What’s more important in storytelling: the teller or the tale?

In the beginning times, Taka and her younger brother Toro were rowing through a storm and crashed upon a rocky island in the sea. Taka stepped ashore and the sharp rocks cut her feet. Everywhere her blood touched, life sprung forth. The grasses and the trees took root and the people, our ancestors, arose from the drops of blood.

If I tell you a story, what will you remember? Will it be the social interactions that stick in your mind? The tricks for survival, the moral lessons—or the strange talking animals?

Will you remember more of the story if you hear it in a West Country British English accent, an Inland South American English accent, or from an “upper-class” BBC English speaker? 

In our Evolutionary Human Sciences paper we tried to answer this question. What matters more: the tale or the teller? In Prestige and content biases together shape the cultural transmission of narratives, Ricky Berl and Alarna Samarasinghe (PhD students then, now fully-fledged Drs), together with Sean Roberts, Michael Gavin, and I—used storytelling and re-telling as a means to address the interactions of content and context biases in cultural transmission.

Cultural evolution researchers who are interested in how information is transmitted between individuals theorise that there are a suite of social learning biases that can influence the ways in which aspects of culture are transmitted. Simply put, not all information has an equal chance of being transmitted from one person to another. Content biases are psychological preferences for certain types of information: social information like gossip, for example, or a bias towards counter-intuitive phenomena, like talking birds. Context biases, particularly model-based biases, refer to a bias for preferential learning from certain sources: people like ourselves, for example, or people with high prestige.

In our study, we were interested in how the prestige of the “model” (the storyteller) might interact with the content of the information to be passed on (the tale). Prestige is a very hard concept to study experimentally, because you can’t easily manipulate individuals to be prestigious (or not) to all of your study participants. Luckily, some of our team’s research interests are in evolutionary linguistics and linguistic anthropology, and we were influenced by work in sociolinguistics on accent prestige. While individuals do differ in their own judgements, national ratings of accent qualities such as prestige, friendliness, and trustworthiness can be remarkably consistent. 

In a couple of run-up studies, we surveyed the perceived qualities of a range of British and American English accents, and we developed a scale for assessing prestige based on accent information. We could then present stories to listeners (in the UK and the USA) in different accents that were locally-calibrated on measures of prestige. Surprisingly, there hasn’t been that much interaction between sociolinguistics and cultural evolution—odd, because researchers in both traditions are interested in the small-scale social interactions that affect the ways language and culture change over time! So we hope our study goes a little way towards inspiring more cross-over interactions between these fields.

Placing his fingers in his mouth, Toro blew a whistle so piercing that Puna fell from her perch in terror. From out of the jungle came a mass of red ants.

“Why do you call us?” they demanded in their many tiny voices.

“I am building a new island,” Toro announced, “And if you help me you can be the first to live there and can take the best homes for yourselves.”

So what did people hear in these accents? We presented people with creation narratives: stories telling the origins of people and places. Anthropologists and folklorists have collated and recorded creation stories from all over the world, and as part of our study we coded existing creation stories for the kinds of social learning biases that were present, as a baseline. But for our experiment, we commissioned a writer to create culturally non-specific stories. We wanted our participants to be unfamiliar with the stories, and we also felt it was important not to appropriate important cultural knowledge from indigenous communities. 

One story tells of Taka and Toro, two jealous seafaring siblings, and their competition over the friendship of the peoples that they created on different islands [read] [listen]. The other story explains how the actions of Muki, a child abandoned by its parents, shaped a rugged landscape and the varieties of life-forms that come into being [read] [listen]. The wonderful illustrations in this blog post are by Helen Spence-Jones (she takes commissions!).

In the beginning times, Mata and Pata had run away together from the place of their people, far away beyond the realm of the sky, farther away than the stars stretch. The elder ones had not approved of their marriage and so they fled to our world here, which was then only a vast plain. They had with them their Child, Muki, who was the source of their greatest joys.

