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Particularism and the retreat from theory in

the archaeology of agricultural origins
Kristen J. Gremilliona,1, Loukas Bartonb, and Dolores R. Pipernoc,d
Department of Anthropology, Ohio State University, Columbus, OH 43210; bDepartment of Anthropology, University of Pittsburgh,
Pittsburgh, PA 15260; cDepartment of Anthropology, Smithsonian National Museum of Natural History, Washington, DC 20013-7012;
and dSmithsonian Tropical Research Institute, Apartado Postal 0843-03092, Panama, Republic of Panama
Edited by James O’Connell, University of Utah, Salt Lake City, UT, and approved October 28, 2013 (received for review June 26, 2013)

The introduction of new analytic methods and expansion of research into previously untapped regions have greatly increased the scale and
resolution of data relevant to the origins of agriculture (OA). As a result, the recognition of varied historical pathways to agriculture and the
continuum of management strategies have complicated the search for general explanations for the transition to food production. In this
environment, higher-level theoretical frameworks are sometimes rejected on the grounds that they force conclusions that are incompatible
with real-world variability. Some of those who take this position argue instead that OA should be explained in terms of local and historically
contingent factors. This retreat from theory in favor of particularism is based on the faulty beliefs that complex phenomena such as agricultural
origins demand equally complex explanations and that explanation is possible in the absence of theoretically based assumptions. The same
scholars who are suspicious of generalization are reluctant to embrace evolutionary approaches to human behavior on the grounds that they
are ahistorical, overly simplistic, and dismissive of agency and intent. We argue that these criticisms are misplaced and explain why a coherent
theory of human behavior that acknowledges its evolutionary history is essential to advancing understanding of OA. Continued progress
depends on the integration of human behavior and culture into the emerging synthesis of evolutionary developmental biology that informs
contemporary research into plant and animal domestication.

evolutionary theory | behavioral ecology

Over the last decade there has been a major This trend, coupled with the critical stance In arguing for the systematic use of theory
expansion of knowledge regarding the timing toward hypothetico-deductive science cur- as a tool for the advancement of knowledge,
and socioecological context of plant domesti- rently influential in archaeological thought we are not making the claim that evolution-
cation and emerging agricultural systems. (15), has motivated many archaeologists to ary theory is the only possible realm from
This wealth of data is due in large part to favor interpretive modes of explanation. In which to choose. However, neo-Darwinism
methodological innovations (e.g., in genetics origins of agriculture (OA) research, one has withstood repeated challenges to its core
and paleogenomics, in the analysis of plant result of this changing climate has been a elements, having earned status as an over-
micro- and macroremains and biological res- proliferation of historical narratives that arching framework for explaining the di-
idues, and in the physical and biogeochemical highlight local events and processes and versity of life. For this reason, evolutionary
analyses of anthropogenic sediments), reex- downplay general principles. Although we theory is central to understanding the root
cavations of some important archaeological recognize the value of empirical rigor, we causes of human behavior and indeed culture
sites, and the expansion of archaeological re- argue that the progress of OA research is itself (16). An even stronger case for the evo-
search into regions whose record of agricul- significantly hampered by the denial of lutionary perspective on human behavior can
tural origins has been until recently poorly explanations derived from a systematic be made now that the distinctive features of
known [such as New Guinea (1, 2), lowland program of theoretically driven hypothesis cultural transmission and evolution are be-
areas of Mesoamerica and northern South testing. We also reject assertions that evo- coming more fully incorporated into the syn-
America (3–7), and northern and southern lutionary theory is teleological, needlessly thesis (e.g., refs. 17–20).
