Collective learning, baseball caps, and Clovis points

Submitted by Sammy Smith (

David Christian, in his 2004 volume Maps of Time: An Introduction to Big History, argues that what sets humans apart from other species, even other species of hominids, is our capacity for collective learning. By this he means that we are adept at sharing information within and between generations. Thus, learning doesn’t have to occur anew with each new individual or group.

Why does this matter? Is the effect of collective learning something we can see archaeologically?

Sharing information is a form of synergy, and extends our abilities as a species to deal with difficult situations like climatic events (e.g., hurricanes, earthquakes, droughts) including adjusting technologies to reduce risk. Thus it is important to investigate collective learning as a means to understanding our human past—and future. So, it does matter.

How can the effect of collective learning be seen in the archaeological record? Consider evidence you can see of how styles proliferate among people in your neighborhood, or people that you see at stores or anywhere people assemble.

Braves pitcher 2007
Clovis Point

Consider how people wear baseball caps. Back in the 1920s they were worn by men and boys and the bill always projected forward. How do you see people wearing them now? Has the style of wearing baseball caps changed? Do you think these styles are just common in your neighborhood? May they be pretty much worldwide?

Clearly, study of any modern example of the proliferation of a style, like how to wear a baseball cap, must take into account the effect of television and other media.

But we also have examples in archaeology of the exchange of information over long distances and across many generations. Consider the styles of ancient stone tools. Fluted Clovis stone points (incorrectly called arrowheads by some; the illustration here is from Wikipedia) are well-known and have been found across a broad area that includes much of North America. Consider this map produced by The Paleoindian Database of the Americas showing the distribution of Clovis points made of various materials.

PIDBA Clovis accessed 2011 Aug 28

So how did the Clovis style proliferate? What role do you think collective learning plays in the proliferation of styles?

Follow this link to read more about Georgia’s past.