Each of the stories was carefully constructed to have proportions of content that matched our ethnographic baseline, that is, numbers of propositions that reflected so-called biases for social, survival, moral, emotional, rational, and counter-intuitive information. Then, we had speakers with different accents read and record the stories. 

Participants from both the UK and the USA heard each story, one in a low- and one in a high-prestige accent. They then gave their best effort to re-tell them orally, with a clever online recording set-up. We transcribed these re-tellings, coded them for the content biases, and analysed what propositions were recalled as a function of accent prestige and a host of listener characteristics. This was an absolutely mammoth task, shouldered for the largest part by Ricky and Alarna, who can now recite those stories in their sleep! We’ve made all the transcripts available on the Open Science Framework site, and we hope they will be a wonderful rich resource for others to analyse with a host of different approaches.

Muki grabbed fists full of clay and scraped out steep valleys in the land. The Child’s tantrum churned up the hills as her kicking heels pounded in the earth. Her blood stained the clay, giving life, and she cried huge tears that became the Great River.

What did we expect to see? Back in 2013 when Mike Gavin and I were first discussing this idea, we thought it might be quite simple: we’d expect more recall overall when hearing a tale from a prestigious teller, but maybe we might see some interesting interactions with content. But we had no fixed colours to nail to the mast, or point to prove on any particular social learning bias. The important contribution was our study design, which allowed us to look at the interaction between content and models more intricately than had been done before, and which brought a real-world validity to the concept of prestige by using locally-calibrated accents.

The first finding was just how little people recalled: on average, only about 14% of the propositions in the stories. Perhaps that’s unfair, though. While listeners did know they’d be asked to recall a story, they only heard it once, and it was unfamiliar to them. People varied on overall recall, as you’d expect, but the variation had few predictors beyond a measure of working memory (you can see this in Fig 3 of the paper, below). So, if we were to do this again, one thing to vary would be the number of times people heard the story. It wasn’t practical to do this as a “live” transmission chain, but if that was possible, we could reflect a real-world storytelling environment more closely. 

If you’ve read this far, you’re probably on the edge of your seat for the punchline—what is it? Prestige of teller’s accent? Or content biases in the tale?

It’s complicated (sorry!) 

The prestige condition did not predict overall recall, so there’s no simple story. So asking your friend with a particular accent to record your lecture notes for revision purposes probably won’t work (for prestige reasons. It might work for other reasons!). In Figure 2 from the paper, you can also see that there’s no difference between high and low prestige accents for most  of the content biases, so there are no clear patterns there.

Figure 2

However, we did find that prestige impacted the recall of basic social information and “unbiased information”, that is, propositions in the stories without particular types of content predicted by theory. We then analysed a range of predictive models that included different combinations of story-based effects, the prestige condition, the presence or absence of each content bias, and participant demographics. Figure 3 shows those effects that had a positive or negative effect on recall. A number of the content biases had significant effects (odds ratios above 1): counterintuitive (biological violations), negative emotional, social, and survival biases. For a description of each of these biases, and examples, see Table 1 in the paper. Prestige had a significant effect, but this was smaller than the content. For these kinds of stories at least, some content is reliably sticky—and prestige gives listeners a leg-up as a recall strategy if the content isn’t “biased”.

Figure 3

There’s a lot more to say, both about the work presented in the paper and the project’s approach in general, but I’m in danger of repeating the paper (do go read it and ask questions!). Despite our original simple idea (“let’s use accent prestige as a nice real-world proxy, and test content and context biases together!”) it’s fair to say that this was much harder—conceptually, logistically, and in interpretation—than we originally expected. Creation stories presented a fantastic opportunity to test as many content biases as possible, but a challenge on the other hand, because creation narratives are relatively “low-stakes” for listeners and may be best suited to testing model familiarity biases (i.e. we might expect to hear such stories in familiar voices: we address this in the paper). 

