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Designing a single isolated culture isn't too difficult. There appear to be 12 aspects of culture that need to be described or accounted for, which isn't too hard without a history. Some of these aspects are directly tied to environment while others are not. Just like with governments, it's possible to just pick a few attributes for a basic culture then run with it. However, I'd like to make a longer, more complex history of my culture and want it to be done in a believable way.

What principles or patterns can I apply to the cultural evolution of the cultures I create to increase their plausibility? Are there any common patterns of cultural changes and how they made those changes?

This is also a question so it may be easier to just point me towards a particularly good book that covers this topic then that's fine too.

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    $\begingroup$ That list of 12 is a good start! I'd add architecture, including city planning and preferred construction materials (yurts or skyscrapers? small houses, family villas, dense tenement apartments?); agriculture (beyond foodstuffs, most people will have some crops for export, fiber, oil, prestige, stimulants, etc.); information recording systems (cuneiform, knotted strings, oral history); information transmission systems (bonfires, drums, homing pigeons); economic foundation (farming, finance, crafts, remittances, services, tribute); military (militia, levy, mercenaries); and status symbols. $\endgroup$ – user243 Sep 3 '15 at 22:28
  • $\begingroup$ Remind me to answer this on Monday. $\endgroup$ – James Oct 23 '16 at 4:53
  • $\begingroup$ Nobody mentioned sex??!! Shame on you! Reproduction and kinship are two key features of any culture. Marriage, family, clans, and other similar relationships because they are essential. $\endgroup$ – a4android Feb 11 '17 at 11:38
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Seriously…how have we never created an anthropology tag in 2+ years…anyways

Step 1: Define the culture’s state.

The first step is to pick a point in time and define the culture as it exists in that time.

You can go about this a few ways. You can pick a time in the past, perhaps a golden age where things flourished and there is a lot more culture-y stuff.

When people have more spare time they take more time for the arts, sciences and things like philosophy and inventing. This would be my suggested route if it fits into your timeline.

On the flip side you could always choose very early tribal times and get the basis of culture from the source, or frankly you could pick anywhere on the timeline, totally up to you, in the end you do the same amount of work, it just depends on how you want to pursue it.


To define the culture at whatever moment in time you choose, start with the list, yours is pretty good but missing a few things and at times redundant in my opinion so I both elaborated and consolidated

Keep in mind that these items overlap and you should make sure they are internally consistent. For example a continent spanning middle ages empire is going to need fairly advanced communication techniques, so chiseling the written word into stone...probably not going to cut it...get it :D

  • Tools/Technology: Pretty strait forward. What tech is at your disposal? As an example the evolution of tech allowed for the democratization of information which has changed culture in many many ways.

  • Language(s)/Communication: How do your people communicate? Is there one language or many? Are these aliens? Can they rock some telepathy? A telepathic species could arguably be less violent amongst their own due to shared emotions/history.

  • Customs and Traditions: Folktales, shaking with the right hand, pre-organized religion spiritual stuff, tales, fables etc). This stuff is really fun to work on, figure out what is important to your people, be it a tradition, resource, or ideals and come up with a folktale about a hero (or villain). Who do parents say is hiding under the bed?!

  • Arts and Recreation: Painting, writing, sculpture, music, fashion etc. etc. What do people do for fun? Is there a card game old folks play, or a violent sport for young men to prove themselves, do they sing around bonfires or listen to stories by an elder?

  • Shelter/Architecture: How things are designed and why, resource availability, special buildings that use rare resources?

  • Values/Morals/Religion: What guides what is right and wrong. This is a great one for shifting culture over time...

  • Artifacts: The really fancy stuff that becomes important over time…no one cares about the mundane stuff). Named weapons, crown jewels, holy texts are just a few examples.

  • Knowledge: The sum of all learning. This can result in places like the Great Library of Alexandria. How is that knowledge proliferated to the next generation, is it share or controlled?

  • Government: Consider both tradition and practice. In the US the tradition and the execution are not the same for example. Make sure you know why that form of government versus something else.

  • Food: Life revolves around food. So does culture. Think about all the holidays we have…they are almost without exception reasons to have a feast.

  • Warfare: Are your people pacifists, a wild horde, honorable citizen soldiers, rogue assassins? Do they go to war and why? Once at war, how do they behave?

There are obviously more facets and more details than can be written here under each item, get as detailed as you need.


Step 2: Defining events and gradual change

So, now you have your baseline. How do you go about making updates and changes? Well, you need history...or future...y

Point is without the overarching history of your world you can't really make your cultural evolution internally consistent.

If you don't have a history written you do have the option to make the changes from one cultural point in time to another and then define the history in between to make it plausible.

Pick a chronological direction: You can go forward in time, backward in time, or first one then the other. It doesn't really matter. In the example of the golden age maybe your story takes place later in time but you also want to go into the origins of the culture, in this case you would work from the middle and go both directions. I would suggest working backwards first, then do the future states.

Define events and general shifts: Change can take place gradually or abruptly, though usually things are simmering underneath the proverbial surface for a long time when it comes to the abrupt stuff.

Create a list of all the things of import that happen over a certain stretch of time. I would suggest not making the points you define less that 75 or so years apart...culture tends to change slow.


So to put this is math form. You have this formula. A(C)=B

Where A is the baseline, C is the change and B is the end-state.

You need to define either A and B, or A and C. Then you simply logic the third item into place.

Identify what aspects of culture each event impacts, or what events would cause a shift from A to B and then its time for storytelling...not world building.

Note: If you have more than one culture interacting in this world define the baseline of each for the same point in time. The history/end state part gets a whole lot harder as you have to de-conflict but if you define the baseline well enough you should be able to take any particular event and picture how the culture in question would respond.

I would not suggest the 'define two points in time and fill in the history method when multiple cultures are involved...tough to come up with common events when you have to connect a bunch of pieces.

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I think a few key things are missing from the list of 12, and another few things are represented but not called out explicitly in the list.

Also, the list is a somewhat confusing mix of tangibles (tools/clothes) and intangibles (religion/arts). The 'intangibles' are aspects that can very between cultures that otherwise inherit the same list of tangible factors.

Stuff like government can be listed as a tangible or intangible depending on how mechanistic your approach to the various -isms of government is.

I would suggest to separate the list into two axes one with the tangibles and one with intangibles, and reduce/merge the list of 12 mainly tangible items to keep it manageable.

On that basis, here are the most important missing tangibles:

  • Climate. This is a big deal since it affects diet, sedentary or nomadic lifestyle, migration etc.

  • Population Density. This is the other big deal item - I will claim that dense populations give rise to more cultural complexity and faster cultural evolution. Look at early china versus early europe. In 400 BC in China you had the massive Warring States period giving rise to works like Sun Tzu's 'Art Of War' and massive armies. Nothing similar in sparsely populated europe. Population density is also related to climate.

The main missing intangible is myth. This falls under 'traditions' and 'language' but in terms of worldbuilding is perhaps more important than either. Tolkin said about the Esperanto effort that it would fail because it was a language without myths. Many cultures share a common past event like a flood/deluge that are interpreted in different ways.

A cultures myths derive its moral values. Myth differences between cultures can be quantified according to relative importance of different myth archetypes - which in turn will define stuff like family values and the role of men vs women. Cultures sharing mythic archetypes like 'the flood' (indo-eurpoean culture) and those that don't share them (the mesoamericans didn't have a flood myth of the same importance) will be different as a result, all else equal.

Basically, the 'list' seems to me to be derived from a similar line of thinking that generated the Civilisation series of computer games, which may leave the world builder in danger of producing a somewhat formulaic set of cultural tropes.

The list really ought to be a two or three dimensional hierarchical structure that allows experimentation with the effects of varying a single tangible or intangible factor and that attempts to define those variables which have the most cultural impact and relegate those that represent tinkering to the lower levels.

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I would also consider changes throughout your culture's history. Cultural changes often shift dramatically over a short period of time because of cataclysms.

For example, if your farming community is invaded and conquered by a militaristic community, the resulting culture would have elements of both. Perhaps the symbols of the farmers would begin, for the wealthiest, to be made of the materials brought there by the warriors.

Layering different levels of history will bring depth and nuance to your world. I would decide on several different moments where "something changed", and then really think about specifics. How, specifically, did that dramatic change affect your world?

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Frankly, this is a huge topic which I don't think anyone can do justice here. Which I guess is why you ask for references! Nonetheless, let's have a go.

I would venture that the most important thing to remember is that cultures are a product, first and foremost, of their geography. Geography provides the resources, abundances and scarcity, and texture of the society. You're going to have to put a lot of effort into grasping the geographic and climactic causes, likely to influence specific outcomes.

Take for instance the Little Ice Age. This period, from the 1300s to 1800s, has been alleged to have produced various quirks of history that had profound long term consequences.

One argument I heard went that it led to northern European architecture and family structure changing. Because it was decidedly colder, people lived closer together. This manifested in upstairs-downstairs master-servant arrangements, as the upstairs was warmer than the downstairs and everyone had to have their living and sleeping rooms built around the main chimney stack. This thus changed attitudes and began to stratify society more between upper and lower classes.

Another more robust example is the effect the little ice age had on Russia's fate. At the time Muscovy was just a peripheral backwater bordering wilderness. This had been not very profitable, as it is those empires at the centre of major trade routes; rivers, and seas, which can monopolise defensive positions to become major ports, and thus rich cultures. That's typical of Carthage, Athens, Rome, Alexandria, etc.

