Zooming out the microscope on cumulative cultural evolution: ‘Trajectory B’ from animal to human culture
Journal article, 2023

It is widely believed that human culture originated in the appearance of Oldowan stone-tool production (circa 2.9 Mya) and a primitive but effective ability to copy detailed know-how. Cumulative cultural evolution is then believed to have led to modern humans and human culture via self-reinforcing gene-culture co-evolution. This outline evolutionary trajectory has come to be seen as all but self-evident, but dilemmas have appeared as it has been explored in increasing detail. Can we attribute even a minimally effective know-how copying capability to Oldowan hominins? Do Oldowan tools really demand know-how copying? Is there any other evidence that know-how copying was present? We here argue that this account, which we refer to as “Trajectory A”, may be a red herring, and formulate an alternative “Trajectory B” that resolves these dilemmas. Trajectory B invokes an overlooked group-level channel of cultural inheritance (the Social Protocell) whereby networks of cultural traits can be faithfully inherited and potentially undergo cumulative evolution, also when the underpinning cultural traits are apelike in not being transmitted via know-how copying (Latent Solutions). Since most preconditions of Trajectory B are present in modern-day Pan, Trajectory B may even have its roots considerably before Oldowan toolmaking. The cumulative build-up of networks of non-cumulative cultural traits is then argued to have produced conditions that both called for and afforded a gradual appearance of the ability to copy know-how, but considerably later than the Oldowan.

Evolutionary Transitions in Individuality

Human origins

Zone of Latent Solutions

Human evolution

Social Protocell

Origin of human culture

Cultural evolution


Multi-Level Selection


Claes Andersson

Chalmers, Space, Earth and Environment, Physical Resource Theory

Claudio Tennie

University of Tübingen

Humanities and Social Sciences Communications

26629992 (eISSN)

Vol. 10 1-20 402

Subject Categories

Evolutionary Biology


Other Natural Sciences not elsewhere specified

Behavioral Sciences Biology



Basic sciences



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