The interplay between age structure and cultural transmission

Anne Kandler, Laurel Fogarty, F.B. Karsdorp

Research output: Contribution to journal/periodicalArticleScientificpeer-review

1 Citation (Scopus)


Empirical work has shown that human cultural transmission can be heavily influenced by population age structure. We aim to explore the role of such age structure in shaping the cultural composition of a population when cultural transmission occurs in an unbiased way. In particular, we are interested in understanding the effect induced by the interplay between age structure and the cultural transmission process by allowing cultural transmission from individuals within a limited age range only. To this end we develop an age-structured cultural transmission model and find that age-structured and non age-structured populations evolving through unbiased transmission possess very similar cultural compositions (at a single point in time) at the population and sample level if the copy pool consists of a sufficiently large fraction of the population. If, however, an age constraint—a structural constraint restricting the pool of potential role models to individuals of a limited age range— exists, the cultural compositions of age-structured and non age-structured population show stark differences. This may have drastic consequences for our ability to correctly analyse cultural data sets. Rejections of tests of neutrality, blind to age structure and, importantly, the interaction between age structure and cultural transmission, are only indicative of biased transmission if it is known a priori that there are no or only weak age constraints acting on the pool of role models. As this knowledge is rarely available for specific empirical case studies we develop a generative inference approach based on our age-structured cultural transmission model and machine learning techniques. We show that in some circumstances it is possible to simultaneously infer the characteristics of the age structure, the nature of the transmission process, and the interplay between them from observed samples of cultural variants. Our results also point to hard limits on inference from population-level data at a single point in time, regardless of the approach used.
Original languageEnglish
Article number e1011297
Pages (from-to)1-21
Number of pages21
JournalPLoS Computational Biology
Issue number7
Publication statusPublished - 2023


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