Skip to main content

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

  • Joseph Henrich (a1)

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.

Hide All
Allen, H. 1979 Left Out in the Cold: Why Tasmanians Stopped Eating Fish. The Artefact 4:110.
Alvard, M. 2003 The Adaptive Nature of Culture. Evolutionary Anthropology 12:136147.
Aunger, R. 2000 The Life History of Culture Learning in a Face-To-Face Society. Ethos 28(2): 138.
Bassett, E. 2004 Reconsidering Evidence of Tasmanian Fishing. In Worlds Apart, theme issue, edited by Whitehouse, N. J., Murphy, E. M., Plunkett, G., and McCormick, . Environmental Archaeology 9, in press.
Binford, L. 1983 In Pursuit of the Past: Decoding the Archaeological Record. Thames and Hudson, New York.
Bowdler, S. 1974 Pleistocene Data for Man in Tasmania. Nature 252:697698.
Bowdler, S. 1980 Fish and Culture: A Tasmanian Polemic. Mankind 12:334340.
Bowdler, S. 1982 Prehistoric Archaeology in Tasmania. In Advances in Word Archaeology, vol. 1, edited by Wendorf, F. and Close, A. E., pp. 149. Academic Press, New York.
Boyd, R., and Richerson, P. 1985 Culture and the Evolutionary Process. University of Chicago Press, Chicago.
Brooks, A., Helgren, D., Cramer, J. S., Franklin, A., Hornyak, W., Keating, J. M., Klein, R. G., Rink, W. J., Schwarcz, H., Smith, J. N. L., Stewart, K., Todd, N. E., Verniers, J., and Yellen, J. E. 1995 Dating and Context of Three Middle Stone Age Sites with Bone Points in the Upper Semliki Valley, Zaire. Science 268:548553.
Chen, K.-H., Cavailli-Sforza, L. L., and Feldman, M. W. 1982 A Study of Cultural Transmission in Taiwan, Human Ecology 10:365382.
Chibnik, M. 1981 The Evolution of Cultural Rules. Journal of Anthropological Research 37:256268.
Collett, D. 1994 Engendered Space and Aboriginal Settlement on the Coast of Tasmania: A Preliminary Model. In Archaeology of the North, edited by Sullivan, M., Brockwell, A. and Webb, A., pp. 341357. Northern Australian Research Unit, Darwin.
Colley, S., and Jones, R. 1988 Rocky Cape Revisited—New Light on Prehistoric Tasmanian Fishing. In The Walking Larder, edited by Clutton-Brock, J., pp. 336346. Allen and Unwin, London.
Diamond, J. 1977 Colonization Cycles in Man and Beast. World Archaeology 8:249261.
Diamond, J. 1978 The Tasmanians: The Longest Isolation, the Simplest Technology. Nature 273:185186.
Frank, S. A. 1998 Foundations of Social Evolution. Princeton University Press, Princeton.
Gott, B. 2002 Fire-Making in Tasmania: Absence of Evidence is Not Evidence. Current Anthropology 43:650655.
Harris, J. R. 1998 The Nurture Assumption: Why Children Turn Out the Way They Do. Touchstone, New York.
Henrich, J. 2001 Cultural Transmission and the Diffusion of Innovations: Adoption Dynamics Indicate that Biased Cultural Transmission is the Predominate Force in Behavioral Change and Much of Sociocultural Evolution. American Anthropologist 103:9921013.
Henrich, J. 2002 Decision-making, Cultural Transmission and Adaptation in Economic Anthropology. In Theory in Economic Anthropology, edited by Ensminger, J., pp. 251295, Row-man and Littlefield, Lanham, Maryland.
Henrich, J., Albers, W., Boyd, R., McCabe, K., Gigerenzer, G., Young, H. P., and Ockenfels, A. 2001 Is Culture Important in Bounded Rationality? In Bounded Rationality: The Adaptive Toolbox, edited by Gigerenzer, G. and Selten, R., pp. 343359. Massachusetts Institute of Technology Press, Cambridge.
Henrich, J., and Boyd, R. 1998 The Evolution of Conformist Transmission and the Emergence of Between-Group Differences. Evolution and Human Behavior 19:215242.
