The impact of imitative versus emulative learning mechanisms on artifactual variation: implications for the evolution of material culture


Cultural evolutionary approaches highlight that different social learning processes may be involved in the maintenance of cultural traditions. Inevitably, for traditions to be maintained, they must be transmitted with reasonably fidelity. It has been proposed that imitation' (i.e., the direct copying of actions of others displayed in tasks such as toolmaking) generates relatively low rates of copying error. As such, imitation has often been ascribed an important role in the maintenance of traditions and in the ratcheting’ of technological complexity over time. Conversely, emulation' (i.e., the copying of a result but not the behaviors that have led to that result) is allegedly associated with the production of relatively higher rates of copying error. However, to what extent these different social learning mechanisms generate distinct patterns of variation during the manufacture of material traditions remains largely unexplored empirically. Here, a controlled experiment was implemented using 60 participants who copied the shape of a 3D target handaxe form’ from a standardized foam block. In an imitation condition', 30 participants were shown manufacturing techniques employed in the production of the target form and the target form itself. Conversely, in an emulation condition’, 30 participants were shown only the (target) form. Copying error rates were statistically different, being significantly lower in the imitation' condition compared to the emulation’ condition. Moreover, participants in the imitation condition matched the demonstrated behaviors with significantly higher copying fidelity than the alternative condition. These results illustrate that imitation may be imperative for the long-term perpetuation of visibly distinct archaeological traditions, especially in the case of lithic (reductive) traditions, where copying error rates can be expected to be relatively high. These findings, therefore, provide evidence that imitation may be required to explain the prolonged continuity of broad shape fidelity such as that seen in traditions of `handaxe’ manufacture during the Pleistocene.

Evolution and Human Behavior 36, 446–455.