Experimental models for testing hypotheses about cumulative cultural evolution

C. Caldwell, Ailsa Millen

Research output: Contribution to journalArticlepeer-review


The rapid appearance (over evolutionary time) of the cognitive skills and complex inventions of modern humans has been attributed to “cumulative cultural evolution” (CCE), the accumulation of knowledge and skills over generations. To date, researchers have only been able to speculate about the reasons for the apparent absence of this phenomenon in nonhumans, and it has not been possible to test hypotheses regarding the mechanisms underlying it. Here, we show that it is possible to demonstrate CCE under laboratory conditions by simulating generational succession through the repeated removal and replacement of human participants within experimental groups. We created “microsocieties” in which participants were instructed to complete simple tasks using everyday materials. In one of our procedures, participants were instructed to build a paper aeroplane which flew as far as possible, and in the other, they were instructed to construct a tower of spaghetti which was as tall as possible. We show that, in both cases, information accumulates within the groups such that later generations produce designs which are more successful than earlier ones. These methods offer researchers a window to understanding CCE, allowing for experimental manipulation and hypothesis testing.
Original languageEnglish
Pages (from-to)165-171
Number of pages7
JournalEvolution and Human Behavior
Issue number3
Publication statusPublished - 2008


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