China (8–13)]. These research activities have reductionist, ahistorical, and therefore irrel- We divide our discussion of these issues
enriched both the scale and resolution of the evant to understanding human behavior. into three sections. The first elaborates upon
data relevant to agricultural origins world- Without a coherent theory of human behav- some of the weaknesses of particularism in
wide. One result of this welcome enhance- ior, arguments about agricultural origins OA research. Next, we sharpen the focus
ment of the empirical record is wider must rely on assumptions that are often in- to respond to critiques of evolutionary
acknowledgment of the variability in the his- tuitive, unstated, and largely implicit. Cou- approaches to human behavior [particularly
torical pathways taken by emerging food pro- pled with the increasing emphasis on the research program of human behavioral
duction systems across space and time. The human exceptionalism, the erosion of scien- ecology (HBE) and one of its tools, optimal
dichotomy between foraging and food pro- tific method is troubling because it creates foraging theory (OFT)]. We argue that recent
duction has been discarded in favor of a con- a rift between researchers in biology and ar- calls to abandon HBE or OFT are misguided,
tinuum of landscape, plant, and animal chaeology whose collaboration is essential to
management strategies that sometimes resist advancing understanding of OA. To address Author contributions: K.J.G., L.B., and D.R.P. wrote the paper.
classification. However, for some scholars (2, these weaknesses, we contend that evolution- The authors declare no conflict of interest.
14), the richly detailed records of change ary theory (broadly construed to include cul- This article is a PNAS Direct Submission.
seem to have dampened the appeal of general tural as well as biological processes) must 1
To whom correspondence should be addressed. E-mail: gremillion.
explanations for the transition to agriculture. play a central role in OA research. 1@osu.edu.

www.pnas.org/cgi/doi/10.1073/pnas.1308938110 PNAS | April 29, 2014 | vol. 111 | no. 17 | 6171–6177

and we explain why the particularist alter- (23). The result is a rejection of both uni- historical accounts of OA (see, for exam-
natives might provide more explanatory versal causation and general principles in ple, refs. 25 and 29-32). However, to the
depth and power when situated within favor of “frameworks of explanation that extent that they purport to engage in ex-
a program of behavioral ecology. Finally, pay close and careful attention to existing planation, such accounts often rely on
we assess the prospects for a synthetic relevant archaeological information, that inductions that are expected to stand on
evolutionary research program for the are scaled at the regional level, and that the strength of available evidence alone.
study of domestication and agriculture. focus on the complex interplay of a range of Although we recognize that the prioritiza-
different environmental and social pre- tion of data is often intentional and explicitly
Limitations of Particularism in OA conditions, prompts, and factors of various stated (e.g., ref. 33), we disagree that it is
Research and the Need for Theory kinds” (ref. 23, p. 681). a good idea to abandon the iterative process
The research trend that we critique in this We agree that no single cause explains all of hypothesis testing, revision, and retesting
paper shares several characteristics with the instances of transition from foraging to food that drives incremental advances in scientific
approach labeled historical particularism by production (25–27); this observation is true understanding.
historians of anthropology (21). Most closely but trivial. An explanation that claims uni-
associated with Franz Boas and his students, versal validity loses its universality when Particularistic Explanations Lack a General
historical particularism emphasized the col- exceptions are found to exist. However, its Theory for the Evolution of Human Behavior
lection and compilation of ethnographic data remaining components—variables, processes, Yet Rely on a General Theory of Evolution
without the distorting effects of theory. Boas and assumptions— often remain relevant at for All Other Organisms. There is little dis-
and his adherents, weary of unsubstantiated a more modest level of generality. The fatal agreement that change in the frequency of
theorizing unsupported by rigorous field- flaw in the prime mover arguments is not attributes in populations of humans, animals
work, viewed theory as an obstacle to scien- that they rely on overarching laws or and plants under domestication is inherently
tific investigation. Generalizations about assumptions, but rather that they are ap- coevolutionary. Understanding this process
culture were suspect because exceptions to plied at an inappropriate scale. Following requires a general theory that links change in
them could always be found. Any reliable the same logic, the optimization assumptions one population to change in another. Cer-
generalizations would be derived inductively used heuristically in many HBE models tainly, humans possess a unique mode of
from large bodies of data. Similar recom- should not be confused with a claim that inheritance and an unusual degree of be-
mendations and concerns have been voiced economic optimization explains all tran- havioral flexibility. However, cultural in-
in the OA literature (14, 22–24), with the sitions to agriculture (ref. 23, p. 682). heritance and the mechanics of human
important difference that current expressions We agree that multiple broad-scale and learning that enable it are constrained (at
of particularism, rather than disavowing the- local factors are involved in any agricultural least, in the long run) by processes that
ory, embed it in arguments without explicit transition (25, 26). However, this is a com- constrain the evolution of other organisms.
