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Demography and Cultural Evolution: How Adaptive Cultural Processes Can Produce Maladaptive Losses—The Tasmanian Case

Published online by Cambridge University Press:  20 January 2017

Joseph Henrich
Emory University, Department of Anthropology, Geosciences Building, Atlanta, GA 30322-1720 (
E-mail address:


A combination of archeological and ethnohistorical evidence indicates that, over an approximately 8,000-year period, from the beginning of the Holocene until European explorers began arriving in the eighteenth century, the societies of Tasmania lost a series of valuable skills and technologies. These likely included bone tools, cold-weather clothing, hafted tools, nets, fishing spears, barbed spears, spear-throwers, and boomerangs. To address this puzzle, and the more general question of how human cognition and social interaction can generate both adaptive cultural evolution and maladaptive losses of culturally acquired skills, this paper constructs a formal model of cultural evolution rooted in the cognitive details of human social learning and inference. The analytical results specify the conditions for differing rates of adaptive cultural evolution, and reveal regimes that will produce maladaptive losses of particular kinds of skills and related technologies. More specifically, the results suggest that the relatively sudden reduction in the effective population size (the size of the interacting pool of social learners) that occurred with the rising ocean levels at the end of the last glacial epoch, which cut Tasmania off from the rest of Australia for the ensuing ten millennia, could have initiated a cultural evolutionary process that (1) kept stable or even improved relatively simple technological skills, and (2) produced an increasing deterioration of more complex skills leading to the complete disappearance of some technologies and practices. This pattern is consistent with the empirical record in Tasmania. Beyond this case, I speculate on the applicability of the model to understanding the variability in rates of adaptive cultural evolution.



La evidencia arqueológica y etnohistórica indica que, a lo largo de aproximadamente 8,000 años, desde el principio del Holoceno hasta la llegada de exploradores europeos en el sigh XVIII, las sociedades de Tasmania perdieron gran parte de su cultura tecnológica. Las herramientas que desaparecieron probablemente incluyen el hueso, ropa resistente al frío, los instrumentos enmangados, arpones, lanzas de púas, los lanza-lanzadores y los bumerangs. ¿Cómo es posible que se perdiera todo esto? Para resolver este misterio, y también esclarecer deforma más general cómo el conocimiento humano y la interacción social pueden generar adaptaciones y también la pérdida de las mismas, e inclusive malas adaptaciones, en este artículo se construye un modelo formal de la evolución cultural que se basa en detalles cognoscitivos del aprendizaje y la inferencia humanos en el ámbito social. Los resultados analíticos especifican los regímenes de condiciones bajo los cuales la evolución cultural genera adaptaciones, y también los regímenes contrastantes bajo los cuales seproducen pérdidas que representan malas adaptaciones tanto de habilidades como de las tecnologías vinculadas con ellas. Más específicamente, los resultados sugieren que la reducción relativamente repentina en el tamaño eficaz de la población (el tamaño del grupo de aprendices sociales), es la causa más importante de estas pérdidas culturales. El motor ecológico de esta reducción fue el alza del nivel del mar en la época final de la glaciación pasada, que tuvo como efecto separar a Tasmania del resto de Australia durante los últimos diez milenios. La consecuencia fue un deterioro de las habilidades más complejas con las cuales contaba esta población. El expediente empiríco de la arqueología en Tasmania confirma este patrón. Más allá de este caso particular, se presentan especulaciones acerca de la aplicabilidad de este modelo para entender la variabilidad en los índices de la evolución cultural adaptativa en el marco tecnológico.

Copyright © The Society for American Archaeology 2004

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