Cultural evolution as a theory in anthropology was developed in the 19th century, and it was an outgrowth of Darwinian evolution. Cultural evolution presumes that over time, cultural change such as the rise of social inequalities or emergence of agriculture occurs as a result of humans adapting to some noncultural stimulus, such as climate change or population growth. However, unlike Darwinian evolution, cultural evolution was considered directional, that is, as human populations transform themselves, their culture becomes progressively complex.
The theory of cultural evolution was applied to archaeological studies by British archaeologists A.H.L. Fox Pitt-Rivers and V.G. Childe in the early 20th century. Americans were slow to follow until Leslie White's study of cultural ecology in the 1950s and 1960s.
Today, the theory of cultural evolution is an (often unstated) underpinning for other, more complex explanations for cultural change, and for the most part archaeologists believe that social changes are not only driven by biology or a strict adaptation to change, but by a complex web of social, environmental, and biological factors.
Bentley, R. Alexander, Carl Lipo, Herbert D.G. Maschner, and Ben Marler. 2008. Darwinian Archaeologies. Pp. 109-132 in Handbook of Archaeological Theories, R.A. Bentley, H.D.G. Maschner, and C. Chippendale, eds. Altamira Press, Lanham, Maryland.
Feinman, Gary. 2000. Cultural Evolutionary Approaches and Archaeology: Past, Present and Future. Pp. 1-12 in Cultural Evolution: Contemporary Viewpoints, G. Feinman and L. Manzanilla, eds. Kluwer/Academic Press, London.
This glossary entry is part of the Dictionary of Archaeology.