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Copying Error and the Cultural Evolution of “Additive” vs. “Reductive” Material Traditions: An Experimental Assessment

Published online by Cambridge University Press:  20 January 2017

Kerstin Schillinger
Department of Anthropology, University of Kent, Canterbury, Kent CT2 7NR, United Kingdom (
Alex Mesoudi
Department of Anthropology, Durham University, Durham, United Kingdom
Stephen J. Lycett
Department of Anthropology, University of Kent, Canterbury, Kent CT2 7NR, United Kingdom
E-mail address:


Copying errors that occur during the manufacture of artifactual traditions are potentially a major source of variation. It has been proposed that material items produced via “additive” processes (e.g., pottery) will possess less variation than traditions produced via “reductive” processes (e.g., stone knapping). The logic of this premise is that “additive” production methods more readily allow for the reversal of copying errors compared to strictly “reductive-only” processes. Here, we tested this hypothesis in shape data using an experimental framework in which we generated and statistically analyzed morphometry (size-adjusted) shape data under controlled and replicable conditions. Participants engaged in one of two alternative conditions: an irreversible (“reductive-only”) manufacturing process or a reversible (“additive-reductive”) process. With a number of factors held constant, participants were required to copy the shape of a “target form” as accurately as possible using a standardized block of plasticine and a steel table knife. Results demonstrated statistically greater levels of shape-copying errors in the replicas produced in the reductive-only condition. This indicates that “mutation rates” in the shape attributes of artifactual traditions produced via reductive processes are inherently greater than those produced via alternative means. Several implications for the study of variation in artifactual traditions are discussed.



Los errores de copiado que ocurren durante tradiciones de la manufactura de artefactos constituyen potencialmente una fuente importante de variación. Se ha sugerido que los objetos producidos mediante procesos “aditivos” (p.ej. cerámica) variarían menos que aquéllos producidos mediante procesos “reductivos” (p.ej. tallado depiedra) debido a que, a diferencia de los procesos estrictamente reductivos, los métodos aditivos de producción facilitarían la correción de errores de copiado. Aquí pusi-mos a prueba esta hipótesis en un marco experimental en el que generamos y analizamos estadisticamente datos morfométricos (ajustados al tamaño) en condiciones controladas y reproducibles. Los participantes tomaron parte en una de dos situaciones: en un proceso de manufactura irreversible (“sólo reductivo”) o en unproceso reversible (“aditivo-reductivo”). Se pidíó a los participantes copiar la forma de un “objeto modelo“ con la mayor precisión posible utilizando un bloque estandarizado de plastilina y un cuchillo metálico. Los resultados demostraron estadísticamente un mayor número de errores de copiado en las réplicas producidas en la situación “sólo reductiva”. Esto indica que la “tasa de mutacion” en artefactos producidos mediante procesos reductivos es inherentemente mayor que en aquéllos producidos mediante otros procesos. Se discuten algunas implicaciones para el estudio de variaciones en artefactos tradiciones.

Copyright © The Society for American Archaeology 2014

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