The cultural transmission of Great Basin projectile point technology I: An experimental simulation


A Darwinian evolutionary approach to archaeology naturally leads to a focus on cultural transmission. Theoretical models of cultural evolution indicate that individual-level details of cultural transmission can have specific and significant population-level effects, implying that differences in transmission may be detectable in the archaeological record. Here we present an experimental simulation of the cultural transmission of prehistoric projectile-point technology, simulating the two transmission modes-indirect bias and guided variation-that Bettinger and Eerkens (1999) suggested were responsible for differences in Nevada and California point-attribute correlations. Groups of participants designed ‘virtual projectile points’ and tested them in ‘virtual hunting environments,’ with different phases of learning simulating, alternately, indirectly biased cultural transmission and independent individual learning. As predicted, periods of cultural transmission were associated with significantly stronger attribute correlations than were periods of individual learning. We also found that participants who could engage in indirectly biased horizontal cultural transmission outperformed individual-learning controls, especially when individual learning was costly and the selective environment was multimodal. The study demonstrates that experimental simulations of cultural transmission, used alongside archaeological data, mathematical models and computer simulations, constitute a useful tool for studying cultural change.

American Antiquity 73, 3–28.