Published online before print August 7, 2017, doi: 10.1073/pnas.1614395114
PNAS August 7, 2017
This paper presents unprecedented evidence on the transmission mechanism underlying the spread of a broad cross-cultural assemblage of folktales in Eurasia and Africa. State-of-the-art genomic evidence is used to directly assess the relevance of demic diffusion processes, in particular on the distribution of Old World folktales at intermediate geographic scales, and identify individual stories that are more likely to be transmitted through population movement and replacement. The results provide an empirical solution to operate with linguistic barriers and highlight the impossibility of disentangling genetic from geographic relationships at a cross-continental scale, warning against the direct use of extant genetic variability to infer processes of long-range cultural transmission.
Observable patterns of cultural variation are consistently intertwined with demic movements, cultural diffusion, and adaptation to different ecological contexts [Cavalli-Sforza and Feldman (1981) Cultural Transmission and Evolution: A Quantitative Approach; Boyd and Richerson (1985) Culture and the Evolutionary Process]. The quantitative study of gene–culture coevolution has focused in particular on the mechanisms responsible for change in frequency and attributes of cultural traits, the spread of cultural information through demic and cultural diffusion, and detecting relationships between genetic and cultural lineages. Here, we make use of worldwide whole-genome sequences [Pagani et al. (2016) Nature 538:238–242] to assess the impact of processes involving population movement and replacement on cultural diversity, focusing on the variability observed in folktale traditions (n = 596) [Uther (2004) The Types of International Folktales: A Classification and Bibliography. Based on the System of Antti Aarne and Stith Thompson] in Eurasia. We find that a model of cultural diffusion predicted by isolation-by-distance alone is not sufficient to explain the observed patterns, especially at small spatial scales (up to ∼ 4,000 km). We also provide an empirical approach to infer presence and impact of ethnolinguistic barriers preventing the unbiased transmission of both genetic and cultural information. After correcting for the effect of ethnolinguistic boundaries, we show that, of the alternative models that we propose, the one entailing cultural diffusion biased by linguistic differences is the most plausible. Additionally, we identify 15 tales that are more likely to be predominantly transmitted through population movement and replacement and locate putative focal areas for a set of tales that are spread worldwide.