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Parallelism refers to the independent evolution of similar traits in different species, often as a result of facing similar environmental pressures [1].

Parallelism in Evoltuion in Anthropology

The parallelism structure, therefore, can be understood as the underlying framework that allows these parallel evolutionary paths to occur. This structure comprises three essential components:

  • Shared Ancestry: Parallelism can occur when two species share a common ancestor that has already evolved a specific trait or characteristic.
  • Similar Environments: The presence of similar environmental pressures can lead to parallel evolution, as different species adapt to their surroundings in comparable ways.
  • Convergent Evolution: When unrelated species evolve similar traits independently due to facing similar ecological challenges, it is referred to as convergent evolution[2].

Notable Parallelism Examples in Nature

Several fascinating examples of parallelism exist in the natural world, showcasing the remarkable ability of species to adapt to their environments in strikingly similar ways. Some notable examples include:

  • Marsupials and Placental Mammals: Despite their distinct reproductive systems, marsupials and placental mammals have evolved numerous similar traits and ecological roles. For instance, the marsupial sugar glider and the placental flying squirrel share many similarities in their body structure and gliding abilities[3].
  • Cacti and Euphorbias: Cacti, native to the Americas, and Euphorbias, found in Africa, have evolved similar adaptations to survive in arid environments. Both plants have succulent stems, reduced leaves, and spines for protection[4].
  • Marine Iguanas and Sea Turtles: Marine iguanas and sea turtles have both evolved specialized limbs for swimming and the ability to live on land and in the ocean, despite their distant evolutionary relationship[5].

Parallelism Definition: A Comprehensive Explanation

Parallelism is the phenomenon where unrelated species or lineages evolve similar traits or characteristics independently due to facing similar environmental pressures or having shared ancestry[1]. This process allows for the emergence of strikingly similar adaptations in organisms that may have diverged from a common ancestor millions of years ago.

The Role of Parallelism in Anthropology

In anthropology, parallelism plays a crucial role in understanding human evolution and the development of cultural traits across different populations. By analyzing similarities and differences between various human populations, anthropologists can trace the origins and dispersion of traits, allowing them to map the course of human evolution and migration[6]. Additionally, parallelism can help explain cultural similarities between geographically distant populations that have independently developed similar tools, social structures, or belief systems.

The Impact of Parallelism on Human Evolution

Parallelism has had a significant impact on human evolution, leading to the emergence of similar traits in different populations. For example, lighter skin color has evolved independently in both European and East Asian populations as an adaptation to low ultraviolet (UV) radiation levels in higher latitudes. This parallel evolution occurred as a result of the need to maintain adequate levels of vitamin D production, which is crucial for human health[7].

Another example is the independent development of agriculture in multiple regions of the world, such as the Fertile Crescent, China, and Mesoamerica. Despite the geographic distance and lack of contact between these populations, they all independently transitioned from hunter-gatherer societies to agricultural communities, driven by the need for a more stable food supply[8].


Parallelism is a captivating phenomenon in the realms of evolutionary anthropology and biology, showcasing the remarkable ability of unrelated species and human populations to evolve similar traits and adaptations independently. By examining the parallelism structure and observing real-life examples, we can better understand the evolutionary processes that have shaped the world we see today. In anthropology, parallelism plays a vital role in tracing the origins and dispersion of human traits, providing valuable insights into the complex story of human evolution.


[1] Futuyma, D.J. (2013). Evolution. Sunderland, MA: Sinauer Associates.

[2] Losos, J.B. (2011). Convergence, Adaptation, and Constraint. Evolution, 65(7), 1827-1840.

[3] Riek, A., & Geiser, F. (2013). Allometry of thermal variables in mammals: consequences of body size and phylogeny. Biological Reviews, 88(2), 564-572.

[4] Ogburn, R.M., & Edwards, E.J. (2010). The Ecological Water-Use Strategies of Succulent Plants. Advances in Botanical Research, 55, 179-225.

[5] Lewontin, R.C. (2001). The Triple Helix: Gene, Organism, and Environment. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press.

[6] Relethford, J.H. (2017). Reflections of Our Past: How Human History Is Revealed in Our Genes. New York, NY: Routledge.

[7] Jablonski, N.G., & Chaplin, G. (2010). Human skin pigmentation as an adaptation to UV radiation. Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, 107(Supplement_2), 8962-8968.

[8] Diamond, J. (1997). Guns, Germs, and Steel: The Fates of Human Societies. New York, NY: W.W. Norton & Company.

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