On the shape and fabric of human history

Russell Gray, David Bryant, Simon Greenhill

    Research output: Contribution to journalArticle


    In this paper we outline two debates about the nature of human cultural history. The first focuses on the extent to which human history is tree-like (its shape), and the second on the unity of that history (its fabric). Proponents of cultural phylogenetics are often accused of assuming that human history has been both highly tree-like and consisting of tightly linked lineages. Critics have pointed out obvious exceptions to these assumptions. Instead of a priori dichotomous disputes about the validity of cultural phylogenetics, we suggest that the debate is better conceptualized as involving positions along continuous dimensions. The challenge for empirical research is, therefore, to determine where particular aspects of culture lie on these dimensions. We discuss the ability of current computational methods derived from evolutionary biology to address these questions. These methods are then used to compare the extent to which lexical evolution is tree-like in different parts of the world and to evaluate the coherence of cultural and linguistic lineages.
    Original languageEnglish
    Pages (from-to)3923-3933
    JournalPhilosophical Transactions of the Royal Society of London Series B
    Issue number1559
    Publication statusPublished - 2010


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