Introduction and Overview: Evolutionary Ecology and Archaeology

  • Donald O. Henry
Part of the Interdisciplinary Contributions to Archaeology book series (IDCA)


The population geneticist and evolutionist, Theodosius Dobzhanksky (1972:422), observed that “culture is the most potent method of adaptation that has emerged in the evolutionary history of the living world.” His remark finds dramatic support in the archaeological record as shown by the progressively accelerating tempo of cultural evolution over the last 4 million years accompanied by the expansion of hominids throughout all of the earth’s diverse environments. The fundamental characteristic distinguishing the cultural method of adaptation from the biologic one is that it is behaviorally based and thus inorganic. Learned, patterned behaviors and their material consequences as opposed to physical changes have come to be depended upon by hominids for their survival. Unlike biologic adaptation, behavioral responses to external environmental forces can be acquired, transmitted, and modified within the lifetimes of individuals. This Lamarckian aspect of cultural adaptation provides its greatest advantage over biologic responses to the environment. When compared to the genetic recombinations and generational successions necessary to induce widespread organic changes within populations, the adoption and transmission of behavioral changes are extraordinarily rapid. Rather than the genetic basis that grounds physical adaptation, behavioral adaptation relies upon social interaction. But like biologic evolution, cultural evolution would appear to entail more than the behavioral outcomes of natural selection alone (Kirch 1980:131; Clark 1991:436–437; Rosenberg 1994:3–4). Some human behaviors are perpetuated as a consequence of cultural inertia or tradition, Grant’s (1985:434) “cumulative cultural heritage,” and the “evolutionary potential” of culture described by Sahlins and Service (1960). Such behaviors experience evolutionary trajectories that are inexplicable with reference to their interaction with the environment alone.


Rift Valley Radiocarbon Date Archaeological Record Cultural Adaptation Drift Sand 
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Copyright information

© Springer Science+Business Media New York 1995

Authors and Affiliations

  • Donald O. Henry
    • 1
  1. 1.University of TulsaTulsaUSA

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