Wednesday 25 May 2016

Many voices and perspectives, all the way down

Some thoughts on how to start taking ‘culture’ seriously in human evolution

Martin Porr

In recent years, the origin of modern humans has been increasingly framed in terms of the origins of the uniquely human cognitive capacity for symbolic behaviour. This behaviour is seen as the basis for the creation of cultural meanings that are shared and negotiated through a range of verbal and non-verbal forms of communication. This forms the foundation for the incredible variability and flexibility of modern human cultural practices and artefacts in a wide sense of the term. Some of the most significant questions in archaeology are related to these issues. What are the mechanisms that influence these cultural forms? How do they originate? Why do some persist and some disappear?

Archaeologists working on Palawan Island, Philippines. Image: Martin Porr

The most widely accepted framework to address these questions has been behavioural ecology or evolutionary ecology (or variants of these) (e.g. Nettle, Gibson, Lawson, & Sear, 2013; Shennan, 2008). Within this framework, explanations are regarded as successful if they demonstrate correlations between practices or artefacts and environmental conditions, which points to a more efficient use of resources. Change over time is seen as the result of successful adaptive processes in which individual organisms compete against each other for access to different kinds of resources. This understanding is guided by a range of principles, such as utilitarianism, individualism, and materialism. It is assumed that individual actors will always try to achieve the best possible outcome in terms of material gains and energetic cost-benefit relationships.

Clearly, this framework constructs a very particular understanding of human culture in relation to nature or the natural environment. Culture is ultimately understood as the product of rational choices of individuals to maximise cost-benefit relationships. It is ultimately understood as a collection of adaptive devices to enhance behavioural efficiency. In this sense, culture is seen as a reflection of the material properties of nature. The flexibility of cultural forms that was emphasised above is consequently only a false flexibility because it always depends on those fundamental assumptions of the behavioural ecological framework that were outlined above.

For example, in the context of the vexed issue of the origins of so-called modern human behaviour, John Shea (2011b) published a paper in Current Anthropology in which he argued that the concept of behavioural modernity should be replaced by that of ‘behavioural variability’. Shea argued that this behavioural variability is best approached and understood through the application of behavioural ecological methods and analyses “to seek the cost-benefit structure of the incentives underlying particular behaviours.” This suggested theoretical revision is therefore hardly a revision at all. The theoretical straightjacket that is seemingly discarded is only replaced by a different one. Culture is still explained as reflecting the material necessities of nature and a fixed and allegedly universal set of assumptions. ‘Culture’ is therefore not given independent causal significance. (In the interest of being open, I should note that this critique probably isn’t ‘news’ to the author since I published a response along these lines when it first came out [Porr 2011] and to which Shea [2011a] in turn responded to [more on this in Porr 2014].)

In the light of this example, I find it is quite interesting that last week a team of archaeologists from the University of Tübingen (ROCEEH project) published a paper, which also argues for an ‘increase in behavioural flexibility’ in the context of modern human origins (Kandel et al., 2016). The implications of their findings might indeed point towards a significant shift in the way we look at humanity’s deep past with important implications for our understanding of the variability of past and present human behaviour. The authors examined contexts from the Southern African Middle Stone Age (MSA), which are roughly dated between 190,000 to 30,000 years ago. This temporal context is significant because according to most researchers today it was during this time in Southern Africa that the characteristics of modern human behaviour evolved.

Here, I will not attempt to discuss the whole analysis and the results presented in this paper. Rather, I want to concentrate on some key results that stood out to me. The authors conducted a comparative analysis of a range of sites from the chronological contexts mentioned above and concentrated on assessing cultural complexity. They also related their findings to a sophisticated analysis of the respective environmental conditions through time. The authors summarise their findings in the following way:

“The geographical analyses show only minor differences in landscape selection for localities among the four analytical classes, while the ecological analyses indicate no dramatic shifts in habitat preference overall. These factors suggest that MSA people were not specific in their habitat choice, and that cultural adaptation functions independent of environmental change. Since climate is not the driving force, we propose that cultural performance steers the expansions and contractions of populations. While the range of cultural capacities gradually increases over time, the process is discontinuous; as fashions come and go, innovations are not necessarily maintained. These data suggest that flexibility in behavior represents the single most successful adaptation of MSA people” (Kandel et al., 2016, p. 659).

Because they failed to establish correlations between environmental conditions and cultural practices, the authors concluded that ‘cultural adaptation functions independently of environmental change’ and that ‘cultural performance steers the expansions and contractions of populations’. This is a curious set of conclusions because it seemingly contradicts the most basic assumptions about the supposed causalities of human evolution that I outlined above.

