Researchers debate the role of culture in shaping human adaptive strategy. Some researchers suggest that the behavioural adaptations that explain the success of our species are partially cultural, i.e., cumulative and transmitted by social learning. Others find that cultural knowledge has often resulted in maladaptive practices, loss of technologies, and societies' collapse. Despite the importance of the debate, we lack empirical, comparative research on the mechanisms through which culture might shape human adaptation. In this project, we are collecting real world data to test a pathway through which cultural knowledge might enhance human adaptive strategy: the individual returns to culturally evolved and environment-specific knowledge. The project will be based on six sets of comparable panel data collected in three foraging societies: the Tsimane' (Amazonia), the Baka (Congo Basin), and the Punan Tubu (Borneo). This project will use a culturally-specific but cross-culturally comparative method to assess individual local knowledge related to 1) wild edibles; 2) medicine; 3) agriculture; and 4) weather forecast. The strategy of data analysis will include the use of instrumental variables to get rigorous estimates of the returns to knowledge on a) own and offspring's health, b) nutritional status, and c) farming and foraging productivity. The data will allow us to make generalizations on 1) the returns to local environmental knowledge and 2) the conditions under which locally developed knowledge is adaptive or ceases to be so. The ground-breaking nature of this study lies in its explicit attempt to use empirical data and a cross-cultural framework to provide a first test of the adaptive nature of culturally transmitted information, and to do so by linking cultural knowledge to individual outcomes.
The data sets collected as part of the LEK project are free and open to the public from the 31st January 2016. More information here.
This project is funded by a Starting Grant of the European Research Council (FP7-261971-LEK).