Evolving Culture: Where Do We Go From Here?

A male musk ox stands in a paddock at the Large Animal Research Station in Fairbanks, Alaska. i i

Hide And Seek? A male musk ox stands in a paddock at the Large Animal Research Station in Fairbanks, Alaska. The musk ox is genetically adapted to survive the harsh climate. Its long hair skirt, covering a fine wool coat and a 2-inch layer of fat, allows the animal to retain heat during the long, lean winters. All animals, except humans, adapt to climate by changing genetically. Jane Greenhalgh/NPR hide caption

itoggle caption Jane Greenhalgh/NPR
A male musk ox stands in a paddock at the Large Animal Research Station in Fairbanks, Alaska.

Hide And Seek? A male musk ox stands in a paddock at the Large Animal Research Station in Fairbanks, Alaska. The musk ox is genetically adapted to survive the harsh climate. Its long hair skirt, covering a fine wool coat and a 2-inch layer of fat, allows the animal to retain heat during the long, lean winters. All animals, except humans, adapt to climate by changing genetically.

Jane Greenhalgh/NPR

For billions of years, the environment and how it affected organisms' genes was the key to evolution. But in the past 10,000 years, for humans at least, genetic evolution has been nudged aside by something more powerful.

"What we are able to do which other animals aren't able to do is to rapidly adapt to completely new environments," says Robert Boyd, an anthropologist at the University of California, Los Angeles. "Most animals — all animals except humans — would have to adapt to that by changing genetically."

Humans Adapt With Their Wits

Think about it. Let's say you want to live in Fairbanks, Alaska. If you're a musk ox, you can't build a shelter or buy insulations, so you make your own.

"They have a very, very superfine sort of wool that's underneath a long skirt of hair," says biologist Perry Barboza, director of the Large Animal Research Station, a part of the University of Alaska, Fairbanks. "That provides an enormous amount of insulation. And on top of that, or beneath that, they have about 2 inches fat as well."

But musk ox can only survive in one kind of environment. Transport them to the desert, and they die within days because they don't have the physiology to get rid of excess heat.

Humans can live anywhere they like: in Fairbanks, where the winters get to 40 below zero, or Dubai, where the summers are routinely 100 and above. The reason is we don't have to make genetic adaptations to our environments in order to survive.

Cold Weather Survival

Native Alaskan cultures created incredibly innovative tools and techniques to enable survival in the frozen, inhospitable climate. Click through the photos below to see some of the clothing and tools that gave them a uniquely Human Edge.