acknowledgment or relegate it to a minor role monsense observation about the world, not Far from being an obstacle to evolutionary
that prioritizes empirically based inference. a template for explanation (ref. 23, p. 681). In analysis, human uniqueness offers one of the
We argue that the retreat from theory and fact, complex phenomena such as OA must most important justifications for using it.
the embrace of particularism are not only be simplified to be understood. A theoretical By not interpreting human behavior as
unwarranted but also counterproductive. framework is needed to guide this process to a product of natural selection, particularistic
Particularistic approaches that reject gener- ensure that explanations are not fashioned approaches miss the opportunity to explore
alization fail to treat inductive inferences as from a hodgepodge of factors and variables commonalities in human behavior that en-
hypotheses to be tested and substitute appeals selected at the discretion of the researcher. able comparative analysis of agricultural ori-
to agency for a consistent theory of human For this reason, we advocate an approach to gins in starkly different contexts. Nothing
behavior. These strategies are problematic for understanding OA that examines theoretical about an evolutionary perspective suggests
reasons we detail below. assumptions before interpreting data. Such that natural selection generates a pre-
assumptions always exist, acknowledged or determined template for human behavior,
Particularistic Approaches Reject Gen- not. Brought to the forefront, they serve to nor does it claim to explain everything that
eral Principles in the Mistaken Belief anchor observations to bodies of knowledge humans do. Human social learning has its
That They Imply Universal Causes and that have withstood repeated testing. Such own distinctive processes that influence pat-
Ignore History. In the current climate, it is high-level bodies of general theory inform terns of behavior at the population level.
not surprising that some OA researchers call middle- and lower-level theories that in turn However, human abilities (including the
for a more particularistic approach to un- generate testable hypotheses (16, 28). The capacity for communication, learning, and
derstanding why human groups became in- explanatory relevance of broadly applicable choice—all components of cultural in-
volved in plant cultivation and animal principles does not conflict with the obser- heritance) are products of natural selection,
husbandry. Among the reasons given for vation that domestication of any plant or and human culture is a function of those
rejecting generalizations about causality is animal is a particular, local, and historically abilities (16, 34–36). Because agriculture has
that contradictory cases can be answered contingent process. If it did, evolutionary been adopted (or inherited) by nearly all
only by adding qualifiers (ref. 2, p. S380). theory could not be said to explain the di- human groups and because it was invented
Some investigators conflate universal ex- versity of life without implying that all evo- separately by many, the process will be un-
planations (i.e., “prime movers” like envi- lutionary lineages follow the same path. derstood best by looking at change in the
ronmental change, population pressure, or To be clear, we applaud the attention being history of human adaptation as a function of
divine inspiration), which imply that all paid to accurate reconstructions of the tra- attributes shared by all humans, rather than
transitions to agriculture conform to the jectory and context of agricultural transitions looking at novel attributes unique to a few.
same causal sequence, with the principles at regional and local scales. Detail-oriented Because they lack a general theory for
and assumptions of HBE, which do not analysis of observations and data yield rich human behavior, particularistic approaches

6172 | www.pnas.org/cgi/doi/10.1073/pnas.1308938110 Gremillion et al.

rely on diverse and often conflicted principles analysis than the simple arithmetic required The Study of Evolution Is a Historical
to account for the decision-making behavior to find optimal solutions to foraging prob- Science. Evolutionary theory is not covering
of human agents. In some cases, they retain lems (for example) and is even farther re- law science (ref. 23, p. 681). It is a scientific
the rational-actor optimization logic of HBE moved from the practical heuristics (e.g., approach to history (47) that views change as
(e.g., that people will act in their own best rules of thumb, tacit or explicit learning, ra- both cause and consequence of the immedi-
interest with regards to survival-related utility); tional calculation, etc.) that people actually ate and long-term fitness implications of
in other cases, they rely on creative or arbitrary use to make those decisions. By contrast, inherited and acquired variation. Although
combinations of a “bounded rationality” simple agency in foraging models is one of focused on the processes of change, nothing
(sensu refs. 37 and 38) drawn opportunis- individual decision making, but does not about these processes, or the analysis of them,
tically from ethnographic or contemporary imply (and does not require) long-term is deterministic, teleological, or scripted. The
observations; still others seem to gather teleological self-determination. context and consequences of one case might
principles of behavior from social theory be completely different from the next (i.e.,
(39, 40). Such principles are seldom made The Evolutionary Approach Is a Robust,
both historical and particular), but the foun-
explicit; in some cases they are revealed by Flexible, and Practical Avenue for an
dations of evolutionary analysis are unifying.
