Understanding Cultural Persistence and Change

We examine a determinant of cultural persistence that has emerged from a class of models in evolutionary anthropology: the similarity of the environment across generations. Within these models, when the environment is more stable across generations, the traits that have evolved up to the previous generation are more likely to be suitable for the current generation. In equilibrium, a greater value is placed on tradition and there is greater cultural persistence. We test this hypothesis by measuring the variability of climatic measures across 20-year generations from 500–1900ce. Employing a variety of tests that use different samples and empirical strategies, we find that populations with ancestors who lived in environments with more cross-generational instability place less importance on maintaining tradition today and exhibit less cultural persistence.

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