  • Inupiaq snow goggles. Ultraviolet light reflected from snow harms the retinas of the eyes, causing severe pain and temporary blindness. These elegant wooden goggles with narrow slits protected the eyes against sun and snow glare.
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    Inupiaq snow goggles. Ultraviolet light reflected from snow harms the retinas of the eyes, causing severe pain and temporary blindness. These elegant wooden goggles with narrow slits protected the eyes against sun and snow glare.
    Images courtesy of the Smithsonian Institution
  • St. Lawrence Island Yupik bird-skin parka. This warm, lightweight parka is made from 85 crested auklet skins with a guillemot skin at each shoulder and dog-fur trim. St. Lawrence Island women made these parkas from the skins of auklets, ducks, cormorants, murres, loons and puffins.
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    St. Lawrence Island Yupik bird-skin parka. This warm, lightweight parka is made from 85 crested auklet skins with a guillemot skin at each shoulder and dog-fur trim. St. Lawrence Island women made these parkas from the skins of auklets, ducks, cormorants, murres, loons and puffins.
    Images courtesy of the Smithsonian Institution
  • Unangax gut parka. Unangax women created lightweight, waterproof parkas from the intestines of sea lions, seals, whales, grizzly bears and whale tongue. Women made watertight seams by sewing a double fold with thread made from fox or whale sinew.
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    Unangax gut parka. Unangax women created lightweight, waterproof parkas from the intestines of sea lions, seals, whales, grizzly bears and whale tongue. Women made watertight seams by sewing a double fold with thread made from fox or whale sinew.
    Images courtesy of the Smithsonian Institution
  • Unangax boots. These chief's boots were made from bleached seal throats, with dyed-membrane applique and topped with fur seal. The boots were sewn with whale or caribou sinew, which swelled when wet to make the seams completely watertight.
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    Unangax boots. These chief's boots were made from bleached seal throats, with dyed-membrane applique and topped with fur seal. The boots were sewn with whale or caribou sinew, which swelled when wet to make the seams completely watertight.
    Images courtesy of the Smithsonian Institution
  • Yupik boots. A woman's tasseled winter boots made from caribou leg skins. The bands on top are white caribou belly with stripes of either beaver or bear. One pair of boots required all four of the animal's limbs.
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    Yupik boots. A woman's tasseled winter boots made from caribou leg skins. The bands on top are white caribou belly with stripes of either beaver or bear. One pair of boots required all four of the animal's limbs.
    Images courtesy of the Smithsonian Institution
  • St. Lawrence Island Yupik ice grippers. These ivory spikes were worn with skin boots to prevent slipping on ice. Cleats of this type were invented at least 2,000 years ago and have been found in sites of the Old Bering Sea.
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    St. Lawrence Island Yupik ice grippers. These ivory spikes were worn with skin boots to prevent slipping on ice. Cleats of this type were invented at least 2,000 years ago and have been found in sites of the Old Bering Sea.
    Images courtesy of the Smithsonian Institution
  • Athabascan snowshoes. Long round-toed snowshoes with fine caribou-hide mesh were for walking in deep, soft snow. On crusted snow, a hunter on snowshoes and his dogs could easily run down a moose, which breaks through the snow up to its belly with every step.
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    Athabascan snowshoes. Long round-toed snowshoes with fine caribou-hide mesh were for walking in deep, soft snow. On crusted snow, a hunter on snowshoes and his dogs could easily run down a moose, which breaks through the snow up to its belly with every step.
    Images courtesy of the Smithsonian Institution
  • Inupiaq needle case. Early Alaskans depended on needles to sew the warm, watertight clothing needed to survive in the arctic. A woman kept her sewing needles on a leather strap inside a sliding tube. Different needles were used for sewing tough seal hide, fur and delicate gut membranes.
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    Inupiaq needle case. Early Alaskans depended on needles to sew the warm, watertight clothing needed to survive in the arctic. A woman kept her sewing needles on a leather strap inside a sliding tube. Different needles were used for sewing tough seal hide, fur and delicate gut membranes.
    Images courtesy of the Smithsonian Institution
  • Sugpiaq sewing bag. Sewing was an essential skill and one of a woman's most important assets for marriage. Women kept their sewing materials, including thread made of sinew, in pouches like this one made of bleached seal throats and painted skin with caribou-hair embroidery.
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    Sugpiaq sewing bag. Sewing was an essential skill and one of a woman's most important assets for marriage. Women kept their sewing materials, including thread made of sinew, in pouches like this one made of bleached seal throats and painted skin with caribou-hair embroidery.
    Images courtesy of the Smithsonian Institution
  • Athabascan basket. Baskets like this one made of birch bark and reinforced by a double rim of bentwood hoops were made to hold water and store foods such as berries, fish, oil and bear grease. Soups and stews were cooked in them by adding hot stones.
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    Athabascan basket. Baskets like this one made of birch bark and reinforced by a double rim of bentwood hoops were made to hold water and store foods such as berries, fish, oil and bear grease. Soups and stews were cooked in them by adding hot stones.
    Images courtesy of the Smithsonian Institution