But when Europe got very cold all of a sudden (the Thames in London froze over completely) demand for fur rose, and suddenly Russia had a resource everyone wanted. In order to increase production the Tsar sent soldiers and mercenaries eastwards, literally outgunning the local descendants of the Mongol horde; who still fought with swords and bows, killing them, and importantly taking their furs and hunting grounds, which were sold westwards. The income and territorial expansion together were foundational to the creation of the Russian empire.

Incidentally, it has been argued that because the Russian empire didn't have any natural defences between its heartland and its rivals, it developed (and still has) a paranoid and aggressive attitude to its neighbours in order to feel safe.

The evolution of cultural ideas is a little more chaotic, as major events like the protestant reformation, spread of Islam, etc, are not down to geography. Other things, like the arrival of the industrial revolution, most definitely are. Without wood and coal it would not have been possible in Britain.

However the way culture develops from certain ideas certainly is again, geography dependent. Consider Apartheid South Africa. The racial ideology of the Boers has been said to have been rooted in the Calvinist faith of their ancestors, but why did the protestant Dutch who remained in the Netherlands become one of Christianity's most progressive churches, whilst the religion of the Boers turned into one of the most regressive? Both shared a common ideology founded in Calvinist pre-destination (everything is as God wills is, free will does not exist).

The Netherlands became a major trading empire, and their homeland became a cosmopolitan centre of trade and art. In contrast, the Boers fled to settle one of the most remote parts of the world at the time, fleeing further into the African continent as moderate English settlers arrived on the coast.

In this cultural vacuum of religious fundamentalism, they viewed the world through a literalist interpretation of the Old Testament and pre-destination - that is, they were the new Israelites who had to fight their way through those who were not God's chosen people. And, of course, the reason the native Africans were so lacking technologically was because God wills it. This culture was only possible through cultural isolation, again, dependent on geographical context. Which explains the radical difference between the two Calvinist cultures.

It should also be little surprise that the protestant reformation saw the establishment of new state churches in kingdoms which had previously been primitive backwaters, but by the 1500s were attempting to assert themselves, in Europe and the wider world. The political and economic centre of gravity in Europe was shifting from the Mediterranean south to the Baltic North, with England, Sweden, Germany, Russia. Religion is often an expression of politics, and so it was so then. And subsequently the art and religious styles of the new movers and shakers developed in opposition to the old ways.

So... in conclusion: geography, geography, geography.

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    $\begingroup$ Interesting note on Russia's lack of natural defenses and resultant attitude! $\endgroup$ – barney Oct 27 '16 at 22:16
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I was thinking about what you are asking. It got me thinking about history, and working backwards through the earliest recorded history and how many cultures had a common beginning, really most can be traced that way. But its interesting to see how common ancestry separated for a variety of reasons, ranging from just not enough room for livestock to coexist, to minor disagreements, all the way to full on rebellion to a common set of standards. Sometimes it resulted in a peaceful separation, and other times a hostile or even violent parting of ways. And in one circumstance that sticks out in my mind, the inability to understand or otherwise communicate and therefore not able to cooperate has been a big cause for people to scatter and make their own way in the world. I would just have fun with it, examine the way personalities and body language behave and how it affects others and just create. :)

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  • $\begingroup$ Sorry, submitted before I was done. I just wanted to add, in order to make believable culture progression, you need a back story to draw from, a concept if you will, then draw your data points from the story. $\endgroup$ – D.M.N. Oct 24 '16 at 3:18
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    $\begingroup$ There's an "edit" button if you want to add something. $\endgroup$ – Nicol Bolas Oct 24 '16 at 3:45
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    $\begingroup$ Hi D.M.N, welcome to [worlbuilding.se]. You are probably not too familiar with the site yet, but you should know that this is a question & answer site. And here, I don't think you really answer the question as asked. You mentioned that it got posted before you finished? Maybe the actual answer resides in the part missing. So, please do edit your answer. Additionally, I'd suggest taking the tour and perusing the help center to get more familiar with the concept of the site. $\endgroup$ – clem steredenn Oct 24 '16 at 5:28
  • $\begingroup$ Welcome to the site, D.M.N. As bilbo mentioned, you should edit your post to include the extra information you posted as a comment. That being said, this appears to be more of a social commentary on Earth's history than an answer to the OP's question. $\endgroup$ – Frostfyre Oct 24 '16 at 12:22
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I think an important step in cultural evolutions that shouldn't be overlooked is the chance of regression or reversal. This is seen many times over in history, normally after some "event" such as the Roman departure from Britain, and would definitely add a natural complexity to any fictional world. And it doesn't have to be a huge post-apocalyptic return to the dark ages, subtle steps backwards could leave you lots of room for explained or unexplained nuances and eccentricities in your world. Enjoy weaving.

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