. Rock art is a great history book, produced by past cultures in 200 countries of five continents. It is the medium that its authors have left behind as testimony of thousands of years of life and history. When analyzed with appropriate methods and concepts, it reveals the thoughts, the events, and the material and spiritual adventures of the past that are the sources of the present. Decoding prehistoric art was the initial main motivation behind the development of this new discipline.

 

Conceptual anthropology is creating the foundations for a new history of mankind, digging deep into what is considered to be prehistory. It explores chapters of history of people who never had a history before: periods, ages, and populations are being added to world history. And it does not concern lists of the names of kings or leaders and of their exploits, conquests, and victories, as they are not chapters of history written by court or regime scribes, but the expressions of the direct protagonists, that is, individuals and societies.

 

 

 

HOW TO SPECIALIZE IN CONCEPTUAL ANTHROPOLOGY

 

 

1 Specialized publication as an educational means

 

Specialized publications are the main educational and training means, accessible to everyone in all countries, free from the dependence on the four walls of the class-room. The class-room is the planet earth. And such it is also its geographical area of concern. EXPRESSION is a quarterly journal, coming out four times a year, carrying on a continuous discourse, an accumulation of data and concepts, in a global overview. It is the main educational tool for conceptual anthropology. Back issues may be easily consulted. A general index of authors, including the titles of their texts, helps to find topics. About 250 authors from different world regions make it a natural encyclopedia that is enriched with each issue: it promotes culture, collaboration, dialogue, and intellectual progress, connecting readers in over 80 countries. It is relevant that this journal also reaches native communities, in various continents. Other ATELIER publications, monographs, analytical books, and research reports are expressions of this new discipline. They are conceived to be scientifically reliable, didactically efficient, pleasant and interesting to read, suitable for students, scholars, and fans, without limits of age, culture or ethnic belonging. EXPRESSION journal is in English. Books are published in English and Italian. A few of them are available in French as well. The publications are designed for the level of university students, and they are easy for everyone to read.

 

Education and training are carried out through an open formula, available at a world level, that is, reading and consulting. The traditional lecture in a classroom affects at most a few dozen students; education through publications, both printed and online, reach multitudes without displacing them and is accessible everywhere in the world. Internet and Zoom cannot fully replace direct personal contacts, but allow human and scientific relations all over the planet and favor the participation of isolated researchers. Surely there are many thousands of potential acolytes who are ignorant of even the existence of conceptual anthropology. An important target is reaching them and granting them access to content and concepts. For conceptual anthropology, all of us members of the human species are potential students. Aimed at the conceptual aspects of human creativity, imagination, socialization, artistic expressions, and spirituality, the publishing project proposes new horizons of teaching and stimulates innovative, creative ways of anthropological and archeological studies and research. The diffusion of the publications is diffusion of knowledge and of conceptual anthropology; it is an essential cultural operation at an initial stage and requires further development.

 

 

2 Acquiring practical experience in conceptual anthropology
In addition to the slow but expanding process of education through the diffusion of publications, training in conceptual anthropology is carried out with practical work: learning by applying the discipline effectively. Compared with education in the classrooms of university courses, the new trend goes against the current. The concept of apprenticeship is based on the individual training of each student, a personalized school to guide each student to discover not just the practical application of research but also her/his potential tendencies, personality and identity.

 

Today’s students are the teachers and scholars of tomorrow. Since there are no university courses in conceptual anthropology, the training is based on the individual practical work of each candidate. Graduate students in anthropology, archeology, and other disciplines of the humanities are the main type of candidate. In addition to individual practical training, there are also group activities: seminars, conferences, and joint research projects.

 

 

3 Seminars

 

Specific themes are addressed, with written contributions from various participants, some of which find space for publication and dissemination in EXPRESSION quarterly journal. The common language of 80 different countries is English. Case studies on specific topics, local matters like local trends, and local artistic expressions like rock art or local social and cultural issues are used as experimental topics for both research and teaching. The main means of cooperation remains the call for specific topics that attract authors to contribute articles to EXPRESSION journal. Each issue is a sort of seminar, opening debates and relations between authors, fellow scholars and other readers.