As well, with hindsight I think we all wish we could have predicted the pandemic and looked at health messaging with this set-up. But hopefully others will take up the accent-prestige paradigm and use it fruitfully on all sorts of information-transmission domains! And we strongly encourage other researchers to avail themselves of the data we collected from all of our participant storytellers—there are some lovely gems in there, and we’re very grateful to all our participants.

Then out of the clay came our people, those who are our ancestors, because the land around Muki was good and fertile. The Child called Muki became the mountain that protects our village. We knew then as we do today that the Child must never be alone again, and we wait for Mata and Pata to return for her.




Varikin Findings: There are no universals in the cultural evolution of kinship terminology

There is huge potential for variation between kinship terminology (systems of words for relatives) cross-culturally. In fact, for a set of 16 relatives, there are 10,480,142,147 theoretically possible ways to categorise them. Given the potential for effectively unbridled variation in kinship terminology, observed diversity seems remarkably constrained, and has previously been categorised into six key types (see Fig. 1). Each type has been hypothesised to align with particular cultural norms of descent, marriage or residence patterns, and it was thought that these social systems acted as drivers of the variation and change of kinship terminology. However, since these conclusions were reached, there have been significant improvements in data and statistics. Will they still stand up when tested using more modern methods?

VariKin members Sam Passmore and Fiona Jordan’s 2020 publication No universals in the cultural evolution of kinship terminology put this to the test. They used phylogenetic comparative methods (PCMs) to explore the cultural evolutionary patterns of kinship terminology diversity, particularly testing so-called drivers of change such as marriage, residence and descent. This study marks the first cross-language-family phylogenetic analysis of the drivers of kinship terminology and investigates the Austronesian, Bantu and Uto-Aztecan language families (selected due to their large size and cultural data availability). In the study, they found no evidence for previously assumed universal drivers of evolution in kinship terminologies, because no presumed universal relationship linking kinship terminology and social structure was supported across all language families. This is not because one or two societies do not follow a trend: for most of the hypotheses tested, they could not conservatively even claim ‘statistical regularity’.

However, rather than assume that the lack of statistical relationship between kinship terminology types and social structure indicates no functional relationship, the authors suggest that the typology might misrepresent kinship terminological diversity by being too crude a characterisation. This raises the important question of how well existing typologies represent known diversity, and the results from this particular study – which was always an integral investigation of the VariKin Project – have helped to clear the ground for more detailed characterisations of kinship organisation in future. For example, as stated in the publication, the creation of the “Kinbank” database as part of the VariKin project will allow us to more realistically characterise types and patterns of change in kinterms without built-in assumptions of the influence from social structure.

Varikin Findings: How Pama-Nyungan Grandparent Naming Systems Change

The VariKin project has examined the cultural evolution of kinship terminology from a range of perspectives and methods. Considerable research by our group and others has focused on the comparison of cousin and sibling terms, but grandparent terms, the topic of this paper, are largely understudied. The social salience of grandparents, due to their frequent role in the care of grandchildren as well as in controlling wealth and cultural knowledge, suggested that a project of this focus was long overdue.

Catherine Sheard and Fiona Jordan from the VariKin team, along with Claire Bowern and Rikker Dockum (Yale University), addressed this gap in an open access paper published earlier this year in Evolutionary Human Sciences. “Pama–Nyungan grandparent systems change with grandchildren, but not cross-cousin terms or social norms” compares grandparent terms across 134 Australian languages from the Pama-Nyungan family. Using Pama-Nyungan as a study system is less common in studies of kinship macroevolution. Australia’s ecological and anthropological history (namely, a continental radiation of primarily hunter-gatherer languages) provides a contrasting example to language families associated with agricultural spreads, such as Austronesian or Bantu.



A standard way of thinking about grandparental kin terms is to consider each of parent of mother and father: MM, MF, FM, and FF. Pitjantjatjara has a two-term system that merges gender like English does, with ‘kami’ for MM and FM (grandmother), and ‘amu’ for FF and MF (grandfather). Other languages have four separate terms, for example, Alyawarra has ‘arrenge’ FF, ‘artartetye’ MF, ‘anyanye’ MM and ‘aperle’ FM. Pama-Nyungan languages also explore other three-term systems that merge parallel grandparents, so that MM=FF as in Djapu, or merge cross grandparents, so that MF=FM, as in Yagara.

