More on the Origins of "Biocultural"

In response to the Biocultural Evolution Overview post, two senior colleagues alerted me to other sources for the term “biocultural,” dating to the same late 60’s/early 70’s era as Ruyle’s (1973) Human Ecology paper, which was foundational for developing cultural selection concepts within a dual-inheritance framework.

John Shea suggested that Sally Binford may get neologism credit. So I checked two of Sally’s lesser-known articles that John had alerted me to a few years ago (and that I had somehow missed before that). These papers aim to provide evolutionary explanations for the Middle-Upper Paleolithic transition in the Levant–a transition that had long been defined strictly in archaeological culture-history terms, based on stone-tool typologies tied to stratigraphic sequences in key cave and rockshelter sites. In a 1968 paper in American Anthropologist, she hypothesized that big game hunting arose in the later Middle Paleolithic. Moreover, she argued that without projectile weaponry, ancient humans would have only been able to hunt large ungulate prey animals–such as wild cattle (Bos primigenius) or Persian fallow deer (Dama mesopotamica)–through intense social cooperation. Thus, she linked archaeozoological evidence–associating large ungulate bones with later Middle Paleolithic Mousterian stone tools–to cooperative hunting, suggesting that this was the origins of complex cooperation and food sharing in early humans. She further offered that the long-term selective pressure favoring cooperative foraging would most likely have been that of prior human demographic growth. (I will address the whole “population pressure” thing in later posts.) In a follow-up summary article in 1970, she described this evolutionary process as follows:

The study of human evolution is the study of the development of human behavioral systems; and the human behavioral system is composed of two necessarily related subsystems: the biological and the cultural. Culture is defined in Leslie White’s terms as man’s extra-somatic means of adaptation (White, 1959)-all those means of coping with the external world that are learned and not genetically determined. Culture in this sense is predicated on the capacity to symbol, and fully human culture must be distinguished from the protoculture observed by Goodall and others in the behavior of the nonhuman primates. It is clear that culture has been the principal means of human adaptation for at least half a million years; it is culture and the consistent use of cultural means for solving problems of environmental differences that have allowed man to remain the highly generalized single species he is. (Binford 1970:280; emphases added)

John wasn’t quite right, but very close. It is especially interesting to consider how Sally Binford effortlessly nested Leslie White and Lewis Binford’s culture-as-extrasomatic/symbolically-transmitted means of adaptation within her broader “necessarily related subsystems,” which constituted a more comprehensive biocultural adaptation. It will be worth returning later to Leslie White’s treatment of symboling behavior and to the Binfords’s use of systems concepts to investigate culture. In the meantime, John hit the nail on the head that Sally Binford was ahead of her time …

George Armelagos alerted me to a co-authored paper, which–like Ruyle’s–uses the term “bio-cultural” (albeit with the hyphen) in the title. In the same year, 1973! Moreover, this paper suggests that, from the beginning, the term was adopted and used differently in dual-inheritance versus cultural-impacts-on-population-biology frameworks. After very thoroughly critically discussing the history of racial typology and racial migration/replacement explanations of cranial variation in Nubian prehistory, George and his colleagues wrote:

Thus we know, or should know, today that we must consider and explore separately the changes in culture, language, and population which have taken place in the course of Nubian history. So far as population is concerned, we have, notwithstanding earlier theories, no reliable evidence of any major or complete changes during the whole historic period. In the absence of such evidence, and in view of the obvious social and cultural continuity between most of the Nubian cultural phases, we must now adopt as a working hypothesis the idea that the Nubian population has remained basically the same since Neolithic times.[17]

Adams has proposed further that we regard the course of Nubian culture history from Neolithic to Islamic as a continuum of cultural and social development involving three basic stages. These may, for the time being, be designated as Archaic, Dynastic, and Medieval. The first includes the Shaheinab, A-Group, and C-Group phases, the second the Pharaonic, Napatan, Meroitic and X-Group, and the third the Christian and Islamic periods.[l8]

This basic reorientation has provided the necessary context for a biocultural approach to the skeletal biology of Nubian populations. Such an approach views the variation in human populations as dependent upon the action of environmental agencies both mediated by and resulting from patterns of cultural adaptation. The role of the physical anthropologist should, therefore, be to determine the impact of Nubian cultural development on the biology of the populations involved. Such an approach broadens the scope of anthropological inquiry rather than perpetuating the limitations inherent in racial history as an adjunct to archaeological investigation. (van Gerven, Carlson & Armelagos 1973:560; emphases added)

As George has often underscored, his view that culture can influence human biology had grown out of the previous two decades’ developments in biological anthropology, driven by the Modern Synthesis. And his work and thinking has very clearly been a scientific response–grounded thoroughly in evolutionary theory–to continued efforts to shoehorn population variation and evolutionary processes in populations into racial typological schemes. Now one of the main challenges in biocultural inquiry is to elucidate how culture dynamically works as environment shaping selective forces AND as adaptation to the environment.

Thanks to John and George for their tips!


Binford, S.R. (1968). Early Upper Pleistocene adaptations in the Levant. American Anthropologist 70(4):707-717.

Binford, S.R. (1970). Late Middle Paleolithic adaptations and their possible consequences. BioScience 20(5):280-283.

Ruyle, E.E. (1973). Genetic and cultural pools: Some suggestions for a unified theory of biocultural evolution. Human Ecology 1(3):201-215.

van Gerven, D.P., Carlson, D.S. & Armelagos, G.J. (1973). Racial history and bio-cultural adaptations of Nubian populations. Journal of African History 14(4):555-564.

White, L. (1959). The Evolution of Culture. New York: McGraw-Hill Book Co.