Anthropologists have long been fascinated by the strikingly similar adaptations of circumpolar cultures as well as their puzzling differences. These patterns of diversity have been mapped, studied and interpreted from many perspectives and often at different social and spatiotemporal scales. While this work has generated vast archives of legacy data, it has also left behind a fragmented understanding of what underpins Arctic cultural diversity and change. We argue that it is time to engage with questions that highlight the roles of socio-environmental learning and cumulative cultural inheritance in shaping human adaptations to Arctic environs. We situate this in light of longue durée adaptations to environmental change. We examine five case studies that have used this framework to explore the genealogy of Northern cultural traditions, and show how social learning, cultural inheritance and transmission processes are germane to understanding the generation and change in varied information systems (i.e., ‘traditional knowledge’). Specifically, a cultural evolutionary framework enables long-term insights into human decision-making trajectories, with continued and prescient impacts in the rapidly changing Arctic. It is critical to improve understandings of traditional knowledge not as static cultural phenomena, but as dynamic lineages of information: ideas with histories. Improving knowledge of the dynamic and evolving character of inherited ‘traditional knowledge’ in circumpolar human-environment interactions must be a research priority given the pressures of accelerating climate change on Indigenous communities and the social-ecological systems in which they exist in order to help buffer cultural systems against future adaptive challenges in the rapidly changing Arctic.