references to undefined or vaguely concep- Incrementally Better Understanding of At the same time, it is flexible enough to deal
tualized properties or goals [e.g., “resource- Human Behavior and Cultural Change with the hyper-variability of human behavior,
rich,” “intensification of resource manipula- Whereas evolutionary biologists seldom have which, for a variety of evolutionarily sound
tion,” “rich array of plant and animal spe- to confront the question of human excep- reasons, evolves and diversifies rapidly (48).
cies,” “enrichment,” “stable and sustainable,” tionalism, the issue is a central one in an- In part, this flexibility comes from the ap-
“stress,” etc. (23)]. Such terms betray em- thropology and archaeology. The application plication of a wide range of models that
bedded assumptions about the ecological of evolutionary theory to human behavior isolate specific aspects of behavioral and
situations that humans prefer and pre- has been criticized for excessive adaptation- evolutionary phenomena.
sumably strive for. Consistent theory that ism, reductionism, positivism, and material-
illustrates how and why these organizing ism (e.g., refs. 43 and 44). These criticisms Simple Models of Complex Phenomena
principles emerge in the first place is have been taken up by many advocates of Are Useful Even When They Fail. Recent
essential for explaining the outcomes of interpretive archaeology, who question the reactions to the use of OFT’s simplifying
diverse motivations in the distant past, exclusive claim of science to the production models in hunter–gatherer and OA research
particularly when these outcomes are visible of useful knowledge (many examples appear (14, 49, 50) take their cue from older critiques
today only in the aggregate records of ar- in ref. 45; see also ref. 24). in biology and ecology (e.g., refs. 51 and 52)
chaeology and population biology. Some archaeologists who do embrace but differ on the issue of culture. For many
Researchers who reject general theories of evolutionary concepts in their OA research social science scholars, models that isolate
human behavior and cultural evolution as remain uncomfortable with their application specific aspects of individual behavior in a
overly deterministic sometimes invoke human to human behavior. Particularly heavy criti- ceteris paribus world (53) are impractical
agency as an alternative causal mechanism. cism has been leveled at evolutionary ecology
because (i) the ceteris paribus world doesn’t
Agency is a contested term in archaeology, (EE), defined as the “study of evolution and
exist, and (ii) individuals perform in a
and the OA literature seems to have adopted adaptive design in ecological context” (ref. 46,
complex, indivisible milieu that can be un-
one sense of it to the exclusion of others. p. 3), especially the subdiscipline of HBE and
derstood only in its holistic totality. For
Advocates use the common reading of its optimal foraging models. These critiques
many, the practice of methodological iso-
agency (refs. 15 and 41, p. 67) to illustrate target either the basic assumptions of EE
lation and analytical simplification has
how individual choice and creativity explain (many of which are shared by other evolu-
cultural change, including the transition to tionary approaches) or elements of HBE or “reduced human actors to disemboweled
agriculture (ref. 29, p. 44). Although we ac- OFT specifically (14, 22, 23). Although the humans who no longer have cultural
knowledge the role of human creativity and objections are numerous, they commonly anchors” (ref. 54, p. 59). They complain that
innovation in OA, we are not convinced that revolve around the following themes: (i) evolutionary models isolate individuals from
appeals to agency have much explanatory explanations based on evolution by natural populations and remove both from the thing
power, simply because they sidestep the selection are “covering law” explanations that binds them, which is culture.
problem of identifying the evolutionary basis that fail to account for the particular his- Reservations about heuristic models are
of the beliefs and preferences that guide hu- torical circumstances of their social and welcome (indeed these reservations and
man action (42). In contrast, HBE generates biological contexts; (ii) simple models are the resulting critiques may lead to better
hypotheses about why humans behave the inappropriate for complex phenomena; models); outright rejection of them is not.
