CORDIS - EU research results

The adaptive nature of culture. A cross-cultural analysis of the returns of Local Environmental Knowledge in three indigenous societies

Final Report Summary - LEK (The adaptive nature of culture. A cross-cultural analysis of the returns of Local Environmental Knowledge in three indigenous societies)

Researchers debate the role of culture in shaping human adaptive strategy. Some researchers suggest that the behavioural adaptations that explain the success of our species are partially cultural, i.e. cumulative and transmitted by social learning. Others find that cultural knowledge has often resulted in maladaptive practices leading to loss of technologies and societies’ collapse. Despite the importance of the debate, we lack empirical, comparative, research on the potential mechanisms through which culture might shape human adaptation.
In this research, a multidisciplinary team of anthropologists, economists, biologists, and environmental scientists collected real world data to test a pathway through which cultural knowledge might enhance human adaptive strategy: the individual returns to culturally evolved and environment-specific knowledge. We studied local environmental knowledge systems in three indigenous, small-scale, subsistence-based societies: the Punan Tubu (Borneo), the Baka (Congo Basin) and the Tsimane’ (Amazonia). The three societies have relatively little (albeit increasing and uneven) involvement in market economies, school-based formal education, or modern health care systems.Given that engagement in these new activities vary across individuals and villages, nowadays all three societies display different degrees of market integration and cultural change. Our study addressed different aspects related to 1) the transmission, 2) the distribution, and 3) the use of different types of local environmental knowledge.
One of the main goals of the study was to examine whether, across societies and domains of knowledge, people with higher levels of local environmental knowledge enjoy better livelihoods (e.g. higher hunting productivity and better health and nutritional status). We found that people with more hunting knowledge were able to catch more game per hour invested in hunting activities and that people with more medicinal plant knowledge reported being sick less often. They also reported fewer aliments. Our data, however, do not support the hypothesis that people with higher local environmental knowledge (combining hunting and medicinal plant knowledge) have a better nutritional status than other people in the same society.
The paradox in our findings is that although higher individual levels of local environmental knowledge seem to translate into better individual ability to obtain food and protect health, overall, people with higher levels of local environmental knowledge do not necessarily have better nutritional status. We argue that the answer to this paradox might lie in the prevalence of sharing and reciprocity in the three studied societies, a practice that affects both knowledge and the resources obtained through higher knowledge. Sharing allows for the redistribution of information (i.e. the specific properties of a medicinal plant, or its location in the forest) and of resources (i.e. hunters distribute meat among community members). The sharing of knowledge and products represents an important transfer of material and non-material resources from the more knowledgeable and skilled to the rest of the group. Such transfers help explain why the nutritional status of people in the three indigenous societies studied is not in direct relation to their individual level of local environmental knowledge.