Niche construction theory and human biocultural evolution

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Biologists and anthropologists have extensively documented how many animals—human and non-human—modify their immediate surroundings, some subtly, others extensively. This trend is carried to its extreme in Homo sapiens to the point where many of us today live in the almost entirely constructed niches of the built urban environment. Proponents of niche construction theory (NCT) argue that classical evolutionary theory does not account satisfactorily for organisms’ active niche modification that impacts selective parameters for themselves and/or also other organisms. Complementing evolutionary theory focused on genetic change alone as well as gene-culture co-evolutionary models, NCT aims at integrating ecology, anthropology and evolution by a greater awareness to ecological inheritances. The key to the niche construction approach therefore is the inclusion of organism-induced environmental modification bequeathed from the modifying generation to its offspring. Critically then, it is either selection that leads to changes over time in a given population, or individuals induce changes in their environment in order to offset or channel further selection. While there is intense debate about the merits of NCT within the biosciences, archaeology is in a situation to make an important contribution here: it allows for a greater role of organismal agency in the evolutionary process, and many objects as well as features in the archaeological record speak directly about lasting modifications of the environment. In this chapter, I aim to provide a richly but by no means exhaustively referenced review of the early emergence and development of NCT as well as the controversies surrounding it. I illustrate the specific application of NCT in anthropology and archaeology by focusing on selected behaviours of premodern and modern humans and their co-evolutionary impacts such as the use of fire, changing human-animal and human-plant relations and landscape modifications. I also highlight more subtle forms of niche construction that may have left traces in the cognitive make-up of past and indeed present populations and link NCT with the notion of the Anthropocene. NCT remains a contested body of theory. In concluding, I point to potential archaeological research avenues that can make significant contributions to this emerging field.
TitelHandbook of evolutionary research in archaeology
RedaktørerAnna Marie Prentiss
ISBN (trykt)978-3-030-11117-5
StatusUdgivet - 2019

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