Postgraduate Research Archaeology Symposium

Cory Cuthbertson (2016)

Keywords: Experimental archaeology, lithics, theory of mind, language, social learning, cultural transmission


Lithic manufacture methods vary in complexity, as do the cognitive requirements to transmit and learn them. Palaeolithic intra-assemblage variability in lithic form may show differential patterning based on the method of cultural transmission used to acquire a technique, because higher fidelity transmission methods allow more faithful replication to take place; a low level of variability may therefore only be possible to those with high fidelity cultural transmission, allowed by cognitively complex social learning methods such as imitation sensu stricto, and teaching. If true, identifying particular social learning methods in the archaeological record would indicate the cognitive and linguistic requirements for that transmission. An experiment was conducted where 4 groups of 5 novice knappers made bifacial tools under different simulated social learning environments, in order to compare tool and debitage variability levels. Standardised porcelain blanks allowed for controlled analysis. 110 ‘handaxes’ were compared for 2D shape, weight, and scar count, while flake analysis compared weight, number and size of flakes. As participants practiced, their tool forms began to more faithfully copy the model, and thus more closely resemble each other’s. This was especially pronounced in the high fidelity groups, while the low fidelity group retained a higher level of variability. These results support the effect of social learning as impacting tool variability and highlight its potential as indicative of Palaeolithic cognitive and linguistic ability.