The group used Bayesian phylogenetic comparative methods to model the stages of grandparent naming systems (see Fig 3. below). This analysis suggests that the ancestral, proto-Pama–Nyungan system had four separate terms (on the left of the diagram below). In different groups of languages, this shifted to either a two-term system (merging sexes, like English), or a three-term system merging parallel grandparents (MM=FF), with a potential third stage (merging cross, MF=FM) emerging in some cases from there. Note that some of these transitions seem to have occurred without a stable intermediate state.



As well as making discoveries regarding systems of grandparental terminology, Catherine and colleagues note that we still do not know why it is that these systems transitioned in that particular order. In their paper, the authors tested potential social factors that might drive these transitions (community marriage organisation, and post-marital residence) but found no significant correlations. There was minimal co-evolution with the rest of the terms in the kinship system, and it remains an open question what linguistic or social forces shape grandparent terms.

VariKin Findings: Frequently-used kinship terms evolve slowly

VariKin Findings: Frequently-used kinship terms evolve slowly

— by Maisie Ford

Language is constantly changing. As new words are born or enter a language, old words fall out of use. Linguists have known for a long time that some words endure longer than others. Some core vocabulary, like numbers, names of common animals/plants, and words for parts of the body can be thousands of years old and still in use. This intuition was put to the test by Mark Pagel, Quentin Atkinson, and Andrew Meade in their 2007 paper, Frequency of word-use predicts rates of lexical evolution throughout Indo-European history. Using language corpora (large collections of transcribed speech or collected text), and phylogenetic comparative methods, they found that more frequently used words from the core vocabulary are replaced at a slower rate in European languages.

Image credit: Altrincham Adventures in Art

But why is this? Do often-used words leave a stronger imprint in our minds and are therefore less likely to be lost? Or is it that large scale conceptual or social changes relating to how we think and talk about the world around us are more likely to displace words that are used less often?

VariKin team members Péter Rácz and Sam Passmore (lead authors), Catherine Sheard and Fiona Jordan explored this very question with kinship words in their open-access paper, “Usage frequency and lexical class determine the evolution of kinship terms in Indo-European”, published in Royal Society Open Science in October 2019.

Péter collected large-scale language corpora across 47 Indo-European languages, so as to determine the frequency of use of terms for family and kin. Using phylogenetic comparative methods, Sam modelled how fast kinship words are replaced in these languages. Kinship terms are not just single linguistic labels for individuals, because multiple relatives can be called by the same term such as “cousin” in English, or “tante” (aunt, in French). Kin terms form systems, and multiple terms shift together when one system is replaced with another one through social or cultural changes. VariKin team members explore this aspect in some of their other papers:

Image credit: Altrincham Adventures in Art

In the present paper, the team found that, as with core vocabulary, the most frequently used kinship terms are replaced more slowly over time. In fact, the relationship between rate of replacement and frequency of use was found to be even stronger in kinship terminology than in core vocabulary in general. This is hypothesised to be due to the fact that kinship words, in every language, constitute a closed lexical class, which suggests that the reason more frequent words are more resilient is not that they are more memorable. Rather it is that they are less likely to be affected by complex conceptual changes in language. Terms for ‘mother’ or ‘father’ last for thousands of years!

The findings shed further light on how language change is related to language use.  It also adds to what we know about the ways in which evolutionary parallels exist in biology and culture (we know that genes involved in multiple functions change more slowly), and informs debates on dynamics of change in linguistics and complex systems theory in general.

Watch this space for an interview coming soon with Péter Rácz and Sam Passmore in which we discuss this paper further. We will be posting these summaries of papers from the VariKin project over the next few months as the project winds up.

