PLoS ONE (Jan 2020)

Assessing the influence of culture on craft skills: A quantitative study with expert Nepalese potters.

  • Enora Gandon,
  • Tetsushi Nonaka,
  • Raphael Sonabend,
  • John Endler

Journal volume & issue
Vol. 15, no. 10
p. e0239139


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Studies have documented that traditional motor skills (i.e. motor habits) are part of the cultural way of life that characterises each society. Yet, it is still unclear to what extent motor skills are inherited through culture. Drawing on ethnology and motor behaviour, we addressed this issue through a detailed description of traditional pottery skills. Our goal was to quantify the influence of three kinds of constraints: the transcultural constraints of wheel-throwing, the cultural constraints induced via cultural transmission, and the potters' individual constraints. Five expert Nepalese potters were invited to produce three familiar pottery types, each in five specimens. A total of 31 different fashioning hand positions were identified. Most of them (14) were cross-cultural, ten positions were cultural, five positions were individual, and two positions were unique. Statistical tests indicated that the subset of positions used by the participants in this study were distinct from those of other cultural groups. Behaviours described in terms of fashioning duration, number of gestures, and hand position repertoires size highlighted both individual and cross-cultural traits. We also analysed the time series of the successive hand positions used throughout the fashioning of each vessel. Results showed, for each pottery type, strong reproducible sequences at the individual level and a clearly higher level of variability between potters. Overall, our findings confirm the existence of a cultural transmission in craft skills but also demonstrated that the skill is not fully determined by a cultural marking. We conclude that the influence of culture on craft skills should not be overstated, even if its role is significant given the fact that it reflects the socially transmitted part of the skill. Such research offers insights into archaeological problems in providing a representative view of how cultural constraints influence the motor skills implied in artefact manufacturing.