advancing cultural evolutionary studies

ACE Awards Report

We are thrilled to announce the winners of the inaugural ACE Awards. We received a substantial number of applications for each award: 22 applications in total for the two ACE Early Career Research Awards, 9 applications for the ACE Building Capacity Award, and 12 applications for the ACE Outreach Award. Several applications were highly competitive, and so we have also identified a few applications to receive an honorable mention. The review committee was comprised of the following CES executive members: Lucy Aplin, John Bunce, Maxime Derex, Sarah Mathew, Cristina Moya and Nicole Wen. Two reviewers were assigned to each of the three award schemes, and all applications to a particular award scheme was rated by the same two reviewers. Thank you to the review committee for their careful reading of the applications.


I. ACE Early Career Research Award


Duncan Stibbard Hawkes

Postdoctoral researcher, Durham Univeristy

Bush Fire Eyasi Tales – Exploring the influences of subsistence ecology and demography on Hadza stories

Storytelling is thought to play an important role in human social learning, providing a high-bandwidth channel for the transmission of cumulative cultural knowledge. For the Tanzanian Hadza, storytelling is an important aspect of life, and elders habitually tell stories round the fire to large audiences. Our study, using interviews, alongside content analysis of 50+ story transcripts, will answer two key questions: First, to what extent do tales encode and transmit adaptively relevant information, pertinent to subsistence? And is this reflected in age- and gender-specific story preferences? Second, what influence do demographic and ecological factors have on the richness and stability of narrative knowledge? Do narratives in more remote bush camps contain richer ecological knowledge? Or do we instead observe greater retention of narrative knowledge in larger, denser sedentary village populations? The research will also generate a corpus of transcribed stories, crystalising and preserving an otherwise fluid aspect of Hadza cultural heritage for future generations.

Feryl Badiani

Ph.D. student, Victoria University of Wellington

The Puzzle of Hinduism 

Dominant cultural-evolutionary literature suggests that religions that have survived till date have done so because they enable large-group cooperation. It is posited that religions that portray God as omniscient and all-knowing have allowed us to readily trust strangers. Herein lies the puzzle of Hinduism: unlike the Abrahamic religions, Hinduism is polytheistic and mainly passed down via mythological stories that often portray the Hindu Gods as much more naïve. Through our previous study we found that Hindu Gods play an insignificant role in morally policing its followers. We instead hypothesize that the Gods remain relevant because they act as key role models, enabling socio-economic cooperation. To test this, we will be running a vignette study with two communities in India, Gujarati and Maharashtrian. Each vignette presents a dilemma in which the alternatives subjects should choose between correlate with the stereotype of the dominant God in each community. The results should reveal if communities show a preference for one normative response over another.  


II. ACE Building Capacity Award

Dr. Stephen Asatsa, PhD

Lecturer, The Catholic University of Eastern Africa

Traditional Luhya mourning rituals: A cultural evolutionary approach to understanding community well-being, and cultural resilience in a Kenyan Indigenous community

I plan to visit the Co-I on this project, Sheina Lew-Levy at Durham University in the period September 2024. My visit will involve meeting my Co investigator for data analysis for our project, drafting journal articles from the project for publication, giving guest lectures at Durham Centre for Cultural Evolution, developing partnerships with other cultural evolution scholars and attending training on methodology in cultural evolution. I will negotiate a formal collaboration between Durham University, Centre for Cultural Evolution and Catholic University in order to widen the teams working on various research interest areas in the two institutions and use it as a springboard to launch the East African chapter of CES.


III. ACE Outreach Award

($2500 award was divided among two recipients)


Mason Youngblood 

Postdoctoral researcher, Max Planck Institute for Geoanthropology

Communicating the cultural extinction crisis through sound

Many species that rely on socially learned behavior are at risk of cultural extinction. Birds that use learned song for courtship are particularly vulnerable. Population declines may cause the most complex and rare forms of songs to disappear first, reducing the attractiveness of the remaining singers and creating positive feedback. I will use computational tools to simulate the process of cultural extinction in songbirds and transcribe the output into a musical composition. The result will be an immersive sound installation, presented in NYC and at CES 2024, aimed at communicating the seriousness of the cultural extinction crisis to the public.


