The theory that biological attributes evolve through natural selection is widely accepted, but the evolution of cultural attributes had never been demonstrated.
Professors Deborah Rogers and Paul Ehrlich of Stanford University studied changes in the design of canoes used by members of 11 Oceanic island cultures. They evaluated 96 functional features and 38 decorative features.
Functional features affect the seaworthiness of a canoe, and therefore the likelihood of survival of people operating the canoe.
The researchers determined functional design elements changed more slowly over time than did decorative elements, indicating natural selection was leading to the elimination of canoes with inferior designs.
In analyses of biological features, accelerated or slowed rates of change are believed to indicate the action of natural selection, the scientists said.
Professor Nina Jablonski, head of the anthropology department at Pennsylvania State University, but not involved in the research, said the study is "one of the most significant papers to be written in anthropology in the last 20 years."
The research appears in the early online edition of the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences.