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Māori Orality and Extended Cognition: A cognitive approach to memory and oral tradition in the Pacific

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posted on 2021-11-15, 01:26 authored by Murphy, David James

Though philosophers have long held that interpretive anthropology and the cognitive science of religion (CSR) are opposed, this thesis offers an extended empirical assessment of the issues surrounding the implications of utilizing ethnographic material within a cognitive study of religious transmission. Using case studies from the Pacific, I consider a core question arising in both interpretative and cognitive disciplines, namely: how have oral cultures been able to preserve and transmit bodies of sacred knowledge cross-generationally without any external administrative tools (i.e. text)? First, I focus on the historical and ethnographic details of traditional Māori orality. I look at how orally transmitted knowledge was managed through the external cognitive resources associated with religious ritual. Here I find evidence within Pacific oral traditions that the problem of managing knowledge was overcome through tools and strategies that augmented memory and oral skill. I give special attention to the traditional Māori structuring of learning environments. Next I consider how macro-spatial tools – such as landmarks, and place names – helped support working memory and information management, and show that orientations to landscape are vital to ensuring collective memory. This thesis also demonstrates how culturally learned tools and strategies support the stability of religious cultural transmission. The use of external cognitive resources implies the complexity of managing and organizing sacred knowledge. Put simply, focusing on the historical accounts from the Pacific reveals a rich suite of culturally evolved tools and strategies for the transmission of religious knowledge. I show that tools such as ritual, myth, mnemonic techniques, and artifacts enable and stabilise such transmission. I hold, that such cultural environments constitute cognitive tools that are meaningfully described as cultural cognitive systems. Thus, combining descriptive accounts with the theoretical orientations of the cognitive sciences motivates what I call a ‘cognitive ecological’ model of mind. I argue that the cognitive ecological model is important because it orients researchers to the role that culturally evolved tools play in: (1) dramatically extending the human brain’s power to reckon with its surroundings and: (2) coordinating such knowledge across social groups and over time. The cognitive ecological model of mind I propose in this study is important for three reasons: First, it challenges the received view within the CSR – what I call the ‘Standard Internal Model’ (SiM) – which holds that the transmission of religious representations carries low cognitive demands (i.e. it is cognitively optimal). In contrast to SiM, the Pacific materials discussed here suggest that the oral transmission of sacred knowledge is cognitively demanding, culturally costly, and locally contingent. Second, my thesis demonstrates that historical and ethnographic evidence contains information that is vital for progress in the CSR since qualitative resources document how niche specific cultural practices often facilitate the acquisition and coordination of the complex knowledge resources over time. The ethnographic data supports the local optimality contention. Third, my thesis reveals that formulating tractable models for cultural transmission within the CSR is benefitted by an interdisciplinary approach. Such a prospect, I urge, is vital for intellectual progress between the humanities and the CSR. As such, and contrary to received opinion, my thesis shows how the CSR and the cultural anthropology of religion share a common intellectual fate.


Copyright Date


Date of Award



Te Herenga Waka—Victoria University of Wellington

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Author Retains Copyright

Degree Discipline

Religious Studies

Degree Grantor

Te Herenga Waka—Victoria University of Wellington

Degree Level


Degree Name

Doctor of Philosophy

ANZSRC Type Of Activity code

970122 Expanding Knowledge in Philosophy and Religious Studies

Victoria University of Wellington Item Type

Awarded Doctoral Thesis



Victoria University of Wellington School

School of Art History, Classics and Religious Studies


Bulbulia, Joseph; Radich, Michael