Henrich, J., and Boyd, R. 2002 On Modeling Cultural Evolution: Why Replicators Are Not Necessary for Cultural Evolution. Journal of Cognition and Culture 2:87112.
Henrich, J., and Gil-White, F. 2001 The Evolution of Prestige: Freely Conferred Deference as a Mechanism for Enhancing the Benefits of Cultural Transmission. Evolution and Human Behavior 22:165196.
Henrich, J., and McElreath, R. 2003 The Evolution of Cultural Evolution. Evolutionary-Anthropology 12:123135.
Hewlett, B. S., and Cavalli-Sforza, L. L. 1986 Cultural Transmission among Aka Pygmies. American Anthropologist 88:922934.
Holmberg, A. R. 1950 Nomads of the Long Bow. Smithsonian Institution Institute of Social Anthropology Publication No. 10. United States Government Printing Office, Washington D.C.
Horton, D. R. 1979 Tasmanian Adaptation. Mankind 12:2834.
Jones, R. 1974 Tasmanian Tribes. In Aboriginal Tribes of Australia, edited by Tindale, N. B., pp. 319354. University of California–Los Angeles Press, San Francisco.
Jones, R. 1976 Tasmania: Aquatic Machines and Off-Shore Islands. In Problems in Economic and Social Archaeology, edited by Sieveking, G., Longworth, I. H., and Wilson, K. E., pp. 235263. Duckworth, London.
Amsden, Diana 1977a Man as an Element of a Continental Fauna: The Case of the Sundering Of The Bassian Bridge. In Sunda and Sahul: Prehistoric Studies in Southeast Asia, Melansia and Australia, edited by Allen, J., Golson, J., and Jones, R., pp. 317386. Academic Press, London.
Amsden, Diana 1977b The Tasmanian Paradox. In Stone Tools As Cultural Markers: Change, Evolution and Complexity, edited by Wright, V. S., pp. 189204. Humanities Press, New Jersey.
Amsden, Diana 1977c Why Did the Tasmanians Stop Eating Fish? In Explorations in Ethno-Archaeology, edited by Gould, R., pp. 1147. University of New Mexico Press, Alberqueque, and School of American Research. Santa Fe.
Jones, R. 1990 From Kakadu to Kutikina: The Southern Continent at 18,000 Years Ago. In The Word at 18,000 B.P. Vol. 2, edited by Gamble, C. and Softer, O., pp. 264295. Unwin Hyman, London.
Jones, R. 1995 Tasmanian Archaeology: Establishing the Sequence. Annual Review of Anthropology 24:423446.
Lancy, D. F. 1996 Playing on Mother Ground: Cultural Routines for Children's Development. Guilford Press, London. Population Structure, Cultural Transmission and Frequency Seriation. Journal of Anthropological Archaeology 16:301333.
Lothrop, S. K. 1928 The Indians of Tierra del Fuego. Museum of the American Indian and Heye Foundation, New York. London.
urandos, H. 1997 Continent of Hunter-Gatherers. Cambridge University Press, Cambridge. M.A.
cGrew, W. C. 1987 Tools to Get Food: The Subsistants of Tasmanian Aborigines and Tanzanian Chimpanzees Compared. Journal of Anthropological Research 43:247258.
Neiman, F. D. 1995 Stylistic Variation in Evolutionary Perspective: Inferences from Decorative Diversity and Interassemblages Distance in Illinois Woodland Ceramic Assemblages. American Antiquity 60:736. Oh
magari, K., and Berkes, F. 1997 Transmission of Indigenous Knowledge and Bush Skills among Western James Bay Cree Women of Subarctic Canada. Human Ecology 25:197222.
Oswalt, W. H. 1973 Habitat and Technology: The Evolution of Hunting. Holt, Rhinehart and Winston, New York.
Oswalt, W. H. 1976 An Anthropological Analysis of Food-Getting Technology. John Wiley, New York.
Pardoe, C. 1991 Isolation and Evolution in Tasmania. Cultural Anthropology 32:121.
Parry, W. J. 1981 Fear of Fish and Forests: Food Taboos and Diet Optimization in Western Tasmania. Michigan Discussions in Anthropology 6(2):80101.
Plomin, R., Defries, J., and McLearn, G. E. 2000 Behavioral Genetics. W. H. Freeman, New York.
