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Concept: Civilization


Environmental problems have contributed to numerous collapses of civilizations in the past. Now, for the first time, a global collapse appears likely. Overpopulation, overconsumption by the rich and poor choices of technologies are major drivers; dramatic cultural change provides the main hope of averting calamity.

Concepts: Poverty, Culture, Peak oil, Society, Globalization, Civilization, Sociocultural evolution, John Zerzan


Tracing the evolution of human culture through time is arguably one of the most controversial and complex scholarly endeavors, and a broad evolutionary analysis of how symbolic, linguistic, and cultural capacities emerged and developed in our species is lacking. Here we present a model that, in broad terms, aims to explain the evolution and portray the expansion of human cultural capacities (the EECC model), that can be used as a point of departure for further multidisciplinary discussion and more detailed investigation. The EECC model is designed to be flexible, and can be refined to accommodate future archaeological, paleoanthropological, genetic or evolutionary psychology/behavioral analyses and discoveries. Our proposed concept of cultural behavior differentiates between empirically traceable behavioral performances and behavioral capacities that are theoretical constructs. Based largely on archaeological data (the ‘black box’ that most directly opens up hominin cultural evolution), and on the extension of observable problem-solution distances, we identify eight grades of cultural capacity. Each of these grades is considered within evolutionary-biological and historical-social trajectories. Importantly, the model does not imply an inevitable progression, but focuses on expansion of cultural capacities based on the integration of earlier achievements. We conclude that there is not a single cultural capacity or a single set of abilities that enabled human culture; rather, several grades of cultural capacity in animals and hominins expanded during our evolution to shape who we are today.

Concepts: Culture, Linguistics, Anthropology, Cultural anthropology, Human evolution, Civilization, Archaeology, Structuralism


How did human societies evolve from small groups, integrated by face-to-face cooperation, to huge anonymous societies of today, typically organized as states? Why is there so much variation in the ability of different human populations to construct viable states? Existing theories are usually formulated as verbal models and, as a result, do not yield sharply defined, quantitative predictions that could be unambiguously tested with data. Here we develop a cultural evolutionary model that predicts where and when the largest-scale complex societies arose in human history. The central premise of the model, which we test, is that costly institutions that enabled large human groups to function without splitting up evolved as a result of intense competition between societies-primarily warfare. Warfare intensity, in turn, depended on the spread of historically attested military technologies (e.g., chariots and cavalry) and on geographic factors (e.g., rugged landscape). The model was simulated within a realistic landscape of the Afroeurasian landmass and its predictions were tested against a large dataset documenting the spatiotemporal distribution of historical large-scale societies in Afroeurasia between 1,500 BCE and 1,500 CE. The model-predicted pattern of spread of large-scale societies was very similar to the observed one. Overall, the model explained 65% of variance in the data. An alternative model, omitting the effect of diffusing military technologies, explained only 16% of variance. Our results support theories that emphasize the role of institutions in state-building and suggest a possible explanation why a long history of statehood is positively correlated with political stability, institutional quality, and income per capita.

Concepts: Scientific method, Evolution, Sociology, Science, History, Society, Institution, Civilization


From the foods we eat and the houses we construct, to our religious practices and political organization, to who we can marry and the types of games we teach our children, the diversity of cultural practices in the world is astounding. Yet, our ability to visualize and understand this diversity is limited by the ways it has been documented and shared: on a culture-by-culture basis, in locally-told stories or difficult-to-access repositories. In this paper we introduce D-PLACE, the Database of Places, Language, Culture, and Environment. This expandable and open-access database (accessible at brings together a dispersed corpus of information on the geography, language, culture, and environment of over 1400 human societies. We aim to enable researchers to investigate the extent to which patterns in cultural diversity are shaped by different forces, including shared history, demographics, migration/diffusion, cultural innovations, and environmental and ecological conditions. We detail how D-PLACE helps to overcome four common barriers to understanding these forces: i) location of relevant cultural data, (ii) linking data from distinct sources using diverse ethnonyms, (iii) variable time and place foci for data, and (iv) spatial and historical dependencies among cultural groups that present challenges for analysis. D-PLACE facilitates the visualisation of relationships among cultural groups and between people and their environments, with results downloadable as tables, on a map, or on a linguistic tree. We also describe how D-PLACE can be used for exploratory, predictive, and evolutionary analyses of cultural diversity by a range of users, from members of the worldwide public interested in contrasting their own cultural practices with those of other societies, to researchers using large-scale computational phylogenetic analyses to study cultural evolution. In summary, we hope that D-PLACE will enable new lines of investigation into the major drivers of cultural change and global patterns of cultural diversity.

