Researchers have examined the visual response of 113 individuals when observing prehistoric ceramics belonging to different styles and societies. The ceramics analysed cover 4,000 years (from 4,000 B.C. to the change of era) of Galician prehistory (north-west Iberia), and are representative of ceramic styles including bell-beaker pottery, found throughout Europe. The results indicate that the visual behaviour follows the same evolutionary trends as those that drive the evolution of the complex societies that built these archaeological materialities.

"We hypothesised that culture and social life influence cognition in a highly stereotyped fashion. Eye movements are the most objective proof of a parallel evolution between the cognitive process, material development and changes in social complexity," explains CSIC researcher Felipe Criado-Boado, from the Institute of Heritage Sciences, in Santiago de Compostela. This study is part of the field of neuroarchaeology, a new scientific field that combines neuroscience with human palaeontology, archaeology, and other social and human sciences.

"The visual prominence of each ceramic style produces a distinct visual response. Prehistoric ceramics comprise an important part of the material world that surrounded the individuals of that time. This is why an analysis of this kind is not only feasible, but also provides very significant results," adds Criado-Boado.


The results of this research indicate that the human visual system actively internalises the object it observes, which would demonstrate that there is a perceptual engagement between the observers and the material structures in their environment.

Main ceramics analyzed in the experiments and heatmap of the visual fixations in each one of them
Main ceramics analyzed in the experiments and heatmap of the visual fixations in each one of them © CSIC - Main ceramics analyzed in the experiments and heatmap of the visual fixations in each one of them. The images are organized, from left to right, in chronological order from oldest to most recent. Following time, the fixations direction changes from horizontal to vertical. 

Coevolution of visual behaviour, the material world and social complexity, depicted by the eye-tracking of archaeological objects in humans

Felipe Criado-Boado, Diego Alonso-Pablos, Manuel J. Blanco, Yolanda Porto, Anxo Rodríguez-Paz, Elena Cabrejas, Elena del Barrio-Álvarez & Luis M. Martínez

Scientific Reports volume 9, Article number: 3985 (2019),  DOI: 10.1038/s41598-019-39661-w

Abstract: We live in a cluttered visual world that is overflowing with information, the continuous processing of which would be a truly daunting task. Nevertheless, our brains have evolved to select which part of a visual scene is to be prioritized and analysed in detail, and which parts can be discarded or analysed at a later stage. This selection is in part determined by the visual stimuli themselves, and is known as “selective attention”, which, in turn, determines how we explore and interact with our environment, including the distinct human artefacts produced in different socio-cultural contexts. Here we hypothesize that visual responses and material objects should therefore co-evolve to reflect changes in social complexity and culture throughout history. Using eye-tracking, we analysed the eye scan paths in response to prehistoric pottery ranging from the Neolithic through to the Iron Age (ca 6000–2000 BP), finding that each ceramic style caused a particular pattern of visual exploration. Horizontal movements become dominant in earlier periods, while vertical movements are more frequent in later periods that were marked by greater social complexity.