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  • Haida seal club. Heavy hardwood clubs were used to kill seals at their rookeries or to strike them in the water after they had been speared.
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    Haida seal club. Heavy hardwood clubs were used to kill seals at their rookeries or to strike them in the water after they had been speared.
    Images courtesy of the Smithsonian Institution
  • St. Lawrence Island Yupik harpoon. A heavy harpoon for walrus hunting was one of a man's most important weapons. The point was coated with ice to make it slip smoothly through thick hide.
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    St. Lawrence Island Yupik harpoon. A heavy harpoon for walrus hunting was one of a man's most important weapons. The point was coated with ice to make it slip smoothly through thick hide.
    Images courtesy of the Smithsonian Institution
  • Haida harpoon head and cedar sheath. Harpoons were tipped with a point made of bone or iron. A plaited seaweed cord linked the harpoon head to the shaft.
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    Haida harpoon head and cedar sheath. Harpoons were tipped with a point made of bone or iron. A plaited seaweed cord linked the harpoon head to the shaft.
    Images courtesy of the Smithsonian Institution
  • Athabascan bow. Longbows were made from birch, willow or spruce wood, and the string was twisted sinew from the spinal tendons of a caribou. The wooden projection in the middle caught the string and prevented it from lashing the bowman's wrist.
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    Athabascan bow. Longbows were made from birch, willow or spruce wood, and the string was twisted sinew from the spinal tendons of a caribou. The wooden projection in the middle caught the string and prevented it from lashing the bowman's wrist.
    Images courtesy of the Smithsonian Institution
  • Athabascan knife. Every man carried a knife at his side in a beaded or quill-embroidered sheath. The knives were originally made of bone or copper.
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    Athabascan knife. Every man carried a knife at his side in a beaded or quill-embroidered sheath. The knives were originally made of bone or copper.
    Images courtesy of the Smithsonian Institution
  • Yupik ice scratcher. Hunters stalked seals as they slept or sunned themselves on the sea ice. If the animals became startled, the hunter would scratch the ice with this tool, which imitated the sound of a seal digging its hole and would lull the animal back to sleep. The blue bead represents the passageway between the human and animal worlds.
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    Yupik ice scratcher. Hunters stalked seals as they slept or sunned themselves on the sea ice. If the animals became startled, the hunter would scratch the ice with this tool, which imitated the sound of a seal digging its hole and would lull the animal back to sleep. The blue bead represents the passageway between the human and animal worlds.
    Images courtesy of the Smithsonian Institution
  • Sugpiaq halibut hook. Halibut was a staple food and was caught with these V-shaped wooden hooks, which were floated just above the seafloor by an inflated stomach buoy. Spirit figures were carved on the hook to attract the fish.
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    Sugpiaq halibut hook. Halibut was a staple food and was caught with these V-shaped wooden hooks, which were floated just above the seafloor by an inflated stomach buoy. Spirit figures were carved on the hook to attract the fish.
    Images courtesy of the Smithsonian Institution
  • Unangax woman's knife. This knife was used for cutting hides, meat and blubber and is similar to knives used today across the arctic. Knives like these were also used to split seagull bones into fine slivers to make needles.
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    Unangax woman's knife. This knife was used for cutting hides, meat and blubber and is similar to knives used today across the arctic. Knives like these were also used to split seagull bones into fine slivers to make needles.
    Images courtesy of the Smithsonian Institution
  • Haida bark beater. A heavy, ridged bone beater was used to pound and soften yellow cedar bark for weaving. Cedar bark was so important in daily life that it was known as "every woman's elder sister."
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    Haida bark beater. A heavy, ridged bone beater was used to pound and soften yellow cedar bark for weaving. Cedar bark was so important in daily life that it was known as "every woman's elder sister."
    Images courtesy of the Smithsonian Institution
  • Athabascan bark-stripping tool. A sharpened caribou leg bone decorated with raven-foot designs was used for peeling bark from birch trees.
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    Athabascan bark-stripping tool. A sharpened caribou leg bone decorated with raven-foot designs was used for peeling bark from birch trees.
    Images courtesy of the Smithsonian Institution
  • A Yukon River canoe equipped with a fishing spear. Athabascan bark canoes were light, fast and notoriously tippy. They were paddled, poled or pulled along by dogs on the river bank.
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    A Yukon River canoe equipped with a fishing spear. Athabascan bark canoes were light, fast and notoriously tippy. They were paddled, poled or pulled along by dogs on the river bank.
    Images courtesy of the Smithsonian Institution
  • St. Lawrence Island Yupik boat sled. This small, traditional sled was for hauling hunting boats over sea ice to open water. This one is made of wood with walrus tusks for runners.
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    St. Lawrence Island Yupik boat sled. This small, traditional sled was for hauling hunting boats over sea ice to open water. This one is made of wood with walrus tusks for runners.
    Images courtesy of the Smithsonian Institution

