Discussion paper

DP12170 Understanding Cultural Persistence and Change

When does culture persist and when does it change? We
examine a determinant that has been put forth in the anthropology
literature: the variability of the environment from one generation to
the next. A prediction, which emerges from a class of existing models
from evolutionary anthropology, is that following the customs of the
previous generation is relatively more beneficial in stable environments
where the culture that has evolved up to the previous generation is
more likely to be relevant for the subsequent generation. We test this
hypothesis by measuring the variability of average temperature across
20-year generations from 500–1900. Looking across countries, ethnic
groups, and the descendants of immigrants, we find that populations
with ancestors who lived in environments with more stability from
one generation to the next place a greater importance in maintaining
tradition today. These populations also exhibit more persistence in
their traditions over time.


Giuliano, P and N Nunn (2017), ‘DP12170 Understanding Cultural Persistence and Change‘, CEPR Discussion Paper No. 12170. CEPR Press, Paris & London. https://cepr.org/publications/dp12170