New paper on Murrinhpatha children’s understanding of kinship lexicon and grammar (post by Dr Alice Mitchell)

Among the vast number of things children need to learn about language is how to appropriately refer to other people. One way to do this is to use kinship terms—words like ‘great-grandmother’, ‘brother-in-law’, or ‘sister’. The particular set of kinterms a child needs to know will obviously depend on the languages they’re learning to speak.


English-speaking children learn different words for mother and mother’s sister (‘aunt’), while speakers of many other languages learn a single term for these relatives.For example, in Murrinhpatha, a language spoken in Wadeye in Australia’s Northern Territory (see map), the word kale can refer to both mother and mother’s sister, among other relations. How do children figure out who can be grouped together under the label kale? From a broader perspective, how do children learn the kinship-related language used in their community?


A new open-access paper just published in Language, ‘Acquiring the lexicon and grammar of universal kinship’, explores this question in Murrinhpatha. The paper was authored by Joe Blythe (Macquarie University), Jeremiah Tunmuck (Yek Yederr), Alice Mitchell (University of Cologne), and Péter Rácz (Central European University). Alice and Peter joined the project while they were post-docs working on the Varikin project, having met Joe at a kinship workshop held at the MPI for Social Anthropology in Halle, Germany. Joe then visited the EXCD lab in January 2018 as a Benjamin Meaker Visiting Professor. After that their collaboration continued online across distant time zones.


One of the special things about Murrinhpatha kinterms is their ‘universal’ character, by which we mean that almost anyone in the community can be referred to with a kinterm. Working out how to refer to a newly introduced individual involves a kind of mental calculation based on telescoping chains of relatedness: if I know someone is my mother’s mother’s sister’s daughter, I can reduce that down to ‘mother’ and also refer to her as kale.[1] For Murrinhpatha people, information about kinship relations is so important that it’s expressed not just in vocabulary but also in the grammar of their language. In a sentence about two people doing something, part of the verb indicates whether those two people are siblings or not. For example, parraneriwakthadharra means, roughly, ‘They were following’, where it is grammatically specified that ‘they’ refers to two siblings.


Interested in how children learn this kind of kinship-related vocabulary and grammar, Joe designed two tasks: the ‘kinterms’ task, testing understanding of kinterms, and the ‘kintax’ task, testing understanding of the grammatical categories relating to kinship. In the kinterms task, Joe and Jeremiah showed children photos of their own relatives and asked them questions about kinship relations. There were three different types of questions: first, the researchers asked children straightforward questions, in Murrinhpatha, like ‘is this your cousin?’, where the children were expected to answer ‘yes’ or ‘no’. The researchers then went through a new series of photos and asked children what they called the person in each photo. In the third part, children were asked what the person shown in the photo would call them. Other research has shown that young children often struggle to identify who they are from someone else’s perspective, so we expected this part of the task to be the hardest. This vocabulary-oriented task was carried out with 24 children aged between five and sixteen.


Unsurprisingly, older children performed better on this task. We didn’t see any great age-related breakthroughs but rather a gradual improvement in children’s understanding of kinterms. We also found evidence that closer kin are easier for children to classify. This result is fairly intuitive, too, but what is notable here is that children’s learning partly follows culture-specific ideas about the relative ‘closeness’ of kin: children made fewer mistakes labelling a parent’s same-sex sibling than a parent’s opposite-sex sibling. While these two kinship categories can be considered similarly ‘close’ from a genealogical perspective, the language differentiates them, categorising a parent’s same-sex sibling as a parent, while providing a different term for a parent’s opposite-sex sibling. Nonetheless, biological parents were the easiest of all to identify, emphasising the importance of ‘closeness’ for learning kinship concepts, whether defined genealogically, culturally, or experientially. Our results also supported earlier research in other languages that taking someone else’s perspective on kinship relations is cognitively challenging.


The second task targeted participant’s understanding of ‘kintax’. Children saw a brief animation of people doing something, e.g., waving. At the same time they heard a sentence describing the activity, where the verb in the sentence indicated whether the people were siblings or not. Children were then shown two photos of people in the community, one showing siblings and the other non-siblings, and children were asked to choose the appropriate photo (see right for an example slide).