Radu Umbres

Assistant Professor, National School for Political and Administrative Sciences

What is cultural evolution and how can we explain it? A popular science introduction for Romanian-speaking audiences 

This project offers three introductions to cultural evolution for Romanian-speaking readers. The audience is familiar with natural evolution and cultural anthropology but has yet to discover this growing field of research whose main debates and methods are outlined in the first piece. The articles explore two leading schools of thought (“California” versus “Paris”) via narrative accounts of empirical and theoretical studies of the cultural evolution of technology, cooperation, religion, and ritual. Original illustrations will accompany the articles published by Iscoada ( is the leading platform for popularisation of human and social sciences in Romania) and syndicated outlets.


Part 2: Honorable mentions

I. ACE Early Career Research Award


Sam Passmore

Postdoctoral researcher, Australian National University

The impact of population and marriage practice on kinship terminology change

What causes kinship terminology to change? Kinship terminology are the system of words we use for family members, such as aunt or cousin in English. These words create social categories that reflect communicative needs, which are often thought to reflect behavioural norms. The assumed connection between language and behaviour has been leveraged by researchers to make inferences on the social organisations of past societies and to support contemporary analysis of current social expectations, but is this assumption supported?  This project leverages our knowledge of cultural history to identify pairs of sister languages with different kinship terminology and tests what might have caused this change. We specifically test two hypotheses: change in population size and change in marriage practices.  Changes in population size influence family systems through the number and dependencies of kin. Marriageable cousins are often marked in kinship terminology, positing that the gain or loss of cousin marriage practices should precede a linguistic change. With a predictive model of kinship terminological change, we can make more confident inferences about the organisations and movements of past human societies.


Loia Lamarque

Ph.D. student, Montpellier University

The decline of matrilineal kinship among the Khasi: a behavioural ecology perspective

This project aims to understand why matrilocality and matrilineal transmission of inheritance (from mother to youngest daughter) have declined in the Khasi community (Meghalaya, India). Human Behavioural Ecology (HBE) posits that matriliny evolves and remains stable under some ecological circumstances: low returns to investing resources in sons, women’s reliance on their kin (rather than her husband) for child rearing, and low male investment in parenting. We test whether these features are positively associated with direct and hidden support for matrilineal norms in Meghalaya, where matrilineal norms have been altered by colonization and increasing economic development. Data on women’s support network and sex biased parental investment will be collected in 4 villages along a gradient of economic development. Economic development is hypothesized to shift parental strategy towards investment in sons and women’s dependence on their husband’s resources, thereby reducing support for matriliny.


Nilo Merino Recalde

Ph.D. student, University of Oxford

Stability and diversification of vocal cultures in wild birds

It is generally assumed that innate mechanisms for accurate and conformist learning are the primary force behind cultural stability in bird song. However, there is growing support for the idea that cognitive biases could also arise culturally and serve as attractors that align the perception, memory, and reproduction of information among individuals, enhancing the fidelity of cultural transmission and limiting the drift of cultural traits. One intriguing example of such cognitive biases is the preference for small integer ratio intervals in rhythmic and melodic sequences, a feature that is ubiquitous in human music and may reflect universal principles of auditory perception and cognition but also be shaped by exposure to different local cultural traditions. Using a large longitudinal dataset of bird song from known individuals that I have collected over several years in a population of wild Great tits in the South of England, I will test whether these non-random patterns are stable over time and space within and across populations of the same species. This project will contribute to our understanding of the mechanisms underlying cultural stability in bird song and the role of biases in cultural transmission.


Mathilde Josserand

Ph.D. student, Université Lumière Lyon 2

The Impact of Individual Differences on Language Evolution

How can we understand the evolution of language in a world where every individual has unique characteristics? While recent research suggests that variations in diet or the shape of the palate can impact the phonetic repertoires of languages, the study of language evolution has traditionally overlooked the potential impact of individuals who communicate differently. To address this gap, we use an innovative experimental approach involving groups of four participants who communicate using a fake artificial language. Crucially, one participant is assigned a biased keyboard with a limited inventory of consonants, simulating a speech impairment that individuals might encounter in real life. We aim to understand how the language of the group evolves to adapt to the specificities of the biased participant. This study's implications extend beyond language to encompass the evolution of any trait within a population with variation, providing a novel framework for understanding the dynamics of change in heterogeneous populations.

II. ACE Building Capacity Award


Alexander Mwijage 

Research fellow, National Institute for Medical Research 


Erin Claire Ross-Marsh

Ph.D. student, University of Stellenbosch


III. ACE Outreach Award


Jessica van der Waal 

Senior Researcher, University of Cape Town