 

 

4 Conferences

 

To facilitate meeting and keeping alive the dialogue between followers of the new discipline, specific sessions are organized on the occasion of international congresses in archeology and anthropology, that bring together a number of participants from various countries and have a limited impact as educational tools.

 

 

5 Research teams

 

Researchers joining in team research have access to laboratories, databases, and other resources of the ATELIER research center. Topics suitable for teams bring together researchers from different disciplines with common targets. Purely theoretical research is not excluded but as of the present, the tendency is to prefer specific practical, well-defined themes.

 

 

6 Exhibitions

 

The organization of exhibitions has the double aim of training students and researchers to communicate with schools and the public, involving educational entities and the general public. The cultural-educational slant of exhibitions refers to the principle of “knowing the past to discover the present”. Themes in art, anthropology, or archeology unite in common effort different disciplines of the humanities as well as graphic designers, architects, artists, educators, and communications experts to provide for the public a deep conceptual penetration into specific areas.

 

 

ATELIER has been geared to an autonomous identity, aimed at open horizons of research and teaching, and also proposing new types of a concrete conceptual tendency, sustainable, active, open, and conscious, without barriers. It makes research by producing research. It makes culture by producing culture. Teaching is done by spreading knowledge and awareness. The classroom is the planet earth. The results are what matters and they are made accessible to all. Knowledge is producing curiosity and curiosity is producing knowledge.

 

 

RESEARCH IN PROGRESS

 

The research carried out is published and disseminated worldwide. Results are not meant to be stored in academic cellars, or in the drawers of shy scholars. They reach institutions and researchers and produce knowledge, new ideas, and new horizons of research.

 

 

Some multidisciplinary research projects in progress:

 

-Making history of prehistory

 

-Decoding prehistoric art

 

-Migration and colonization
-The role of women in prehistoric and tribal societies

 

-Sedentarization and urbanization

 

 

The results are published even if preliminary or partial. They diffuse information, arise interest in the topics exposed, cause debates and possible criticism and are open to evaluations and to external contributions. Researchers and students may join and present their projects and results in these and other themes of research. Concrete innovative results are granted publication. Articles appearing in EXPRESSION journal are widely consulted in over 80 countries. Research is meant to awaken interest in research, attract new minds to research, and produce culture.

 

 

Some of the specifically monographic research projects:

 

-The meaning of typological and thematic changes in prehistoric and tribal art

 

-Variable characteristics and functions of the decorations on the tapa cloths in the Pacific islands, Melanesia and Polynesia

 

-The significance of the monuments related to the cult at Har Karkom in the Negev desert, Israel

 

-The meaning of changing dominant pictograms in the period sequence of prehistoric rock art of Valcamonica, Italian Alps

 

-The megalithic temples of Malta and their conceptual meaning

 

The results reached so far have appeared in the form of books and/or articles, and are listed in the Atelier books catalogue and the    general index of authors in EXPRESSION journal. They are available the world over, widening the public interest in research.

 

 

Future research projects

 

Themes are proposed and carried out by the researchers. The results are presented in writing. Discussions and insights, further progress in research, and further contributions are the source of the constant movement and confrontation of ideas.

 

 

AN EXAMPLE. ONE OF THE TOPICS IN PROGRESS:

 

MAKING HISTORY OF PREHISTORY

One of the research projects in progress concerns the acquisition of historic notions in prehistoric times: making history of prehistory. The method is a new system of analyzing prehistoric art to decode the intent of the early artists behind their depictions. The outcomes promote discussion and produce texts, some published in the series of Atelier books or in articles in EXPRESSION journal. It is a dynamic system that combines research, teaching, and diffusion.