way they do and evaluates whether or not (iii) the use of multiple simplifying models Unfortunately, and in many cases, rejection
these hypotheses about agency explain the is compromised when one or more models of simple, heuristic models is based on an
material remains of those behaviors. We fail to explain or predict the phenomena at idealized (but often unstated and un-
agree that human agency is a critical com- hand; (iv) models do not explain human supported) view of how the world works and
ponent of evolutionary change, but we do not subsistence (or any other) behavior; (v) ex- on the complaint that too many people take
see it as having an equally important role in planatory, predictive models deny human the modeled predictions as fact, with or
the scientific explanation of change. agency and are therefore dehumanizing; and without empirical backing (14). Such cri-
Another problem with explanation by (vi) some models do not account for envi- tiques mistakenly conclude that the optimi-
agency is that it often implies that decision ronmental change and are therefore in- zation assumptions used heuristically in
makers have complete information about the appropriate for historical or evolutionary many HBE models constitute a claim that
long-term consequences of their actions. This analysis. We find these critiques unwarranted optimal resource use explains all transitions
feat would require far more involved data and explain our reasoning below. to agriculture (ref. 23, p. 682).

Gremillion et al. PNAS | April 29, 2014 | vol. 111 | no. 17 | 6173
The use of simple models (like those used ant to OA research. Aggregate patterns of on small-sized dietary items, occurred as
in OFT) does not imply that the predictions individual behavior are what we see in the a result of climate- and/or human-driven
of the models must be true. All things being archives of the past. Therefore, the study of factors, depending on the region involved.
equal (in the ceteris paribus world), the models the past requires evaluation of models Examples include terminal Pleistocene fau-
should explain the behavior of organisms against data aggregated over different scales. nal extinctions and vegetational change
foraging optimally to maximize reproductive The DBM is one model that makes this (Neotropics) and increasing human de-
success. In the absence of data, the modeled procedure possible. It is not the only model, mographic pressure leading to resource
predictions are simply that, and if the and there is no reason to expect it to explain depression (southwest Asia). It is impor-
assumptions are correct, the predictions all data on all scales of time or space. How- tant to reiterate (88) that ethnographic
simply ought to be true. When data do exist ever, in combination with related models, it is datasets on foraging efficiency from around
but do not fit the model, either all things are a very powerful analytical tool. the world support the ranking of general
not equal (e.g., the assumptions are in- categories of resources such as small and
correct), the model is inappropriately ap- A Challenge to One Model Does Not large game according to their energetic return
plied (e.g., the scale or resolution of the Negate the Others. One critique of the rates (net energy obtained per unit time
behaviors does not match those of the evolutionary program is that it shifts arbi- spent). Although exceptions occur, most
resulting data and/or the currency of the trarily between models that isolate and ad- plant foods and small and medium-sized
model is inappropriate), or the organism dress different aspects of phenomena staged mammals are ranked lower than most large
simply doesn’t conform to expectation. at different scales of time, space, or number game, and nuts and seeds are often the low-
Observations of the final type can also be (e.g., ref. 67). The observation is fair, but the est-ranked of all (80, 88). It would be coun-
productive by leading to further hypothe- critique is not. Indeed, what makes EE so terproductive for investigations of cultural
sis testing built on related versions of EE versatile is that it draws from a “family of developments through time, such as agricul-
developed specifically to explain the pro- models” to address the tradeoffs between
tural origins, to ignore those associations.
liferation and persistence of suboptimal or generality, realism, and precision inherent to
The collective archaeological data clearly
maladaptive behavior (17, 55–58). any approach to scientific inquiry (68–70).
underline how dietary diversification and
The criticism that HBE models sometimes The important point here is that we draw on
intensification of plant use by foragers and
fail to yield accurate predictions when tested models rooted in a unified body of theory,
incipient farmers probably occurred in an
misses the point that the exploration of the even if some of the models fail to explain the
environmental milieu of shifting energetic
model’s vulnerability can itself be a source of existing data, or if the models explain the
return rates. Arguments that DBM pre-
insight. Models are productive means for data on different scales or levels of analysis.
