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Department of History and Philosophy of Science


6 October 2020 to 1 January 2022

The story of hominin populations over the course of the last two million years is one of increasing inventiveness and collaboration, supported by increased capacities for culture and social learning. Yet it is also a story of radical changes to social organizations and economic exchange. As groups explored, foraged, or fled across landscapes, they could encounter other populations with different resources, tools, myths, and rituals.

Landscape, language, power and tradition erect group boundaries of different porosity. Sometimes these boundaries are permissive; goods, ideas, practices, and people can readily diffuse across them. At other times they mark a barrier. Here exchange is impossible, refused, foreclosed, or impractical. The ultimate cause of such boundaries may result from inter-group dynamics, like conflict or accessibility. But they may also result from endogenous change, when linguistic divergence or technological incompatibilities create opportunity costs. In both cases, boundaries harden.

This project investigates the processes and patterns of human cultures at and above the group level. Drawing on archaeology, cultural evolution, cognitive science, and philosophy, the project explores the importance of cultural groups and group boundaries for understanding cultural change at encompassing spatial and temporal scales.

We gratefully acknowledge funding provided through a strategic partnership between the Paris Sciences et Lettres Research University and the University of Cambridge, with support from the Embassy of France. We further extend our thanks to the Max Planck Institute for the Science of Human History for their support.


Principle Investigators:


Seminar series and workshop

We are very pleased to announce the schedule for this term's seminar series. The seminars will take the form of pre-recorded talks, to be made available in late March. In April, speakers will attend live, one-hour discussion sessions. The series concludes with a summative two-hour workshop. All events will begin at 15:00 BST.

The dates for these discussion sessions are as follows:

  • 1 April: Mary Towner (Oklahoma State University)
  • 6 April: TBA
  • 8 April: Damián Blasi (Harvard University)
  • 13 April: Solange Rigaud (Université de Bordeaux)

The summative workshop will take place on 15 April also at 15:00 BST.

Previous seminars

The Michaelmas series was held in early December 2020. Our speakers were Cristina Moya (University of California, Davis); Felix Riede (Aarhus University); Cailin O'Connor (University of California, Irvine); and Barbara Mills (University of Arizona).

Speaker talks and transcripts, when available, can be found on the University Streaming Media Service.

For more information about this series, or to request participation, please contact Andrew Buskell (ab2086).