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Humans started "cumulative culture" around 600,000 years ago

Cumulative culture is a fundamental aspect of human evolution, a story of continuous cultural and technological advancements passed down through countless generations.

This accumulation of knowledge has set humans apart from other primates, enabling us to adapt to a wide range of environments.

But when did our ancestors start to build on each other’s knowledge, creating what we now call cumulative culture?

Understanding cumulative culture

Cumulative culture refers to the way humans build upon the knowledge and innovations of previous generations. This unique aspect of human societies allows us to continuously improve tools, technologies, and ideas over time.

Unlike animals, which may learn behaviors through imitation, humans enhance and refine these behaviors, creating more complex solutions to problems.

This process has enabled humans to adapt to a wide variety of environments and challenges, from creating sophisticated tools to developing advanced social systems.

For example, the development of agriculture allowed early humans to settle in one place, leading to the growth of communities and civilizations.

Over generations, these societies developed new farming techniques, tools, and social structures, continuously improving their way of life.

Similarly, advancements in medicine, transportation, and communication have all resulted from cumulative culture, where each generation builds on the discoveries and innovations of the past. This ongoing process is fundamental to human progress and development.

Beginning of the culture

Pinpointing the exact time when this phenomenon began during hominin evolution has been challenging. A recent study by researchers from Arizona State University sheds light on this pivotal development.

According to study co-authors Charles Perreault and Jonathan Paige, humans began to rapidly accumulate technological knowledge through social learning around 600,000 years ago.

Cumulative culture and human adaptability

“Our species, Homo sapiens, has been successful at adapting to ecological conditions – from tropical forests to arctic tundra – that require different kinds of problems to be solved,” explained Perreault.

“Cumulative culture is key because it allows human populations to build on and recombine the solutions of prior generations and to develop new complex solutions to problems very quickly.”

“The result is, our cultures, from technological problems and solutions to how we organize our institutions, are too complex for individuals to invent on their own.”

Origins of cumulative culture

To trace the origins of cumulative culture, Paige and Perreault analyzed the complexity of stone tool manufacturing techniques over the past 3.3 million years.

They used nonhuman primate technologies and experimental flintknapping by inexperienced humans as baselines for comparison.

The researchers found that between 3.3 and 1.8 million years ago, stone tool manufacturing sequences were relatively simple, involving 1 to 6 procedural units (PUs).

From 1.8 million to 600,000 years ago, the complexity increased slightly to 4 to 7 PUs. However, after 600,000 years ago, there was a rapid increase in complexity, with sequences involving 5 to 18 PUs.

“By 600,000 years ago or so, hominin populations started relying on unusually complex technologies, and we only see rapid increases in complexity after that time as well,” said Paige. “Both of those findings match what we expect to see among hominins who rely on cumulative culture.”

Role of tool-assisted foraging

Tool-assisted foraging likely played a crucial role in the early evolution of cumulative culture.

Early hominins, between 3.4 and 2 million years ago, used tools for tasks like accessing meat and marrow, which may have driven changes in brain size, lifespan, and biology, setting the stage for cumulative culture.

While other forms of social learning may have influenced tool-making, rapid increases in technological complexity are evident only from the Middle Pleistocene onward.

Evidence from the Middle Pleistocene

The Middle Pleistocene epoch, around 600,000 years ago, shows consistent evidence of advanced technologies, such as controlled use of fire, hearths, and domestic spaces. These innovations likely played essential roles in the development of cumulative culture.

Additionally, wooden structures constructed with hafted tools – stone blades affixed to wooden or bone handles – also emerged during this period.

Emergence of cumulative culture

This research suggests that cumulative culture began near the start of the Middle Pleistocene, possibly before the divergence of Neanderthals and modern humans.

By understanding the origins of cumulative culture, we gain insight into the unique evolutionary path that has enabled humans to thrive across diverse environments and challenges.

Through continued research, we can further unravel the complexities of human evolution and the cultural developments that have shaped our history.

The study is published in the journal Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences.


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