They were also shown slides and heard similar sentences that tested the understanding of number and gender, so these contrasts could be compared to their understanding of siblinghood. Joe and Jeremiah conducted this task with 39 Murrinhpatha speakers ranging in age from five to 40 years old. The most important finding here was that children’s understanding of kinship grammar progresses at similar rates to other grammatical categories like participant gender and number. Based on results from both the tasks, a complex picture emerges in which linguistic categories, general cognitive abilities, cultural practice, and individual experience all play a role in learning kinship vocabulary and grammar.


This new study moves our field forward on several fronts. It presents the first quantitative investigation of the acquisition of an ever-expanding kinship system; it’s the first study to investigate children’s acquisition of kinship-related grammar; and it’s also innovative in the way it tailored the experimental stimuli to each participant’s own family. This design feature meant that responses were not always directly comparable, which in turn restricted the statistical power of our analysis. Nonetheless, our results showed that children build up a gradual understanding of kinship that focuses on their closest relatives and expands to others as they get older. This supports a ‘focal’ theory of kinship terms, where at least some kinship categories are built from central exemplars and then extend to include more peripheral members. While our approach measured what children know, the next step is to explore how children learn kinship terms—a question that will involve more qualitative methods.


As part of my fieldwork with Datooga-speaking children in Tanzania, I’ve been conducting similar studies of children’s understandings of kin terms. Watch this space for updates on more papers addressing this topic.


[1] For the curious, this works via what anthropologists call ‘merging’ principles: a mother’s mother’s sister is classified as a mother’s mother, and a mother’s mother’s daughter is classified as a mother.

Cross-disciplinary anthropology & biology workshop Part 1: Behaviour

Anthropology & Biology cross-disciplinary workshop part 1: Behavioural science

Organisers: Fiona Jordan & Arsham Nejad Kourki

University of Bristol | 9 September 2020

There is fascinating research on the evolution of behaviour in many disciplines across the University of Bristol, particularly in biology and anthropology. We’re hosting a workshop to bring together postgraduate and postdoctoral researchers whose research interests relate to this broad topic and we warmly invite you to take part. The aim of the workshop is to stimulate dialogue between the two disciplines at a local scale, so don’t worry if you don’t already know much about what your peers in others discipline are doing—come along to find out!

The workshop will be held online and will also be open to non-UoB folk: please email Arsham for a Zoom login.


Session 1 | 10:00-10:50

Arsham Nejad Kourki | Levels of Selection and Major Transitions in Sociocultural Evolution

João Pinheiro | Is Cooperating Always the Good?: Analysing the Theory of Morality-as-Cooperation in Curry, Mullins & Whitehouse (2019)

Session 2 | 11:00-12:30

Terhi Honkola | Environment and Linguistic Divergence

Monique Borgerhoff-Mulder | Cultural group selection and the design of REDD+: insights from Pemba

Patrick Kennedy | Can you blackmail your relatives into altruism?

Lunch Break | 12:30-14:00

Session 3 | 14:00-14:50

Molly Beastall | The Effect of Socialisation on the Development of Pacific Beetle Cockroaches (Diploptera punctata)

Sarah Jelbert | Corvid cognition: Tool use in New Caledonian crows

Session 4 | 15:00-16:30

Innes Cuthill | Animal camouflage: evolutionary biology meets perceptual psychology

Tim Caro | Conspicuous coloration in mammals

Laszlo Talas | The cultural evolution of military camouflage

Closing Remarks | 16:20-16:30 | Fiona Jordan

We hope to hold Part 2: Phylogenies sometime later in the term, and will have a call for abstracts advertised in due course.

— Fiona & Arsham

The Grandparent Naming Survey

The Grandparent Naming Survey

Here at excd.lab we recently launched our Grandparent Naming Survey.  It’s being run by Jo Hickey-Hall, Research Support Assistant, as part of the Usage subproject for VariKin.

