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. 2017 Jul 25;114(30):7861-7868.
doi: 10.1073/pnas.1620738114. Epub 2017 Jul 24.

Evolutionary Neuroscience of Cumulative Culture

Free PMC article

Evolutionary Neuroscience of Cumulative Culture

Dietrich Stout et al. Proc Natl Acad Sci U S A. .
Free PMC article


Culture suffuses all aspects of human life. It shapes our minds and bodies and has provided a cumulative inheritance of knowledge, skills, institutions, and artifacts that allows us to truly stand on the shoulders of giants. No other species approaches the extent, diversity, and complexity of human culture, but we remain unsure how this came to be. The very uniqueness of human culture is both a puzzle and a problem. It is puzzling as to why more species have not adopted this manifestly beneficial strategy and problematic because the comparative methods of evolutionary biology are ill suited to explain unique events. Here, we develop a more particularistic and mechanistic evolutionary neuroscience approach to cumulative culture, taking into account experimental, developmental, comparative, and archaeological evidence. This approach reconciles currently competing accounts of the origins of human culture and develops the concept of a uniquely human technological niche rooted in a shared primate heritage of visuomotor coordination and dexterous manipulation.

Keywords: archaeology; brain evolution; cultural evolution; imitation.

Conflict of interest statement

The authors declare no conflict of interest.


Fig. 1.
Fig. 1.
A learning cycle in the helical curriculum. Social resources both passive and pedagogical (53), together with constructed learning contexts (52), provide opportunities and structure for individual practice, which can include a portfolio (12) of processes ranging from “emulative” end-state copying to the imitation of specific body movements. This behavioral continuum maps roughly onto the differing contributions of dorsal and ventral processing streams in the primate brain.
Fig. 2.
Fig. 2.
Species differences in action processing circuitry (Upper) and inferred phylogenetic origins (Lower).

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