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Genes, Culture, and Agriculture An Example of Human Niche Construction

Michael J. O’Brien and Kevin N. Laland
Current Anthropology
Vol. 53, No. 4 (August 2012), pp. 434-470
DOI: 10.1086/666585
Stable URL: http://www.jstor.org/stable/10.1086/666585
Page Count: 37
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Genes, Culture, and Agriculture


Theory and empirical data from a variety of disciplines strongly imply that recent human history involves extensive gene-culture coevolution, much of it as a direct result of human agricultural practices. Here we draw on niche-construction theory (NCT) and gene-culture coevolutionary theory (GCT) to propose a broad theoretical framework (NCT-GCT) with which archaeologists and anthropologists can explore coevolutionary dynamics. Humans are enormously potent niche constructors, and understanding how niche construction regulates ecosystem dynamics is central to understanding the impact of human populations on their ecological and developmental environments. We use as primary examples the evolution of dairying by Neolithic groups in Europe and Africa and the rise of the “sickle-cell allele” among certain agricultural groups in West Africa and suggest that these examples are broadly representative of much of human recent history. Although the core aspects of these case studies are familiar, we lay out the examples with a specific NCT-GCT focus, which allows us to highlight how archaeology, when coupled with genetic research, can play an important role in better understanding human history. Finally, we suggest that the NCT-GCT perspective is likely to be of widespread general utility because it inherently promotes consideratiwon of the active agency of humans, and other organisms, in modifying their ecological and developmental niches and naturally draws attention to the various forms of feedback that flow from human activities at multiple levels, in multiple populations, and across multiple species.

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