Design Space and Cultural Transmission: Case Studies from Paleoindian Eastern North America

Michael J. O’Brien*, Matthew T. Boulanger, Briggs Buchanan, R. Alexander Bentley, R. Lee Lyman, Carl P. Lipo, Mark E. Madsen, Metin I. Eren

*Corresponding author for this work

Research output: Contribution to journalArticle (Academic Journal)peer-review

23 Citations (Scopus)


Tool design is a cultural trait—a term long used in anthropology as a unit of transmittable information that encodes particular behavioral characteristics of individuals or groups. After they are transmitted, cultural traits serve as units of replication in that they can be modified as part of a cultural repertoire through processes such as recombination, loss, or partial alteration. Artifacts and other components of the archaeological record serve as proxies for studying the transmission (and modification) of cultural traits, provided there is analytical clarity in defining and measuring whatever it is that is being transmitted. Our interest here is in tool design, and we illustrate how to create analytical units that allow us to map tool-design space and to begin to understand how that space was used at different points in time. We first introduce the concept of fitness landscape and impose a model of cultural learning over it, then turn to four methods that are useful for the analysis of design space: paradigmatic classification, phylogenetic analysis, distance graphs, and geometric morphometrics. Each method builds on the others in logical fashion, which allows creation of testable hypotheses concerning cultural transmission and the evolutionary processes that shape it, including invention (mutation), selection, and drift. For examples, we turn to several case studies that focus on Early Paleoindian–period projectile points from eastern North America, the earliest widespread and currently recognizable remains of hunter–gatherers in late Pleistocene North America.

Original languageEnglish
Pages (from-to)692-740
Number of pages49
JournalJournal of Archaeological Method and Theory
Issue number2
Early online date5 Jul 2015
Publication statusPublished - Jun 2016


  • Cladistics
  • Clovis
  • Design space
  • Distance graphs
  • Geometric morphometrics
  • Learning
  • Paleoindian

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