dictions for the BSR are frequently invali-
“eliminating problematic answers and iden-
Models of EE Often Generate Accurate dated by the archaeological data (14) are
tifying and pursuing more promising ones”
(ref. 59, p. 171). In other words, failure is an Predictions of Human Subsistence Be- difficult to reconcile with the results of these
option. For example, when empirical tests of havior, Including OA. As previously noted, studies. As a number of scholars have
the diet breadth model (DBM) failed to show OFT is one class of models with a reasonable pointed out, the DBM is particularly suited
a good fit of data to model predictions for purchase in the explanatory realm, and one for studying major directional changes in
agricultural transitions in the eastern United that has provided a number of insights for subsistence through time because of its ability
States, the findings led to a better grasp of the biologists and archaeologists. A review of the to make robust, qualitative predictions of
variables and tradeoffs (such as travel and past few years of biological literature finds prey choice and dietary diversity. Using the
processing costs) that most influenced sub- persistent employment of OFT models, with model does not require that every past or
sistence strategies (e.g., refs. 60 and 61). empirical data often showing good fits with present resource ranking set be in perfect
Piperno and Pearsall (62) also discussed how their predictions in a variety of organisms order with respect to the general category of
OFT models, whose predictions conformed (e.g., refs. 71–74). OFT applications in hu- resource, package size, and the energetic
to Neotropical empirical data on the emer- man research also continue apace with return rates of individual items.
gence of food production, were unlikely valuable insights on varied topics (e.g., refs.
to address subsequent agricultural in- 75–78). Ecological Models Accommodate Human
tensification satisfactorily, which evoked A particularly important and well-studied Agency. Rejection of models like the DBM
other explanations. Others (63–65) have in- example of subsistence change associated in favor of explanation by agency echoes
vestigated the failure of simple foraging with OA and one that has been a focus of a long-standing debate in evolutionary bi-
models such as the DBM to capture im- OFT applications is the “broad spectrum ology over the levels of causation (89–93). In
portant influences on agricultural decision revolution” (BSR) (79). The BSR describes behavioral science, ultimate explanations view
making, such as yield variability and labor the expansion of human diets and the in- behavior as a product of natural selection
investment. These studies counter claims tensification of plant and animal exploita- (cultural and biological) whereas proximate
that applications of OFT demand idealistic tion that preceded agricultural beginnings in explanations attempt to understand how
purism or seek perfection in model/data fit many parts of the world. Investigations of the individuals identify challenges, make deci-
(14, 50). BSR with OFT typically use the diet breadth sions, and initiate action (this being the realm
Simple, well-used models of OFT like the model (DBM) and have shown a good fit of of agency). The former have been caricatured
DBM (66) outline the logic of individual, model predictions with empirical data from as evolutionary “why” questions whereas the
time-sensitive decisions, and, because indi- archaeological sites in southwest Asia, the latter have been equated with questions of
viduals make decisions in different contexts, Neotropics, and elsewhere (e.g., refs. 6, 62, “how.” Many see the conflation of these
the model anticipates behavioral variation. and 80–87). Research shows that dietary issues as a general challenge to evolutionary
The extent of this variation in time and space shifts from higher- to lower-ranked plant and theory (93) whereas others recognize that both
is exactly what we find interesting, and relev- animal resources, or a more even dependence are important to understanding the structure

6174 | www.pnas.org/cgi/doi/10.1073/pnas.1308938110 Gremillion et al.

