Stephen J. Shennan
Learning is a concept with which everyone is familiar. A standard psychological definition describes it as referring to “relatively permanent but modifiable changes in an individual that can be detected in its behaviour and that are caused by specific experiences” (Russon 1997:176). In contrast to what is often the case, the technical definition corresponds quite closely to the everyday idea. For example, we readily recognize that not every sensory stimulus from the outside world produces an effect that could be described as learning; much is more or less immediately forgotten.
Within an evolutionary context, learning may be seen as a form of adaptation which enables individuals to respond flexibly and appropriately to the contingencies they encounter; it is a form of phenotypic modification characteristic of most animals. Within archaeology learning has received very little explicit attention until recently, even though assumptions about the subject have been implicit in most theoretical positions within the discipline, right from its very beginning. The culture-historical archaeologists who first attempted to create a space-time framework for their subject by identifying and describing cultural traditions and their distribution in time and space took learning largely for granted. They assumed that cultural traditions were passed on by learning from the older generation and it was this that provided the basis for regarding cultures as representing peoples. Interestingly, some authors at the time drew an analogy between the passing on of culture through the generations in this way and the passing on of genes in biological reproduction (Lyman et al. 1997).
The New Archaeology of the 1960s explicitly rejected the relevance of