Hebrew University researchers offer a simple solution to the enigma that has occupied cultural researchers: How did small human societies manage to create and maintain complex cultures? The secret is in rare but important cultural interactions
A new study at the Hebrew University led by doctoral student Yotam Ben Oren, together with Dr. Oren Kolodani from the Institute of Life Sciences and Prof. Ariela Hobars from the Department of Archeology and the Ancient Near East and in collaboration with researchers from Vanderbilt University in the USA offers an elegant solution to an issue that has occupied cultural researchers in recent years: how have human societies succeeded small to create and preserve a complex culture? In the study, published in the journal Biology Letters, the researchers demonstrate that even rare cultural interactions, which anthropologists could easily overlook due to their low frequency, can have a major impact on the cultural richness of the societies that come into contact with each other.
Questions dealing with human culture attract researchers from different and varied fields. In the field of cultural evolution, using models from the field of evolution, the factors leading to cultural inventions are studied, for example the invention of a new type of tool, what affects the spread of inventions and what predicts their survival. Similar to the relationship between the size of a population and its genetic diversity, theoretical models in cultural evolution predict that larger populations will have richer material cultures, meaning that they will include a wider variety of tools of different types. However, when anthropologists tried to quantify the cultural richness of various traditional societies, of traditional farmers, fishermen, and hunter-gatherers, they found that such a relationship did not always hold.
In their new study, the researchers suggest that the answer to this contradiction may be found in the connections between the populations. "You can look at a tiny tribe in the heart of the Amazon and be amazed by its cultural complexity," Yotam Ben-Oran explains, "but actually, even the most remote populations in the world do not exist in complete isolation from other populations." In their article, the researchers demonstrated with the help of a simple computational model that even the existence of sporadic connections between populations may have a decisive effect on the size of their cultural repertoire. "If that tiny tribe gets, even once every few generations, a visitor from another tribe, or even if that tribe only occasionally fights another tribe, it may acquire new ideas and tools. In fact, the cultural ties that a group of a certain size maintains with other groups may lead to its culture being much richer than we would expect if it existed in isolation."
The researchers created computer simulations in which there are two (or more) imaginary populations for which certain game rules are defined, for example at what rate inventions occur in each population, how migration takes place between populations, and so on. The researchers found that contact between populations does not necessarily lead to cultural homogenization. One of the ways in which cultural wealth can grow due to contact between populations without creating homogenization is in a scenario where a small population adopts a cultural trait from the larger population and preserves it, while in the larger population the trait is lost over time. Examples of this are languages such as Yiddish and Ladino, which developed from the German and Spanish of the Middle Ages, out of the cultural connection that the Jewish populations had with their neighbors, and preserved in their content certain characteristics that no longer exist in contemporary German and Spanish.
"From the model we learn that connections between human groups and processes of formation of cultural diversity may be important both for understanding contemporary cultures and for deciphering the course of human cultural evolution in ancient times. We suggest that in order to understand human cultures it is perhaps advisable not to focus on comparing them as separate units, but rather to put in the center the understanding that human cultures, even those that are significantly different from one another, develop and are built from interaction and mutual fertilization between them", Yotam Ben Oren concluded the study.
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