Social memory and niche construction in a hypervariable environment

Kristina Douglass, Tanambelo Rasolondrainy

Research output: Contribution to journalArticlepeer-review

12 Scopus citations


Background: Communities in southwest Madagascar have co-evolved with a hypervariable environment and climate. The paleoclimate record reflects major fluctuations in climatic conditions over the course of Holocene human settlement. Archeological evidence indicates short-term occupations of sites, suggesting that frequent residential mobility and flexible subsistence strategies have been central features of life on the southwest coast for millennia. Today, despite rapid changes linked to globalization and increasing market integration, mobility and subsistence flexibility remain key to the lives of communities of the region. Aims: In this article, we advocate closer consideration of the social dimensions of the human niche, and their inextricable links to the biophysical world. Specifically, we explore the theoretical implications of applying a Niche Construction Theory framework to understanding the role of social memory in constructing the human niche of SW Madagascar. We look at how social memory facilitates mobility, resource use, and the creation and maintenance of social identities and ties among communities of foragers, farmers, herders, and fishers living under hypervariable climatic conditions. Materials & Methods: We conducted an extensive oral history survey in SW Madagascar between 2017 and 2018. We interviewed over 100 elders from 32 different communities. Results: Our analysis of the oral history archive resulted in the development of a theoretical model of human niche construction centered on the maintenance and transmission of social memory. Discussion: We argue that social memory and the ability to transmit oral histories of exchange, reciprocity, and cooperation, as well as ecological knowledge are key adaptive mechanisms that facilitate mobility and access to resources in a hypervariable environment. Conclusion: The preservation and transmission of oral histories and ecological knowledge are thus critical to future resilience and sustainability.

Original languageEnglish (US)
Article numbere23557
JournalAmerican Journal of Human Biology
Issue number4
StatePublished - Jul 1 2021

All Science Journal Classification (ASJC) codes

  • Anatomy
  • Ecology, Evolution, Behavior and Systematics
  • Anthropology
  • Genetics


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