Agent-based model experiments refute Dunnell’s adaptive waste explanation for cultural elaboration

  1. Brea McCauley
  2. Andre Costopoulos

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Description: Ancient monuments represent a puzzle from the perspective of evolutionary theory. It is clear that they would have been energetically expensive to construct but they are not easy to explain in terms of reproductive success. In the late 1980s, the well-known evolutionary archaeologist Robert Dunnell argued that these and other cases of what he called cultural elaboration actually conferred a fitness advantage in highly variable environments. Here, we report a study in which we tested the key predictions of Dunnell’s waste hypothesis with an agent-based model. In the model, the agents inherited wasting behaviour and were subjected to selective pressure from a variable environment. The results we obtained do not support the hypothesis. Most importantly, we found that the propensity for waste was strongly selected against in all environments. At the start of each experiment agents were likely to waste 50% of the time on average, but selection drove that rate down to the minimum possible level of ~10%. This suggests that wasting does not provide an adaptive advantage in highly variable environments in the manner that Dunnell proposed.


The NetLogo code for the model and our R scripts can be downloaded at


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