 

A conceptual analysis of Australian Aboriginal art has led to the reconstruction of cultural evolution processes, events, migrations, the arrival of new populations, and changes in cultural and historical influences in the millennia previous to Europeans’ rediscovery of the Australians. The results, though so far partial, are presented in a book on Australian rock art, a study in conceptual anthropology (Arte rupestre dell’Australia,uno studio di antropologia concettuale, Atelier, 2019, 234 pp.) (available in an Italian edition).

 

Other research in conceptual anthropology, on the rock art of Valcamonica in the Italian Alps, has collected data and studies of half a century of research to reach a decoding of images representing 10,000 years of events. Each rock engraving has behind it a motivation, and therefore also different depths of reading, from the physical definition of the image to its meaning in the mind of the maker, to the motivation for depicting it, to what it tells us about the society that produced it.

 

 For ten millennia the Camunni peoples recorded their history through rock art: what did they intend to communicate? And what is the history of the ages that they are conveying to us? A purpose of the new trend of research in conceptual anthropology is to transform the archeological findings into historical documents, to reconstruct the history of what until now had been prehistory. Valcamonica offers Europe the history of its formative ages through the conceptual decoding of rock art. Europe is rediscovering 10,000 years of its own history. The results are presented in the book The Rock Art of Valcamonica (Atelier, 2015).

 

Similar studies are being carried out on the prehistoric art of Tanzania, Azerbaijan, and other corners of the world. Each one of these research projects adds new chapters to local history. Together they are not only contributing to a new kind of world history, they are also building up a new vision of conceptual tendencies and evolutions and an understanding of human intellectual and spiritual behavioral trends.

 

Another research with a similar vision concerns the decoding of western European Paleolithic art, which had been brought back to light and described for over a century. The methods of conceptual anthropology permitted the deciphering and reading of what had been considered mute beauties. This research led to results of exceptional significance, by decoding certain paintings and engravings that contain messages in a pictographic writing system being used 30,000 years before the invention of the alphabet. During 100 years of research, many scholars imagined their contents, but no one went beyond hypothesis. Now these same works of visual art are decrypted historical documents. They reveal trading systems of exchange not only of edible products, but also of women. Other documents report on travels and migrations, and even personal records that include sexual relations. In addition to the disruptive information of these innovations, they open up new chapters of history, ages before what had been considered the beginning of history and writing. They bring new light on ages in which the possibility of obtaining historical documents had been a utopia. The decoding of these documents brings back the origin of writing to millennia earlier than previously thought. New chapters are being added to the history of mankind. The first results were published in the book Decoding Prehistoric Art and the Origins of Writing (Atelier, 2015). The revolutionary results of this and other studies are producing debates and this is one of the positive results of research. Some traditionally minded researchers find it difficult to accepted these innovative results at first sight, but the debate is awakening academia and new methods and new concepts are being diffused.

 

The resulting publications clarify the discovery of new aspects of human conceptual evolution and human mental processes. Already, in the first nine years of its engagement, conceptual anthropology concretely presents its tangible results and contributes far-reaching innovations.

 

 

AND THEN?

 

The fathers of humanistic studies explored the world and studied the world. In recent years the tendency in the disciplines of anthropology and archeology has been to concentrate on local studies, issues of the society and land of the researcher. Chinese scholars specialize in Chinese questions, Europeans in European questions and Africans in African questions. Again, conceptual anthropology sails against the wind, developing research into general problems and patterns, enquiring into human conceptual nature at large and into a deeper understanding of human patterns, habits, and conceptual adventures. Even specific topics of research tend to explore the behavioral universal trends of man, a species of the family of primates. Man is provoking the major concern and curiosity of men. New chapters of world history and new analytical historical concepts are emerging.

 

Ever since the first human migrations out of the African nest, two million years ago, human beings have been busy discovering the world, meeting other people and asking the same questions: who are they, who are we, who am I? Conceptual anthropology is continuing this eternal research. Is this discipline a new acquisition of the human sciences or is it a two-million-year-old concern of the human mind?

 

E.A.

 

*:A revised and updated version of a text appeared in EXPRESSION 29, 2020

 

 

 


Write a comment

Comments: 0