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"You could say that one of the most important tools for [humans] surviving in the north is the needle," says Aron Crowell, who is Alaska Director of the Smithsonian's Arctic Studies Center. The earliest humans used those needles to sew warm, waterproof clothing: fur jackets, sealskin boots and waterproof parkas.

Eskimos don't have a gene that tells them how to make a parka. That ability comes from cultural knowledge passed from generation to generation. Sure, we needed to evolve a brain that could conceive of the idea of using seal intestines to make a waterproof parka, but Boyd says having a big brain is just the start.

"It's easy to see that it's not individual intelligence that makes us so good at adapting," he says. "It's an important component, but we also need the ability to accumulate knowledge gradually over a whole population of people over hundreds or maybe even thousands of years."

The Franklin Expedition in the mid-1800s exemplifies this concept well, Boyd says. On May 19, 1845, two ships set out from England in search of the Northwest Passage through the Arctic. Neither returned. Almost 15 years later, a search party found a single sheet of paper left in a tin can covered by stones on King William Island in the Canadian Arctic.

28 of May 1847 … Having wintered in 1846-7 at Beechey Island … after having ascended Wellington Channel and returned by the West side of Cornwallis Island. Sir John Franklin commanding the Expedition. All well.

But scribbled in the margins of the paper was a more ominous note.

Sir John Franklin died on the 11th June, 1847, and the total loss by deaths in the Expedition has been to this date 9 officers & 15 men.

In the end, all perished, but not before the starving crew apparently resorted to cannibalism. Boyd says the irony is that there were Canadian Eskimos living near where the ships became frozen in the ice, and the Eskimos survived the harsh winter just fine.

"The difference was the English sailors didn't have the knowledge to live in the Arctic, and they couldn't figure it out on their own," he says.

Sharing Knowledge

For the past 10,000 years, it's been cultural changes that have shaped how humans have evolved and coped with their environments — not genetic changes.

And just as geneticists have been looking at ancient DNA to see how new genes emerged and spread, anthropologists and archaeologists are trying to do the same for the emergence and transmission of new skills.

Archaeologist Ben Potter of the University of Alaska, Fairbanks, spends a lot of time visiting ancient sites of human habitation throughout the state. He says you can think of them like a laboratory to understand how humans coped "when they're pushed to their limit, or when they are approaching an environment that they're not equipped for biologically."

Ten-thousand years ago, the latest development in arrowheads or stone microblades would be passed from parent to child or tribe to tribe. Now, the way cultural information is transmitted has changed dramatically. UCLA's Boyd says that today there are institutions whose whole function is to be engaged in cultural transmission.

"Schools, religious institutions and other kinds of associations — and then there are things like NPR who transmit to zillions of people," he says.

There's a torrent of cultural knowledge flowing over us all the time, and we get to decide how to use that knowledge to shape our future.

"Where it's going to go? Your guess is as good as mine," he says.

Wherever it goes, if we don't like the outcome, we'll have only ourselves to blame.

This story was produced by Jane Greenhalgh.

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