Plomley, N. J. B. 1966 Friendly Mission: The Tasmania Journals and Papers of George Augustus Robinson 1829-1834. Tasmanian Historical Research Association, Hobart, Australia.
Price, G. 1970 Selection and Covariance. Nature 227:520521.
Price, G. 1972 Extensions of Covariance Selection Mathematics. Annals of Human Genetics 35:485490.
Ranson, D., Allen, J., and Jones, R. 1983 Australia's Prehistory Uncovered. Australian Natural History 21:8287.
Rivers, W. H. R. 1926 Psychology and Ethnology. Kegan Paul, Trench, Trubner, London.
Rozin, P., Haidt, J., and McCauley, C. R. 2000 Disgust. In Handbook of Emotions, edited by Lewis, M. and Haviland-Jones, J. M., pp. 637653. 2nd ed. Guilford Press, New York.
Ryan, L. 1981 The Aboriginal Tasmanians. University of Queensland Press, London.
Schlag, K. H. 1998 Why Imitate, and If So, How? A Boundedly Rational Approach to Multi-Armed Bandits. Journal of Economic Theory 78:130156.
Shennan, S. 2001 Demography and Cultural Innovation: A Model and Its Implications for the Emergence of Modern Human Culture. Cambridge Archaeology Journal 11(1):516.
Shennan, S. 2003 Genes, Memes, and Human History: Darwinian Archaeology and Cultural Evolution. Thames and Hudson, London.
ennan, S. J., and Steele, J. 1999 Cultural Learning in Hominids: A Behavioural Ecological Approach. In Mammalian Social Learning: Comparative and Ecological Approach, edited by Box, H. O. and Gibson, K. R., pp. 367388. Cambridge University Press, Cambridge.
Sim, R. 1999 Why the Tasmanians Stopped Eating Fish: Evidence For Late Holocene Expansion in Resource Exploitation Strategies. In Australian Coastal Archaeology, edited by Hall, J. and McNiven, I., pp. 263269. The Australian National University, Canberra.
Skinner, H. D. 1923 The Morioris of the Chatham Islands. Memoirs of the Bernice P. Bishop Museum, Vol. 9, No. 1. Bernice P. Bishop Museum, Honolulu.
Sutton, D. G. 1980 A Culture History of the Chatham Islands. The Journal of the Polynesian Society 89(1):6794.
Thomas, N. 1981 Social Theory, Ecology and Epistemology: Theoretical Issues in Australian Prehistory. Mankind 13:165177.
van Schaik, C. R, Ancrenaz, M., Gwendolyn, B., Galdikas, B., Knott, C. D., Singeton, I., Suzuki, A., Utami, S. S., and Merrill, M. 2003 Orangutan Cultures and the Evolution of Material Culture. Science 299:102105.
Vanderwal, R. L. 1978 Adaptive Technology in Southwest Tasmania. Australia Archaeology 8:107127.
Walters, I. N. 1981 Why the Tasmanians Stopped Eating Fish. Artefact 6:7177.
Webb, C., and Allen, J. 1990 A Functional Analysis of Pleistocene Bone Tools from Two Sites in Southwest Tasmania. Archaeology of Oceania 25:7578. W
hite, J. R, and O’Connell, J. F. 1982 A Prehistory of Australia, New Guinea and Sahul. Academic Press, New York.
Yellen, J. E., Brooks, A. S., Cornelissen, E., Mehlman, M. J., and Stewart, K. 1995 A Middle Stone Age Worked Bone Industry from Katanda, Upper Semliki Valley, Zaire. Science 268:553556.
Recommend this journal

Email your librarian or administrator to recommend adding this journal to your organisation's collection.

American Antiquity
  • ISSN: 0002-7316
  • EISSN: 2325-5064
  • URL: /core/journals/american-antiquity
Please enter your name
Please enter a valid email address
Who would you like to send this to? *

Related content

Powered by UNSILO


Altmetric attention score

Full text views

Total number of HTML views: 0
Total number of PDF views: 0 *
Loading metrics...

Abstract views

Total abstract views: 0 *
Loading metrics...

* Views captured on Cambridge Core between <date>. This data will be updated every 24 hours.

Usage data cannot currently be displayed