of biological, cultural, and socio-ecological explanations drawn from niche construction EE offers a systematic way to evaluate the
change (42, 92). theory (NCT) (94). NCT highlights the motivations for niche-construction activities
HBE models, specifically the contingency multiple kinds of feedback that flow to the such as landscape management and its in-
models such as the DBM, seek ultimate niche constructor and to other populations tensification. In fact, applications of behav-
explanations by identifying optimal solutions whose environments its niche-constructing ioral ecological models in archaeology often
to immediate problems. They assume that activity influences (e.g., ref. 95). In doing so, highlight the active role of humans in shap-
organisms possess an evolved general capac- NCT makes it possible to better characterize ing their habitats (62, 80, 97, 108). Assertions
ity to achieve these optimal solutions, at least the ecological context in which optimality to the contrary (50) neglect a substantial
on average. Although it is true that models must be assessed. That hunter–gatherers did amount of literature on the subject. Critically,
like the DBM rest heavily on ultimate rather (and do) modify landscapes and resources for HBE permits an evaluation of the overall
than proximate explanation, this trait is no calculated gain is inarguable (96–98); how- return rates associated with resource acqui-
reason to reject them. Indeed, users of the ever, the extent and scope of this practice sition, which must include the costs of
model regularly acknowledge that it is silent are a matter of considerable debate (49). In investing in land management as well as
about proximate causes while recognizing the case of domestication and agriculture, the returns of a managed landscape. EE
that many such causes exist. Both proximate landscape modification has long been recog- (including HBE and OFT) can be useful
and ultimate causes shape evolution, and the nized as an important phenomenon (99– for understanding the evolution of land-
study of evolution must be able to identify 101). However, we do not agree with the scape management practices and other
where and when the feedbacks between contention that OFT models cannot accom- forms of niche construction and for eval-
“hows” and “whys” are reciprocal (92). The modate dynamic environments and argue uating the relationship between land, la-
HBE modeling format makes this step pos- that EE is well-positioned to support and bor, and resource productivity.
sible by being agnostic about proximate complement NCT. We see a problem with using NCT as
causes, and testing hypotheses premised on Although environmental stasis might be a “single unifying approach for integrating
ultimate causation. This agnosticism does not necessary to some aspects of model building consideration of human and non-human
deny human agency but notes that agency, (e.g., the contingency of the DBM assumes modification of ecosystems” (ref. 50, p. 265)
practice, and habitus (for example) are ulti- a static prey ranking), the simple models of because it does not systematically address
mately constrained by natural selection, at foraging theory are equally applicable to dy- how or why humans alter their resource-
least over time. Because the models are not namic environments (102–104). For exam- acquisition patterns. There is little doubt that
absolute covering-law statements, they can ple, the decision contingency of the DBM intensive human activity modifies ecosystems
accommodate feedbacks between proximate (66) is based on the marginal rate of return in diverse ways that nonetheless follow a
and ultimate causes when, for example, nat- established by two important inputs: en- limited set of pathways (50). However, a
ural selection (the ultimate cause) shapes the counter rate (a function of prey abundance) more intriguing question is why altered
way people make decisions (the proximate and postencounter return rate (a function of ecosystems engender or permit novel be-
cause), and those decisions further shape the prey value offset by the costs of acquiring and havioral strategies in some cases but not
environment of selection. processing it). Data for the latter define the others. Indeed, if hunter–gatherer land-
Whether or not the domestication of plants, ranking of different prey, which is fixed until scape modification (including intentional
animals, people, or landscapes entails mor- either the size (or total nutritional value) of enhancement of resource abundance) is a
phological, genetic, or associational change, by the prey changes, or the energetics of cap- common feature of hunter–gatherer adap-
design (i.e., “agency”) or by accident, abruptly turing and processing it do. Thus, for each tive systems, why do so few cases generate
or gradually, understanding the process on the decision contingency there might be a differ- the environment of selection that yields
human side of things requires an archaeology ent prey ranking, and, if so, the “optimal” diet domestic plants and animals? Clearly, more
that tracks change in human behavior. Ar- in that instance may be different from during is at work than the pervasiveness of niche
chaeological data typically say little about the previous instance. The standard logic of construction: insights from NCT require the
individuals but speak volumes about individ- the DBM is that lower-ranked prey enter the evolutionary logic of human decision mak-
uals in aggregate. HBE provides the theoretical diet as the abundance of higher-ranked prey ing in tandem with a tighter consideration
foundation for understanding aggregate pat- declines; increasing abundance of lower- of the interactions between multiple taxa in
terns as the product of individual decisions. ranked prey has only a minimal effect on the novel settings to explain the origins of ag-
Indeed, archaeological data are best viewed as decision to include them in the diet (105, riculture. Without a theory of organismal
the products of traits most common across 106). However, environmental modification behavior, such as HBE, the alternatives imply
a population of individuals; change in the may affect more than just absolute abun- either (i) that humans invented agriculture
spatial and temporal patterns of archaeolog- dance and rates of encounter: change in the and its long-term consequences knowingly
ical data reflects change in the distribution or distribution of taxa also affects postencounter (as some advocates of human agency would
frequency of traits within and among pop- return rates that, in turn, affect the ranking of have us believe), or (ii) that agriculture
ulations, through space and time. different prey taxa. Harvesting and replanting emerged almost randomly as a function of
can raise the density of plants within a patch, dynamic feedbacks between genes, environ-
Ecological Models Accommodate Envi- which can alter the ranking of the resource ment, and the interactions between them
ronmental Change. Some critics of OFT (by reducing the costs of collecting the seeds) (according to the strict version of NCT).
