Clearly, individual consciousness plays a major role in the understanding and expression of culture; and cultural change over time needs to be seen at least in part as linked to changes in individual and group consciousness. As noted in the Introduction, it is certainly not right to think that the consciousness of an individual, as we experience it in the 21st century, is to be taken as a fixed aspect of human individuals throughout time, or even through recorded history. There is much argument about when consciousness originated, and why, but not much dispute that it has enlarged enormously over the last few thousand years. Even more surely, self-consciousness can be taken to be a relatively recent addition to the equipment of the human psyche.
Emile Durkheim 2 describes the individual consciousness as being the receptacle of content held in the 'collective consciousness', meaning somehow the cultural burden of society. However, it needs to be said that Durkheim, as would be expected for the period at which he was writing, does not distinguish clearly between the conscious and and the unconscious as these terms are now understood. The very word 'unconscious' does not occur in Durkheim's book (first published in 1893) until page 150, where 'instinctive' would do almost as well. It wasn't until Freud (after 1900) that humans began to be conscious of their unconscious in the modern sense of the term! 'Psychic' might be a possible replacement for 'conscious' in Durkheim's writing.
Durkheim's statement about culture is therefore not that useful in discussing consciousness in the modern sense as distinct from the overall cognitive apparatus (see Kuper 3, for instance ). However, many other writers are in agreement with Durkheim both that the individual takes her moral content from the collective, and that the individual psyche plays an increasingly prominent role in society.
Steven Mithen 4 quotes Nicholas Humphrey in asserting that the biological function of consciousness was to allow one individual to predict the behaviour of another. He seems to accept that human consciousness broadened over time as the modern mind was created. Thus, for Mithen, chimpanzees have consciousness, but only in respect of social interaction, while modern human consciousness covers a much broader array of mental activities.
Whether or not consciousness evolved partly in order to allow the participation of human individuals in the culture of the groups in which they lived, it is a fact that culture can hardly exist without a mechanism to generate adherence to common norms of behaviour, and that this requires individuals to be aware of their behaviour in relation to that of others. The cultures that developed prior to the emergence of the nation state, or more generally, prior to the development of a hierarchical model of society (say, prior to 10,000 years ago), were heavily skewed towards the realities of life in a kin-group, and/or the hunter-gatherer group.
Such cultures certainly included rules for inter-personal behaviour, observance of myth-based social practices, language, the use of music, dance and painting for mythic or plainly social purposes, the organization of trade, and most importantly the maintenance of kin-group bonds through marriage and other relationship types. However, in the absence of any permanent means of recording information, or of permanent, specialized institutions, culture remained limited to what could be passed on by individual tuition, and was surely far more dependent on basic, unvarying human nature than on separately developed norms.
Anthropologists and ethnologists stress the cultural commonality of the primitive tribes they have studied, although the detailed expression of cultural traits varies widely. Language is the most obvious example of this, but other central planks of early group-based cultures include dispute resolution (the delivery of justice, to use a fancier term), trading practices, and myth-based behavioural codes. The commonality of these features of human society, which were largely preserved in the societal and cultural forms which developed during the earlier stages of recorded history, indeed right up to mediaeval times, was to be blown apart by the development of the nation state.
2 Durkheim, E (1984) The Division of Labour In Society, tr W D Halls, Simon & Schuster, New York (originally published in French in 1893)
3 Kuper, A (1996) Anthropology and Anthopologists; The Modern British School, (3rd edition; first published 1973) Allen Lane The Penguin Press, London
4 Mithen, Stephen (1996) The Prehistory of the Mind, Thames & Hudson, London