Neanderthals in Plato’s Cave: A Relativistic Approach to Cultural Evolution


George F. Steiner
Negev Rock Art Center, Israel

Series: Dialogues among Civilizations and Cultures
BISAC: SOC026000

Dual inheritance theory (DIT) recognizes the fact that for the last 50 millennia cultural evolution has had a marked impact on our anatomy, behavior and cognition. Unfortunately, by considering ‘cumulative cultural evolution’ as the ‘natural choice’ of all cognitively modern humans, DIT implies that technological innovation is the index of progress, and that the ‘ratcheting’ of innovations becomes the ‘goal’ of cultural evolution. This is accomplished by developing a certain degree of social complexity in which the biased copying of cultural models becomes a technique of cultural transmission. Small and isolated populations are therefore ‘doomed,’ and the ‘treadmill model’ takes effect, in which the lack of demographic strength results in impaired social learning and loss/infidelity in copying.

However, the anthropological literature documents small and isolated groups that have—despite these ‘handicaps’—developed intricate exchange networks that do not necessarily rely on technological innovation and function only in low demographical settings. Not only that the parameters upon which cultural transmission is based in DIT—prestige, skills, success—are unknown, but certain ‘leveling mechanisms’ ensure that these parameters become eliminated and thus, no cultural models can rise to prominence. Interestingly, these societies do not seem to be plagued by cultural ‘loss’ and, instead of hopelessly running the treadmill and living in poverty, they have developed egalitarian and, to an extent, ‘affluent’ societies. The cultural evolution of these groups does not rely on accumulation, but rather on ‘reduction.’ The reductive cultural orientations of such ‘primitive’ societies are not an ancestral developmental stage, but rather an independent achievement.

Populations following a reductive cultural orientation—known in anthropology as ‘immediate-return’ hunters-gatherers—are often described as ‘pedomorphic,’ due to their markedly neotenous features. On the other hand, populations that follow a cumulative type of cultural evolution are surprisingly ‘rugged’ phenotypes. In the case of the latter, a cultural leap occurred during the Middle/Upper Paleolithic transition, which resulted in the entrenchment of archaic behavioral traits upon which hierarchical societies became established. Conversely, in the case of reductive orientations, a cultural regression seems to have occurred, but only during the early Holocene. The adoption of a cultural primitivism—immediate-return subsistence—offered a degree of flexibility that allowed for a neotenal leap. This enabled the reduction of archaic behavioral traits and the emergence of egalitarian societies.


Table of Contents

List of Figures



PART I. The Myth of Cultural Evolution

Chapter 1. Culture and Evolution

Chapter 2. The Origins of Cognitive Modernity

Chapter 3. The Biological Origins of Culture

PART II. Cultural Heterochrony

Chapter 4. Cultural Specialization

Chapter 5. Cognitive Specialization

Chapter 6. Cultural Flexibility

Chapter 7. Cognitive Flexibility



Author’s Contact Information



This book is written for any informed reader with an interest in human evolution, cognitive development and man’s perception of her/himself through the ages – as reflected in rock art, ritual, etc. – is a potential reader.

The book addresses social, cultural, environmental and other actual problems that are at the core of contemporary humanistic and anarchist literature. However, instead of being an empty enumeration of these well-known problems, a theoretical framework that addresses their etiology is offered.

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