Ideas with Histories: Traditional Knowledge Evolves

Matthew J. Walsh, Sean O’neill, Anna Marie Prentiss, Rane Willerslev, Felix Riede, Peter D. Jordan

Research output: Contribution to journalArticlepeer-review

1 Scopus citations


Anthropologists have long been fascinated by the strikingly similar adaptations of circumpolar cultures as well as their puzzling differences. These patterns of diversity have been mapped, studied, and interpreted from many perspectives and often at different social and spatiotemporal scales. While this work has generated vast archives of legacy data, it has also left behind a fragmented understanding of what underpins Arctic cultural diversity and change. We argue that it is time to engage with questions that highlight the roles of socio-environmental learning and cumulative cultural inheritance in shaping human adaptations to Arctic environs. We situate this in light of longue durée adaptations to environmental change. We examine five case studies that have used this framework to explore the genealogy of northern cultural traditions and show how social learning, cultural inheritance, and transmission processes are germane to understanding the generation and change in varied information systems (i.e., traditional knowledge). Specifically, a cultural evolutionary framework enables long-lens insights into human decision-making trajectories, with continued and prescient impacts in the rapidly changing Arctic. It is critical to improve understandings of traditional knowledge not as static cultural phenomena, but as dynamic lineages of information: ideas with histories. Improving knowledge of the dynamic and evolving character of inherited traditional knowledge in circumpolar human-environment interactions must be a research priority given the pressures of accelerating climate change on Indigenous communities and the social-ecological systems in which they exist in order to help buffer cultural systems against future adaptive challenges in the rapidly changing Arctic.

Original languageEnglish
Pages (from-to)26-47
Number of pages22
Issue number1
StatePublished - Mar 2023


  • Arctic
  • circumpolar cultural diversity
  • climate change
  • cultural evolution
  • cultural inheritance
  • social learning
  • social-ecological systems
  • traditional knowledge


Dive into the research topics of 'Ideas with Histories: Traditional Knowledge Evolves'. Together they form a unique fingerprint.

Cite this