Neanderthals in Plato’s Cave: A Relativistic Approach to Cultural Evolution

George F. Steiner
Negev Rock Art Center, Israel

Series: Dialogues among Civilizations and Cultures
BISAC: SOC026000


Volume 10

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Special issue: Resilience in breaking the cycle of children’s environmental health disparities
Edited by I Leslie Rubin, Robert J Geller, Abby Mutic, Benjamin A Gitterman, Nathan Mutic, Wayne Garfinkel, Claire D Coles, Kurt Martinuzzi, and Joav Merrick


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Dual inheritance theory (DIT) recognizes the fact that for the last 50 millennia cultural evolution has had a marked impact on our anatomy, behavior and cognition. Unfortunately, by considering ‘cumulative cultural evolution’ as the ‘natural choice’ of all cognitively modern humans, DIT implies that technological innovation is the index of progress, and that the ‘ratcheting’ of innovations becomes the ‘goal’ of cultural evolution. This is accomplished by developing a certain degree of social complexity in which the biased copying of cultural models becomes a technique of cultural transmission. Small and isolated populations are therefore ‘doomed,’ and the ‘treadmill model’ takes effect, in which the lack of demographic strength results in impaired social learning and loss/infidelity in copying.

However, the anthropological literature documents small and isolated groups that have—despite these ‘handicaps’—developed intricate exchange networks that do not necessarily rely on technological innovation and function only in low demographical settings. Not only that the parameters upon which cultural transmission is based in DIT—prestige, skills, success—are unknown, but certain ‘leveling mechanisms’ ensure that these parameters become eliminated and thus, no cultural models can rise to prominence. Interestingly, these societies do not seem to be plagued by cultural ‘loss’ and, instead of hopelessly running the treadmill and living in poverty, they have developed egalitarian and, to an extent, ‘affluent’ societies. The cultural evolution of these groups does not rely on accumulation, but rather on ‘reduction.’ The reductive cultural orientations of such ‘primitive’ societies are not an ancestral developmental stage, but rather an independent achievement.

Populations following a reductive cultural orientation—known in anthropology as ‘immediate-return’ hunters-gatherers—are often described as ‘pedomorphic,’ due to their markedly neotenous features. On the other hand, populations that follow a cumulative type of cultural evolution are surprisingly ‘rugged’ phenotypes. In the case of the latter, a cultural leap occurred during the Middle/Upper Paleolithic transition, which resulted in the entrenchment of archaic behavioral traits upon which hierarchical societies became established. Conversely, in the case of reductive orientations, a cultural regression seems to have occurred, but only during the early Holocene. The adoption of a cultural primitivism—immediate-return subsistence—offered a degree of flexibility that allowed for a neotenal leap. This enabled the reduction of archaic behavioral traits and the emergence of egalitarian societies.

List of Figures



PART I. The Myth of Cultural Evolution

Chapter 1. Culture and Evolution

Chapter 2. The Origins of Cognitive Modernity

Chapter 3. The Biological Origins of Culture

PART II. Cultural Heterochrony

Chapter 4. Cultural Specialization

Chapter 5. Cognitive Specialization

Chapter 6. Cultural Flexibility

Chapter 7. Cognitive Flexibility



Author's Contact Information


“Having read George Steiner’s monograph I can confirm that I find it a most impressive achievement. This volume is on the very cutting edge of research in the field it addresses. Its author is certainly one of the most innovative writers on the subject of cognitive human evolution. Here he proposes a volume dedicated to the role of neoteny in hominin evolution, particularly its cultural dimensions. What is from my perspective the most impressive aspect of the work is the exploration of the role exograms played in this. Exograms, ‘memory traces’ stored outside the brain, are the most significant factor in cognitive evolution, and yet they are arguably the most neglected. So far, only two authors have ever considered them in any detail since the late 1980s, despite their fundamental importance in the question of what makes us human, and how we managed to experience the world in a conscious format. Steiner corrects this imbalance, and for that reason alone his book holds great promise. His encyclopaedic knowledge of the generic subject and his most innovative patterns of reasoning have produced a truly worthwhile addition to the rather limited literature on the topic. An aspect I find particularly important is that Steiner did not approach this discipline from the evolutionary perspective initially, but from the direction of a desire to understand the products of human cognition, through his work with paleoart, specifically rock art. Therefore he is not stuck in a particular epistemological groove, but has cultivated the ability to see the issues in an inter-disciplinary perspective.” - Professor Robert G. Bednarik, Convener and Editor-in-Chief, IFRAO; Australian Rock Art Research Association (AURA), Australia

"I have read the manuscript of the proposed book by George Steiner entitled Neanderthals in Plato’s Cave: A Relativistic Approach to Cultural Evolution, and found it to be an extremely thought provoking piece of work. It is well written, clearly organized and well referenced. The author shows a good grasp of the relevant literature on cultural evolution and prehistory and offers a range of interesting and original ideas on the origin of culture in early humans." - Dr. Liora Kolska Horwitz, Head of Research, Negev Rock Art Center and The National Natural History Collections, The Hebrew University of Jerusalem, Safra Campus, Jerusalem, Israel

"Steiner begins with an exhaustive review of the literature on human cultural evolution and proceeds to lay out a paradigm for the study where the tenets of dual inheritance theory are viewed through non-synchronous temporal changes toward modernity in three distinct areas: Anatomical Modernity. The first area is anatomical where modernity is identified as a biologically, respectively, culturally-conditioned transition moving from robust to gracile with globular braincase development as its main signature and outcome." READ MORE... - Bonnye Matthews, Author of The Winds of Change, Alaska. Published in Midwest Book Reviews-October 2017

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This book is written for any informed reader with an interest in human evolution, cognitive development and man’s perception of her/himself through the ages - as reflected in rock art, ritual, etc. - is a potential reader.

The book addresses social, cultural, environmental and other actual problems that are at the core of contemporary humanistic and anarchist literature. However, instead of being an empty enumeration of these well-known problems, a theoretical framework that addresses their etiology is offered.

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