Stay informed: Sign up for eNews Subscribe
Read Chapter 1

Chapter 1


Understanding Technology as a Human Social Tradition

One definitive feature of the human condition is reliance on highly sophisticated technological solutions. These physical objects are termed material culture and include elaborate tools for capturing, processing, and storing resources, technologies for travel, vernacular architecture, as well as all the other objects used by people in all spheres of social life. In general, however, people tend not to invent such objects and technologies for themselves through personal trial-and-error learning but predominantly acquire existing designs and cultural ideas from other people. Nor is this a relatively new phenomenon, linked only to the rise of modern urban and industrial life. Even in small-scale hunting and gathering societies, people primarily learn how to make useful things from other individuals during childhood and adolescence. And, of course, they may also add their innovations and improvements to these designs later on in life, passing these changes on to later generations. People actively participate in the reproduction of cultural knowledge, and most technologies used by humans form long-term historical tradition that are passed on to others through exactly this kind of social learning.

As anthropologists and archaeologists frequently document, these enduring lineages of cultural tradition can extend in recognizable formats over many, many generations, in some cases persisting for millennia. But if these material culture traditions are reproduced through social learning, then whom people learn from, what they learn, why, and when can all have major cumulative effects on larger patterns of cultural diversity and change. In one way or another, exactly how such material culture lineages are reproduced, and why they are subject to continuity or transformation, have been the focus of debate for well over a century.

This book therefore examines three interlocking topics that are central to all archaeological and anthropological inquiry: the role of technology and material culture in social life; the reproduction of social traditions; the factors that generate and sustain cultural diversity. In fact, the overall aim of this book is to outline a new kind of approach for researching variability and change in material culture. This can be summarized as "Technology as human social tradition." The main argument is that human technological traditions exhibit heritable continuity: they consist of information stored in human brains and then passed on to others through social learning; people born into specific cultural settings acquire, participate in, and thereby reproduce these material culture traditions, passing them on to future generations. This system of inheritance involves both the reproduction and modification of cultural information, but also the expression of these ideas and skills in production of material objects over time. Such technological traditions can therefore be understood as material manifestations of a complex transmission system in which cultural information is inherited, reproduced, and cumulatively transformed by individuals and their communities.

Applying this perspective to human technology builds on, but also largely transcends, much of the earlier work conducted by archaeologists and anthropologists into the significance, function, and social meanings associated with patterns of continuity and change in material culture. In the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries anthropologists collected objects and artifacts from different cultures either to assess the cultures' relative levels of progress or to simply catalogue global cultural diversity in terms of the artefacts and objects used by different tribes and ethnic groups. But for most of the twentieth century, anthropological interest shifted to other themes such as kinship and religion, with material culture largely ignored. More recently, there has been renewed interest in material culture in general (Tilley et al. 2006) and in the anthropology of technology, that is, how individuals acquire and practice embodied craft skills within the daily routines of specific sociocultural settings (Ingold 2000; Leroi-Gourhan 1993; Mauss 1979; Stark et al. 2008a).

Archaeologists have also built most of their discipline on the recovery and documentation of human technology, but they have done so in a range of different ways, generating contrasting and at times contradictory insights into material culture variability and change. Until the early twentieth century, major changes in material culture were also used to map either general stages of human progress, and in the days before radiocarbon dating was developed, artifact lineages were used to construct relative chronologies and to trace the traditions and histories of different archaeological "cultures" as well as the prehistoric origins of modern ethnic groups and nation-states (Lyman et al. 1997; Shennan 1989; 2002a:67; 2009a:2; Trigger 2006:211-313). By the mid-twentieth century, archaeological interests had shifted toward investigating the functional roles played by artifacts, objects, and toolkits, especially among prehistoric hunter-gatherers. In this period, interests in the archaeology of cultural traditions was largely eclipsed by an overarching concern with studying the adaptive dynamics of human cultural systems, which required identification of cross-cultural regularities in technology across different environmental settings (Lyman et al. 1997:217, 230; Shennan 2002a:72, 184; Trigger 2006:480).

By the end of twentieth century, however, theoretical fashions were beginning to swing in the opposite direction, deliberately highlighting the local, idiosyncratic, and historically contingent nature of cultural phenomena, as well as the social and symbolic dimensions to material culture, the active role that objects play in social life, and their significance in expressions of identity, religion, and ideology (Hodder 1982, 1986). Some general interest in researching cultural traditions returned, but it was generally limited to examination of small-scale social settings and the description of the microroutines of daily practice. Less effort was directed to linking these small-scale processes to the deeper mechanisms of long-term culture change (Trigger 2006:444-78).

Most current anthropological and archaeological work on technology now tends to be united by a shared interpretive interest in the contextual significance of material culture (or "materiality') and its general historical contingency. The broad consensus is that creation of material culture through day-to-day practice forms part of the wider process of cultural and social reproduction and that this involves creativity and subjective cultural choices, and hence the agency and history of individuals and their social collectives (Apel 2001; Dobres 2000; Gosselain 1998; Ingold 2000; Killick 1994; Leroi-Gourhan 1993; Lomonnier 1993; Mauss 1979; McEachern 1998:246; Sillar 2000; Sillar and Tite 2000; and see Tilley et al. 2006).

