Population size fails to explain evolution of complex culture

April 5, 2016, Eindhoven University of Technology
Population size fails to explain evolution of complex culture
The Venus from Hohle Fels, a mammoth ivory, Aurignacian, aged about 35-40000 years. Widely regarded as the oldest undisputed example of human figurative prehistoric art yet discovered and therefore of human behavioural modernity. Credit: Wikimedia Commons / Thilo Parg

There is a growing consensus among archaeologists and anthropologists that the size of a population determines its ability to develop as well as to maintain complex culture. This view is however severely compromised by a paper published this week in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences (PNAS) by a research team including technology philosopher Krist Vaesen of the Eindhoven University of Technology.

Archeologists observe a fairly sudden appearance of behavioural modernity, such as complex technologies, abstract and realistic art and , some 40,000 years ago, in the Later Stone Age. For decades archeologists and antropologists are looking for an explanation for these and other 'cultural revolutions', and in this way finding the origin of human culture. Since ten years or so the predominant theory says the driving factor would be growing .

Severely compromised

The logic seems inescapable indeed. The bigger the , the higher the probability it contains an Einstein. Hence, bigger populations are more likely to develop complex culture. But this consensus view is however severely compromised by a paper published this week in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences (PNAS) by a research team including technology philosopher Krist Vaesen from Eindhoven University of Technology (working in the Philosopy & Ethics group of the faculty Industrial Engineering and Innovation Sciences), along with archeologists from Simon Fraser University, La Trobe University and Leiden University. They refute this demography hypothesis with a growing body of ethnographic evidence.

Critical flaws

The authors reveal critical flaws both in the theoretical models and the empirical evidence behind such demographic interpretations of cultural innovation. The models support a relationship between population size and cultural complexity only for a restricted set of extremely implausible conditions. A critical analysis of the available archaeological evidence suggests that there are simply no data to infer that behavioural modernity emerged in a period of population growth or that the size of a population directly influences the rate of innovation in a society's technological repertoire.

Back to the drawing board

Hence, archaeologists may need to go back to the drawing board. the idea behind the demography hypothesis is attractive in its simplicity. But complex questions by definition demand complex answers. For the evolution of complex culture, no satisfying answer is available yet. The question of the emergence of complex culture remains as elusive as ever.

Explore further: More connectivity does not always lead to more complex technology

More information: Population size does not explain past changes in cultural complexity, PNAS, www.pnas.org/cgi/doi/10.1073/pnas.1520288113

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Steve 200mph Cruiz
2.7 / 5 (3) Apr 05, 2016
Art is the essence of cool.
There wasn't any point to the best stone hide scraper in the greater county area, maybe in your tribe, but no one outside would be impressed, they were functionally all similar

Technology simply had to advance to the point that there was actually a real benefit to society by having dedicated craftsmen. It's an exponential thing.
4.5 / 5 (2) Apr 05, 2016
Cultural elements will have appeared from the beginning of the H.Sapiens lineage if not before but these can only be sustained if their is a sufficiently diverse and complex culture already in existence, something that requires a quorum of minds to sustain it.

A Newton or Einstein would not have had a significant impact in our hunter gatherer past and may not have had any impact even as recently as 1,000 years ago or less because the linguistic and conceptual tools for explaining their thinking and the academy needed to sustain it were not present.

Thus the population is needed to sustain and retain cultural contribution sufficiently for a more complex and intricate culture to evolve.

Specialisation, the other essential component, can only be sustained in larger populations. Each individual in a Hunter-gatherer society tends to each have the knowledge and ability of almost the whole tribe.
2.3 / 5 (3) Apr 09, 2016
The paper is handwaving how to make and test models. A trash paper.

I wonder how it got through peer review?
1 / 5 (1) Apr 10, 2016
A more interesting question is: where there this grossly obese females 40K years ago? If so, maybe a shamanessess? This would mean the ability of survive being supported by a group. Therefore: 1. Culture, 2. Specialization, 3. Having the craftsmen make figurines in her unusual and revered likeness. Now, it doesnt take an Einstein to carve a figurine. Go to any village on Papua, or any primitive society, and you will see. It takes a couple of generations of trial and error, but again, a shaman culture would give a basis for this to happen.

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