VariKin-Usage specifically investigates how people use kinship language by using corpus linguistics, surveys, and interviews to quantify patterns of usage in spoken and written language. How frequently are kinship terms used in different contexts and what meanings are more prevalent? Do patterns vary between languages, and can the patterns of usage at the individual level be linked to historical processes of change? 

In this survey, we’re asking people to share the different names they use for  their grandparents (e.g. Nan, Grandma) to help us better understand grandparental kinship relations within English-speaking families in the UK.

We’re interested in how styles of grandparenting may indicate emotional closeness and whether these are reflected in the different kin terms attributed to each grandparent. We are also particularly interested in whether kinds of relatedness can be determined by line of descent to the grandchild (eg. is there a difference in how mum’s mum relates to the grandchildren compared to dad’s dad etc).

It’s a difficult time for everyone at the moment, but many respondents are enjoying the opportunity to reflect on family relationships, especially thinking of their own grandparents or their children’s grandparents and we particularly want to hear from grandparents themselves!

Here is the link:


Please do take part and share with others.


Featured image: Jo’s ‘Nanny and Grandad’ circa 1943.

2019 excd lab Review and Journal Round-Up

Each week, the excd lab take turns to offer journal articles for discussion, or even present our own research.  

August Away Day walk from Botanical Gardens to Leigh Woods

In 2019 Journal Club members enjoyed the company of regular guests Dr Dan Smith, Dr Kit Opie, Dr Catherine Sheard (Biology) and undergrad, Jasmine Calladine. We also welcomed new guests: Philosophy PhD students Shaun Stanley and Arsham Nejad Kourki, visiting Professor Monique Borgerhoff Mulder, Anthropology PhD student Arif Jamal and Biology PhD student Gareth Coleman. 

We bid a sad farewell (for now) to core members, Dr Alice Mitchell, now a Junior Professor in the Institute of African Studies at the University of Cologne, and Dr Seán Roberts who became a Lecturer in the School of English, Communication and Philosophy at Cardiff University.

Later in the year, we welcomed excd Research AssociateDr Terhi Honkola (University of Turku) to the team; and hosted a fascinating presentation from visiting researcher, Brea McCauley (Simon Fraser University, Canada) on archaeological and anthropological perspectives of finger amputation rituals.

Our continuing interdisciplinary nature means we get to explore and discuss a great range of articles together. 


Here’s a round-up of 2019’s offerings: 

Spolaore, E. & Wacziarg, R. (2013) How Deep Are the Roots of Economic Development? Journal of Economic Literature 51(2): 325–369, (June 2013) 

Ball, C.  (2018) Language of Kin Relations and Relationlessness Annual Review of Anthropology Vol. 47:47-60, (August 20 2018) 

Jakiela, P. & Ozier, O. (2018) Gendered Language World Bank Group, Development Economics, Policy Research Working Paper 8464 (June 2018) 

Schulz, J., Bahrami-Rad, D., Beauchamp, J. & Henrich, J. The Origins of WEIRD Psychology SSRN (June 22, 2018).   

House, B.R. (2017) How do social norms influence prosocial development? Current Opinion in Psychology Vol. 20: 87-91 

Fortunato, L. (2019) Lineal kinship organisation in cross-specific perspective SocArXiv, March 15 2019 

Tamariz, M. (2019) Replication and emergence in cultural transmission Physics of Life Reviews Vol. 30: 47-71, (October 2-19) 

Mesoudi, A. (2017) Pursuing Darwin’s curious parallel: Prospects for a science of cultural evolution PNAS Vol. 114(30): 7853-7860 (July 25 2017) 

Daly, M. & Perry, G. (2019) Grandmaternal childcare and kinship laterality. Is rural Greece exceptional? Evolution and Human Behaviour Vol. 40(4): 385-394, (July 2019) 

Griesser, M. & Suzuki, T.N. (2016) Kinship modulates the attention of naïve individuals to the mobbing behaviour of role models Animal Behaviour Vol. 112: 83-91 (February 2016) 