suggest that it assumes an unchanging envi- and boost its dietary importance (which may
ronment (refs. 14 and 50, p. 257). They argue have been constrained initially by scarcity) Integration of Evolutionary Frameworks
that OFT models do not account for change (107). In other cases, selective, intensive har- Evolutionary theory as applied to archaeo-
in the environment of selection that creates vests may reduce the body size of the average logical questions such as OA remains diverse,
domestic plants and animals and suggest individual prey, again affecting the prey as expected for a relatively new but maturing
that they should be discarded in favor of ranking and therefore the optimal decision. field. However, the various approaches share

Gremillion et al. PNAS | April 29, 2014 | vol. 111 | no. 17 | 6175
a commitment to evolutionary explanation standing of domestication will be those that synthesis and, more recently, evolutionary
even though they emphasize different pro- acknowledge that humans are subject to the and ecological developmental biology) have
cesses, questions, and types of causation. EE forces of evolution. We find little justification earned the status of basic assumptions. The
(inclusive of HBE and OFT) (61, 64, 109), for the argument that, of all species, only reality of evolution by natural selection is
niche construction theory (19, 26), and Homo sapiens is capable of transcending such a core idea, arguably the most important
models of cultural transmission and gene– these forces. We also advocate the use of one for OA research. It unifies approaches
culture coevolution (19, 110–112) all have the theoretical frameworks that serve to link that use different analytic tools and methods
potential to link empirical findings to a well- testable hypotheses to ultimate explanations and target different kinds of questions.
established body of knowledge, but they tar- for human behavior. However, we also wish The research programs that cluster under
get different implications of selection. OFT to make it clear that, in doing so, we are not the umbrella of evolutionary theory have
predicts how organisms might mobilize advocating any approach that ignores the
generated, and continue to generate, testable
evolved decision-making mechanisms to distinctiveness of cultural evolution or the
hypotheses that contribute to our un-
maximize utility in the face of conflicting great behavioral plasticity that characterizes
derstanding of OA. Of these, HBE and OFT
needs; niche construction theory asks how human interactions with the natural world.
environmental engineering sets up pathways Nor are we in favor of glossing over historical have a longstanding record of productivity,
of ecological inheritance that affect the fitness particulars in the interests of advancing and, more recently, models of cultural in-
of the organism and its descendants; cultural general theories of change. heritance have begun to show considerable
transmission theory asks how patterns of Calls to purge OA research of HBE or promise. Although there is no way of pre-
social learning peculiar to our species gener- OFT fail to distinguish between levels of dicting which evolutionary perspectives will
ate patterns of descent and divergence in theory and their respective epistemological prove most useful in the long run, one thing
cultural lineages. roles. In OA research, certain core elements is certain: a retreat from theory in favor of
Debates over the relative utility of these of Darwinian evolutionary theory (as ad- particularism will ensure that none of them
approaches have been helpful in distinguish- vanced and amended by the neo-Darwinian achieve their full potential.
ing between fundamental incommensur-
abilities and superficial differences, thereby
moving us closer to synthesis. We agree with 1 Denham TP, et al. (2003) Origins of agriculture at Kuk Swamp in 18 Mesoudi A, Whiten A, Laland KN (2006) Towards a unified
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S379–S395. example of human niche construction. Curr Anthropol 53:434–470.
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