This book takes a different tack. It draws on the substance, content, and focus of many of these older debates about the relative functional versus symbolic roles performed by material culture but takes research into new directions by employing some of these older ideas as useful points of departure. The main starting point is the absolutely central and now consensus idea that the practice of craft traditions form part of general cultural reproduction. However, the book argues that this renewed emphasis on understanding technology as a fundamentally social tradition-that is, as cultural information reproduced through social learning-generates some broad analogies with the ways in which evolutionary biologists have investigated the transmission of genetic information. Both genetic and cultural inheritance systems can therefore be argued to exhibit evolutionary properties of "descent with modification" (Boyd and Richerson 1985; Cavalli Sforza and Feldman 1981; Ellen et al. 2013; Lycett 2011; Mesoudi 2011; Mesoudi et al. 2006; O'Brien et al. 2013; Shennan 2002a, 2009b; Richerson and Boyd 2005).

On one level, exploring these analogies between cultural and genetic inheritance systems is important for archaeologists and anthropologists because, on a heuristic level, they generate new frameworks within which to think about the social reproduction of material culture traditions, especially the links between individual actions and long-term outcomes, including the broader patterns of variability and long-term culture change that result. On another, and perhaps more important empirical level, these analogies also provide a bridge for applying some of the powerful analytical methods developed in the biological sciences to material culture data sets, thereby tackling long-standing questions about the factors that generate continuity, diversity, and change in material culture traditions across an interlocking range of different social, spatial, and temporal scales.

One of the most important challenges is generating suitable data for implementing this kind of approach. Building on key arguments in the anthropology of technology, it is argued in this book that the composition of particular material culture traditions can be defined and documented in terms of distinctive sets of "cultural traits." This is because all craft traditions can be studied in terms of their unique production sequences, or "design grammars," which consist of different stages of production and the associated choices by human practitioners as to what materials or methods to deploy within the different production stages. Each of these choices can be defined as traits, and specific combinations of these design traits can then be argued to make up particular kinds of artifacts and their associated craft traditions. Defining and documenting these traits is therefore about understanding the inherent creativity and historical agency central to the practice of craft production. Moreover, large data sets recording variability in material culture can be generated by the same trait-based approach and then subjected to further analysis, hypothesis testing, and contextual interpretation in order to understand how technological traditions have diversified and changed over time.

If this general approach holds fast-and if material culture variability and change can be productively approached in terms of dynamic social traditions-then three overarching research themes emerge:

1. Propagation of Cultural Traditions. How are material culture traditions reproduced through social learning; how do individuals acquire knowledge of specific design traits and how best to combine them; what factors promote them to maintain or adjust these traditions; what patterns of cumulative change are generated?

2. Coherence in Cultural Traditions. To what extent do material culture traditions consist of particular combinations of design traits; is there just a rapid and relentless mixing of traits, or do specific combinations form coherent designs endure in recognizable formats over generations? At what social scales do such coherent lineages of tradition emerge? To what extent can the deeper history of these coherent lineages be reconstructed, and what forms do these histories take? Do they undergo repeated splitting processes, with the branching away of new descendent traditions, all of whose genealogies can be traced back to a common ancestor?

3. Congruence among Cultural Traditions. Does each lineage of tradition have its own independent history, or are technological traditions propagated in ways that ensure that a number of different traditions eventually become bundled together?

This book systematically addresses these three themes, applying a "descent with modification" perspective to the study of material culture traditions across a range of concrete empirical case studies. These are united by a shared focus on understanding the technologies of different hunting and gathering societies across a range of different cultural settings.

This research is neither limited to anthropology nor directed just at an archaeology readership-its themes and approaches span both disciplines: the case studies employ anthropological information and ethnographic data, but many of the questions addressed, and the insights that are produced, are of equal relevance to archaeologists seeking to understand the significance of spatio-temporal patterning in prehistoric material culture. In this sense, the book can best be understood as an interdisciplinary exercise in hunter-gatherer ethnoarchaeology (David and Kramer 2001; Lane 2014), one that undertakes a sustained contextual and comparative analysis of material culture evolution, integrating it to the newly emerging science of cultural diversification and change that now spans archaeology, anthropology, biology, evolutionary psychology, and historical linguistics (Ellen et al. 2013; Henrich and McElreath 2003; Lycett 2011; Mesoudi 2011; O'Brien et al. 2013; Rogers and Ehrlich 2008:3416; Shennan 2009b; Steele et al. 2010).

This introductory chapter aims to contextualize the aims of the research, its general approach, and the debates and questions it addresses. It starts from first principles by examining the unique sophistication of human social learning and the ways in which it underpins the maintenance of cumulative cultural traditions. It then examines how cultural transmission theory, which was inspired by exploring some of the broad analogies between cultural and genetic inheritance, can be used to provide a general framework for examining the reproduction of cultural traditions within different populations, and also how some of these specific processes of cultural propagation link directly into long-standing anthropological and archaeological debates about large-scale patterning in the coherence and historical congruence of different material culture traditions. Chapter 2 outlines the central methodology, chapters 3, 4, and 5 contain the main case studies, and chapter 6 undertakes a cross-cultural comparative analysis of the overall results, linking these insights back to general debates about variability and change in material culture.