Cuskley, C. (2019) Alien forms for alien language: investigating novel form spaces in cultural evolutioPalgrave Communications Vol. 5(87), (August 6 2019) 

Vettese, T. (2019) Sexism in the Academy: Women’s narrowing path to tenure Head Case Issue 34, Spring 2019 

Gray, R.D., Greenhill, S.J., Ross R.M. (2007) The Pleasures and Perils of Darwinizing Culture (with Phylogenies) Biological Theory Vol. 2: 360-375 (March 20 2015) 

Power, E.A. & Ready, E. (2019) Cooperation beyond consanguinity: post-marital residence, delineations of kin and social support among South Indian Tamils Philosophical Transactions of The Royal Society B, 374(1780)(July 15 2019) 

Everett, C., Blasí, D.E., S.G. Roberts (2016) Language evolution and climate: the case of desiccation and tone, Journal of Language Evolution, Vol 1(1)33–46(February 19 2016) 

Postdoc position in cultural phylogenetics

Applications extended and closing May 22nd: please note extended project date to November 2020.

We’re hiring! If you have skills in phylogenetic comparative methods, and you’re keen to understand cultural and linguistic diversity, then we have a one-year postdoc position on our VariKin project. Here’s the job ad:

Applications are invited for a position of Postdoctoral Research Assistant with expertise in phylogenetic analysis of cultural data. The post is a PDRA position in a European Research Council Starting Grant project entitled “VariKin: Cultural Evolution of Kinship Diversity” led by Prof Fiona Jordan in the Department of Archaeology & Anthropology at the University of Bristol. We require an individual with expertise in phylogenetic comparative methods and the analysis of large linguistic and cultural datasets. The project team has amassed a large global database of kinship terms, and the objective for this role is to explore the cultural evolutionary dynamics and patterns of kinship terms.

The successful candidate will primarily be responsible for the design, implementation and analysis, and writing-up of two investigations. The post is offered on an open ended basis with fixed funding for 12 months. The project is due to come to an end November 30th 2020.

You will have a PhD in evolutionary approaches to biology, anthropology, or language, or a similar field. It is essential that you have skills in a range of phylogenetic comparative methods, particularly BayesTraits and relevant R packages. Phylogenetic inference skills to examine reticulation (e.g. NeighbourNet etc) may also be useful. Broad experience with quantitative and computational data analysis (preferably using R), and with parallel/cluster computing, is highly desirable. There will be an opportunity for further skills training. Preference will be given to candidates who have worked with cultural/linguistic datasets although this is not essential. You will require excellent organisational, communication and presentation skills. Experience with comparative data collection from written sources, database maintenance, and careful data curation are essential. You should demonstrate that you can engage in interdisciplinary collaborative work with the other VariKin team members. Your particular role will work closely alongside the PI and PhD student investigating kinship system evolution across cultures, but there is scope to contribute to other strands in the project (developmental field studies of children’s kinship knowledge, and cross-linguistic corpus analyses).

See the further particulars and apply through the UoB portal here. Please provide a cover letter that describes your skills and experience, your research interests, and details how you meet the criteria; and your current CV.

For informal enquiries please contact Fiona Jordan (Fiona.jordan@bristol.ac.uk) and see more of the project at https://excd.org/varikin.

VariKin on the radio

Fiona recently gave an overview of the VariKin project for CoastFM and SourceFM in Cornwall. She talked to Ben Makin on his Celebrity Science show about our three projects on kinship term evolution and the KinBank database, kinship language usage, and fieldwork on acquisition by children. The conversation ranged further into speculation on how the language technology of kinship systems might play a part in human evolution, and how far back we can extend our knowledge of human kinship.

The show aired on Wednesday 28 Nov 2018 18:00 and Thursday 29 Nov  2018 07:30. It’s now available on YouTube and here’s the link to listen again.  Fiona’s interview starts 29:20.