The human life history is adapted to exploit the adaptive advantages of culture

Peter J. Richerson, Robert Boyd

Research output: Contribution to journalReview articlepeer-review

29 Scopus citations


Humans evolved from an ape ancestor that was highly intelligent, moderately social and moderately dependent on cultural adaptations for subsistence technology (tools). By the late Pleistocene, humans had become highly dependent on culture for subsistence and for rules to organize a complex social life. Adaptation by cultural traditions transformed our life history, leading to an extended juvenile period to learn subsistence and social skills, post-reproductive survival to help conserve and transmit skills, a dependence on social support for mothers of large-brained, very dependent and nutrient-demanding offspring, males devoting substantial effort to provisioning rather than mating, and the cultivation of large social networks to tap pools in information unavailable to less social species. One measure of the success of the exploitation of culture is that the minimum inter-birth interval of humans is nearly half that of our ape relatives. Another measure is the wide geographical distribution of humans compared with other apes, based on subsistence systems adapted to fine-scale spatial environmental variation. An important macro-evolutionary question is why our big-brained, culture-intensive life-history strategy evolved so recently and in only our lineage. We suggest that increasing spatial and temporal variation in the Pleistocene favoured cultural adaptations. This article is part of the theme issue ‘Life history and learning: how childhood, caregiving and old age shape cognition and culture in humans and other animals’.

Original languageEnglish (US)
Article number20190498
JournalPhilosophical Transactions of the Royal Society B: Biological Sciences
Issue number1803
StatePublished - Jul 20 2020


  • Adaptation
  • Culture
  • Evolution
  • Life-history theory

ASJC Scopus subject areas

  • Biochemistry, Genetics and Molecular Biology(all)
  • Agricultural and Biological Sciences(all)


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