Traditional boats in the petri dish – understanding cultural evolution via canoe design

Nothing quite like an academic article on a Friday night to really get you going… and yet, its true. I just was reviewing a piece from a year ago in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences of the United States of America. Deborah S. Rogers and
Paul R. Ehrlich contributed the piece “Natural selection and cultural rates of change”, a fascinating argument in favor of an evolutionary view of cultural changing using design features of Polynesian canoes. Sound good now?

Using Haddon and Hornell’s book Canoes of Oceania, Bishop Museum Press, Honolulu, Hawai’i (excerpts here), Rogers and Ehrlich map out key design features, breaking them into functional elements (e.g., styles of lashing or shape of the iako) and symbolic traits (e.g., inlay patterns or figureheads). They pumped this data into statistical analyses I cannot hope to explain and showed that functional elements were much more stable in terms of amount of change than symbolic elements. In their words:

This result indicates that functional traits have changed at a significantly slower rate than have symbolic traits. This lower rate of turnover, taken at face value, suggests that the functional elements of canoe design were subject to a regime of negative (purifying) selective pressure on the whole, presumably through differential fishing yields, migration success, or survival of the canoe’s occupants.

Basically, functional elements determine boat performance and, since we are not talking about yachts here, this is serious survival stuff. That which did well stuck and stuck hard. The symbolic stuff conferred no big advantage and was subject to creativity and unique expression.

I love that these amazing canoes can contribute to social science in this way and if we have another vehicle to appreciate the “designers” of yore, its all for the good. I guess I can’t help but wonder why sucha conclusion took so long to drop into the literature. Of course things work this way, and it was as true in New England and the North Sea as it was in Tahiti and Tonga. All designers mixed tried and true functional elements (even before there was a science of naval architecture) with their own particular ideas to create their new boats. Success of new ideas was fairly ruthlessly judged on the fisheries and shipping lanes and truly high value functional design elements carried on. It would be interesting to try the same exercise with “Western” work boats of various flavors. Nice work, professors!

By the way, thanks to Kris’s Archaeology Blog and Discover Magazine for help finding this research.

2 Comments for “Traditional boats in the petri dish – understanding cultural evolution via canoe design”



I would like to say you seem to have missed the great Maori canoes from NZ on your map. In the last twenty years or so there has been a revival by Maori tribes who now own big carved Maori canoes that can be paddled and sailed with at least 100 men. They are sea going canoes and have been carved out of large Kauri logs.Though I do know of one which was a plastic fantastic. Look at the site.also TePapa which is the museum in Wellington Look around NZ websites also.
sincerely Tony


Hi Tony. Thanks for visiting and for the recommendation. I hope my readers will offer suggestion s like this to fill out the map. I’ll take a look at these boats and add them in.

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