Biological Theory

, Volume 13, Issue 4, pp 213–227 | Cite as

Cultural Exaptation and Cultural Neural Reuse: A Mechanism for the Emergence of Modern Culture and Behavior

  • Francesco d’ErricoEmail author
  • Ivan Colagè
Original Article


On the basis of recent advancements in both neuroscience and archaeology, we propose a plausible biocultural mechanism at the basis of cultural evolution. The proposed mechanism, which relies on the notions of cultural exaptation and cultural neural reuse, may account for the asynchronous, discontinuous, and patchy emergence of innovations around the globe. Cultural exaptation refers to the reuse of previously devised cultural features for new purposes. Cultural neural reuse refers to cases in which exposure to cultural practices induces the formation, activation, and stabilization of new functional and/or structural brain networks during the individual lifespan. The invention of writing is interpreted as a case of cultural exaptation of previous devices to record information, in use since at least the Early Later Stone Age and the beginning of the Upper Paleolithic (44,000 years before present). The measurable changes in brain structure and functioning caused by learning to read are proposed as an exemplar case of cultural neural reuse. It is argued that repeated cycles of cultural exaptation, development of appropriate strategies of cultural transmission, and ensuing cultural neural reuse represent the fundamental mechanism that has regulated the cultural evolution of our lineage. A general predictive model of when and under which circumstances the proposed mechanism should be expected to occur is proposed, and the relationship of our mechanism with gene-culture coevolutionary models is discussed.


Artificial memory systems Brain plasticity Cultural innovations Paleolithic Reading Social learning 



We thank William Banks, Karl Zilles, and Paolo D’Ambrosio for helpful discussions; Laura Comoglio and Luc Doyon for critical reading of the manuscript; and Gauthier Devilder for help with Fig. 2. We also thank two anonymous reviewers for their helpful comments. This research was partially supported by the Research Council of Norway through its Centres of Excellence funding scheme, SFF Centre for Early Sapiens Behaviour (SapienCE), project number 262618, and by the Agence Nationale de la Recherche (ANR-10-LABX-52), LaScArBx Cluster of Excellence.


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© Konrad Lorenz Institute for Evolution and Cognition Research 2018

Authors and Affiliations

  1. 1.UMR-CNRS PACEA de la Préhistoire à l’Actuel: Culture, Environnement et AnthropologieUniversité de BordeauxBordeauxFrance
  2. 2.SFF Centre for Early Sapiens Behaviour (SapienCE)University of BergenBergenNorway
  3. 3.Faculty of PhilosophyPontifical Antonianum UniversityRomeItaly
  4. 4.DISF CentrePontifical University of the Holy CrossRomeItaly

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