Concepts: Ecology, Natural environment, Sociology, Culture, Anthropology, Globalization, Humanities, Civilization


Evidence for human sacrifice is found throughout the archaeological record of early civilizations, the ethnographic records of indigenous world cultures, and the texts of the most prolific contemporary religions. According to the social control hypothesis, human sacrifice legitimizes political authority and social class systems, functioning to stabilize such social stratification. Support for the social control hypothesis is largely limited to historical anecdotes of human sacrifice, where the causal claims have not been subject to rigorous quantitative cross-cultural tests. Here we test the social control hypothesis by applying Bayesian phylogenetic methods to a geographically and socially diverse sample of 93 traditional Austronesian cultures. We find strong support for models in which human sacrifice stabilizes social stratification once stratification has arisen, and promotes a shift to strictly inherited class systems. Whilst evolutionary theories of religion have focused on the functionality of prosocial and moral beliefs, our results reveal a darker link between religion and the evolution of modern hierarchical societies.

Concepts: Evolution, Sociology, Anthropology, Religion, Society, Civilization, Archaeology, Social stratification


Socially imposed monogamy in humans is an evolutionary puzzle because it requires costly punishment by those who impose the norm. Moreover, most societies were-and are-polygynous; yet many larger human societies transitioned from polygyny to socially imposed monogamy beginning with the advent of agriculture and larger residential groups. We use a simulation model to explore how interactions between group size, sexually transmitted infection (STI) dynamics and social norms can explain the timing and emergence of socially imposed monogamy. Polygyny dominates when groups are too small to sustain STIs. However, in larger groups, STIs become endemic (especially in concurrent polygynist networks) and have an impact on fertility, thereby mediating multilevel selection. Punishment of polygynists improves monogamist fitness within groups by reducing their STI exposure, and between groups by enabling punishing monogamist groups to outcompete polygynists. This suggests pathways for the emergence of socially imposed monogamy, and enriches our understanding of costly punishment evolution.

Concepts: Epidemiology, Sociology, Science, Sexually transmitted disease, Human sexual behavior, Human sexuality, Society, Civilization


Episodes of population loss and cultural change, including the famous Classic Collapse, punctuated the long course of Maya civilization. In many cases, these downturns in the fortunes of individual sites and entire regions included significant environmental components such as droughts or anthropogenic environmental degradation. Some afflicted areas remained depopulated for long periods, whereas others recovered more quickly. We examine the dynamics of growth and decline in several areas in the Maya Lowlands in terms of both environmental and cultural resilience and with a focus on downturns that occurred in the Terminal Preclassic (second century Common Era) and Terminal Classic (9th and 10th centuries CE) periods. This examination of available data indicates that the elevated interior areas of the Yucat√°n Peninsula were more susceptible to system collapse and less suitable for resilient recovery than adjacent lower-lying areas.

Concepts: Maya civilization, Maya peoples, Culture, The Terminal, Centuries, Civilization, Societal collapse, The Fortunes


Colorectal surgery has its roots in the early civilisations and its development followed a complex pathway never disjoined from the social and cultural environment where it took place.

Concepts: Surgery, Culture, Anthropology, History, Ancient Egypt, Civilization, Robotic surgery, Ancient history


Conflicts fueled by popular religious mobilization have rekindled the controversy surrounding Samuel Huntington’s theory of changing international alignments in the Post-Cold War era. In The Clash of Civilizations, Huntington challenged Fukuyama’s “end of history” thesis that liberal democracy had emerged victorious out of Post-war ideological and economic rivalries. Based on a top-down analysis of the alignments of nation states, Huntington famously concluded that the axes of international geo-political conflicts had reverted to the ancient cultural divisions that had characterized most of human history. Until recently, however, the debate has had to rely more on polemics than empirical evidence. Moreover, Huntington made this prediction in 1993, before social media connected the world’s population. Do digital communications attenuate or echo the cultural, religious, and ethnic “fault lines” posited by Huntington prior to the global diffusion of social media? We revisit Huntington’s thesis using hundreds of millions of anonymized email and Twitter communications among tens of millions of worldwide users to map the global alignment of interpersonal relations. Contrary to the supposedly borderless world of cyberspace, a bottom-up analysis confirms the persistence of the eight culturally differentiated civilizations posited by Huntington, with the divisions corresponding to differences in language, religion, economic development, and spatial distance.

Concepts: Sociology, Culture, Communication, Media, Civilization, Sociocultural evolution, Samuel P. Huntington, The End of History and the Last Man


The evidence for culture in non-human animals has been growing incrementally over the past two decades. However, the ability for cumulative cultural evolution, with successive generations building on earlier achievements, in non-human animals remains debated. Faithful social learning of incremental improvements in technique is considered to be a defining feature of human culture, differentiating human from non-human cultures. This study presents the first experimental evidence for chimpanzees' social transmission of a more efficient tool-use technique invented by a conspecific group member.

Concepts: Sociology, Culture, Anthropology, Civilization, Sociocultural evolution