What Makes Human Culture Unique?

The human species is unique. What makes it so special is the highly developed capacity for maintaining cumulative cultural traditions through the practice of teaching, imitation, and other forms of social learning. But biologists are quick to point out that the enormous species gulf between humans and other even closely related animals is only a relative one. Understanding some of these relative similarities and differences forms a useful starting point for examining what is so distinctive about human social learning and the elaborate cultural traditions that it can sustain.

A broad distinction can be made between individual learning and social learning. According to the former, individuals learn directly from their own experiences of the surrounding world. However, when this individual dies, these accumulated understandings are lost, and each new offspring must embark anew on his or her own process of environmental learning (Shennan 2002a:38, 2002b:185-86). In contrast, social learning involves acquiring information from other members of the same species, which can lead to replication of that information over time. This distinction rests on the source of theinformation learned and is not about the specific information content (Shennan 2002b:186). Thus, "social learning is learning that is facilitated by observation of, or interaction with, another individual" (Hoppit and Laland 2013:4).

Although learning from other individuals is central to the reproduction of human culture, for example, in language or in craft traditions, social learning in itself is not unique to humans, and transmission of this kind of nongenetic information between individuals is surprisingly common among a wide range of organisms (see Bentley et al. 2008; Danchin et al. 2010; Humle and Newton-Fisher 2013; Krützen et al. 2005; Laland et al. 2013; Lycett 2010, 2011; McGrew, 2004; Van Schaik et al. 2003; Whiten, 2007, 2010; Whiten et al. 1999; Whiten et al. 2005; and see Hoppit and Laland 2013 for a general overview

However, the mechanisms by which such traditions are maintained are very variable and span a wide range of cognitive complexity (Shennan 2002b:188). An insightful way to examine the central features of human cultural transmission systems is to run through a short comparative analysis of social learning among humans and chimpanzees, their closely related sister genus (see general summary by Whiten 2011; table 1.1).The goal here is to distinguish which features of social learning and cultural transmission can be ascribed to common ancestry, and which features reflect changes since the ancestral divergence around 6-7 million years ago (Whiten 2011:998). Exploring exactly what makes human social learning capable of sustaining the intergenerational transmission of so many rich and diverse forms of cultural information quickly becomes central to understanding the deeper evolutionary dynamics of their technology and material culture.


Understanding cultural transmission involves studying social traditions. Thus, it is important to understand exactly what constitutes a social tradition; following Fragaszy and Perry (2003:xiii), this can be defined as a "distinctive behaviour pattern shared by two or more individuals in a social unit, which persists over time and that new practitioners acquire in part through socially aided learning." This definition is important because it renders culture as a community-level phenomenon, minimally defined by a tradition shared by at least two individuals, but typically many more (Whiten 2011:999). It also includes the requirement for persistence, which has two implications: (1) traditions can become more substantial as they spread from a minimum of two individuals, and then potentially across larger communities and populations; (2) these traditions are enduring and can potentially persist over multiple generations (Whiten 2011:997). It is these features of culture that enable each new generation to build on the innovations of the previous one, meaning that human traditions involve transmission, but also the more selective capacity for accumulation and editing of this cultural information. It is these combined features of human cumulative culture that make it possible to argue that their cultural traditions can evolve according to principles of descent with modification.

Working through the details summarized in table 1.1, it is clear that three broad themes make the attributes and capacities associated with human cultural traditions quite different than those of even closely related primate species: (1) specific social learning processes, (2) unique cultural content, (3) distinctive population-level patterning.

In particular, it is the sophisticated social learning processes that appear to underpin the distinctive features of human cultural traditions (table 1.1: 1 a-e). Human copying includes both emulation (reproducing end results) and imitation (reproducing actions); in fact, the highly developed capacity for imitation among humans may be key to the phenomenon of cumulative culture, and it certainly seems to be important in the emergence and long-term stability in cognitively opaque and often essentially arbitrary human technological traditions such as stone-tool making, basketry, and pottery (Tehrani and Riede 2008; Want and Harris 2002; but see Caldwell and Millen 2009).

This highly developed human capacity for social learning is important, because it underpins (1) "copying sophistication and fidelity"(Whiten 2011:1001)-there has to be fidelity, otherwise traditions cannot persist in recognizable format. In fact, this kind of high-fidelity transmission appears to be one of the key drivers of human cumulative culture (Lewis and Laland 2012) and is underpinned by a package of other sociocognitive processes-including teaching through verbal instruction, imitation, and also prosociality (Dean et al. 2012), such that teaching, language, and cumulative culture can all work together to reinforce one another.

Humans also engage in (2)"rational" copying" (Whiten 2011:1002)-this means that humans' imitation mechanisms include a substantial element of selectivity. There is also (3) a striking degree of "conformity"in human cultural traditi