Human adaptability in response to major cultural transitions
of the past 10,000 years
The ‘horizontal’ transmission of culture between individuals provides a mechanism for the rapid evolution of cultural systems. On this basis, technological change is often seen to outpace human biological evolution, resulting in discordance between cultural and biological adaptation which lead to environmental stress and declines in health. Bioarchaeologists have often interpreted the origins of agriculture as the most significant cultural shift in human
manipulation of the biosphere, and a primary factor influencing health variation in the modern world. New evidence, however, is revealing the complex interaction of cultural change and human biology throughout the past 10,000 years. Cultural transitions associated with the Iron Age, the rise of cities, the Industrial Revolution and the fossil fuel age have all changed the relationship between ourselves and our environments, and may be involved in both health disparities and amelioration. This paper reviews recent evidence for long-term trends in human health, drawing on the prehistory of Egypt, the Near East, Central Europe
and China, to determine what we can learn about the tempo and mode of human biological adaptability in the face of rapid cultural change.