What Is the Main Idea of Unilineal Evolution Theory?


Martha Robinson

Unilineal evolution theory is a concept that aims to explain how societies develop over time. It suggests that all societies progress through a series of stages, starting from the simplest and moving towards the most complex.

This theory was first introduced by 19th-century anthropologists who were trying to understand the diversity of cultures across the world. While there are several variations of this theory, the main idea behind unilineal evolution is that societies evolve in a linear and progressive manner.

The Stages of Unilineal Evolution Theory

Unilineal evolution theory divides human societies into different stages based on their level of complexity and sophistication. According to this theory, all societies start at the same point and progress through a set sequence of stages. These stages are:

  • Savagery: This is the earliest stage of human society where people were hunters and gatherers. They lived in small groups and had limited technology.
  • Barbarism: This stage marked the development of agriculture, animal domestication, and settled communities.

    People began to develop specialized skills such as metalworking.

  • Civilization: In this stage, society reached its highest level of development. There was a complex political system, large-scale trade networks, sophisticated technology, and written language.

Criticisms of Unilineal Evolution Theory

While unilineal evolution theory was influential in shaping early anthropology, it has been criticized for several reasons. One major criticism is that it assumes all societies follow the same path of development, which is not necessarily true. Different cultures have unique histories and experiences that shape their development.

Another criticism is that unilineal evolution theory places Western civilization at the top of the evolutionary ladder while other cultures are seen as inferior or less evolved. This Eurocentric bias has been challenged by postcolonial and feminist scholars who argue that all cultures have their own unique strengths and weaknesses.


Although unilineal evolution theory has been criticized, it was an important step in understanding the development of human societies. While it is now widely rejected, many of its ideas have been incorporated into modern anthropology. Today, anthropologists recognize the diversity of cultural practices and the need to approach other cultures with a sense of respect and openness.