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Can we infer patterns of cultural transmission from frequency data?

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A long tradition of cultural evolutionary studies has developed a rich repertoire of mathematical models of social learning. Early studies have laid the foundation of more recent endeavours to infer patterns of cultural transmission from observed frequencies of a variety of cultural data, including decorative motifs on potsherds, baby names, musical preferences, and dog breeds. While this wide range of applications provides an opportunity for the development of generalizable analytical workflows, archaeological data present new questions and challenges that require further methodological and theoretical discussion. This paper will overview some recent attempts based on a generative inferential framework whereby alternatives modes of cultural transmission are described as agent-based models. In particular, it will focus on a case study from Neolithic Germany, which will illustrate some of the most challenging aspects imposed by archaeological data, including time-averaging, equifinality, and unwarranted assumption of equilibrium states.

This talk is part of the Biological Anthropology Seminar Series series.

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