In this respect, this study reminded me of another from a different context that was published last year (Mathew & Perrault, 2015). Sarah Mathew and Charles Perrault wanted to explain the behavioural variability that was recorded in 172 Native North American societies at the time of European contact. They, therefore, looked at the relative contribution of environmental factors and cultural history for each of these societies over time. They found that the effect of cultural history was typically larger than that of the environment and that behaviours could persist over millennia despite changing environmental conditions. Consequently, they concluded that human behaviour, in their data set, is not predominantly determined by non-cultural, adaptive and individual processes and strategies. Rather, they argued that “the main mode of human adaptation is social learning mechanisms that operate over multiple generations” (Mathew & Perrault, 2015, p. 1).

There appear to be some important differences in the conclusions of these two studies. The Tübingen study suggests that cultural traditions do not have a great stability and that they can change rapidly over time even without environmental influences. They even use the term ‘fashions’ to stress the ephemeral nature of these traditions. Cultural innovations are also not necessarily maintained. In contrast, the study by Mathew and Perrault emphasises the persistence of cultural traditions despite changing environmental conditions. I do not want to discuss these differences in greater detail – I would think that they are probably easily explained by the vastly different temporal scales that are included in these two studies – rather I want to highlight something that unites both studies.

I believe that these two studies are very significant in that they question the dominant explanatory framework that views culture and cultural practices primarily as adaptations to the natural environment. We cannot use these explanations as our main frame of reference in the recent past nor in the deep past. It is independent cultural variability all the way down. Of course, these insights would not be at all unusual in social anthropology, sociology, in the wider field of the social sciences or within the humanities (Ingold, 2007). In the study of the deep human past, however, such a reorientation would have dramatic consequences because virtually the whole field operates within this paradigm and research projects and strategies are overwhelmingly set up to detect correlations between cultural practices and environmental conditions to make a case for adaptive processes. If this paradigm is challenged, then there appears to be no alternative.

What I draw from these two studies is a call for a new engagement with the characteristics of ‘culture’, how it relates to human cognition and how it relates to the natural environment. If we cannot refer back to rationality, efficiency and adaptive mechanisms, what are the processes that cause cultural traditions and practices to emerge, persist and disappear? What does it actually mean to suggest that “the main mode of human adaptation is social learning mechanisms”? Does this imply that culture effectively adapts to itself? These are significant and important questions. Mostly because they free our vision of the deep human past from the tyranny of mono-causal explanatory schemes that allow only one frame of reference.

The project of decolonisation in archaeology should also be about integrating voices and perspectives beyond the Euro-Western academy and Euro-Western rationality (Rizvi, 2015). It is about taking cultural variability serious. It argues against universal explanations and the imposition of totalising schemes. The authors of the studies that I have profiled here might not agree with this conclusion but, in my view, they demonstrate that no amount of cost-benefit rationalising can silence those many voices and perspectives that have been there from the very beginning.

Ingold, T. (2007). The trouble with 'evolutionary biology'. Anthropology Today, 23(2), 13-17.
Kandel, A. W., Bolus, M., Bretzke, K., Bruch, A. A., Haidle, M. N., Hertler, C., & Märker, M. (2016). Increasing Behavioral Flexibility? An Integrative Macro-Scale Approach to Understanding the Middle Stone Age of Southern Africa. Journal of Archaeological Method and Theory, 23, 623-668.
Mathew, S., & Perrault, C. (2015). Behavioural variation in 172 small-scale societies indicates that social learning is the main mode of human adaptation. Proceedings of the Royal Society B, 282, 1-7.
Nettle, D., Gibson, M. A., Lawson, D. W., & Sear, R. (2013). Human behavioural ecology: Current research and future prospects. Behavioral Ecology, 24(5), 1031-1040.
Porr, M. (2014). Essential questions: 'Modern humans' and the capacity for modernity. In R. Dennell & M. Porr (Eds.), Southern Asia, Australia and the Search for Human Origins (pp. 257-264). Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.
Shea, J. J. (2011a). Behavioral modernity - Not again. A reply to Porr. Current Anthropology, 52(4), 583-584.
Shea, J. J. (2011b). Homo sapiens Is as Homo sapiens was. Current Anthropology, 52(1), 1-35.
Shennan, S. J. (2008). Evolution in archaeology. Annual Review of Anthropology, 37, 75-91.


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