Traditional craftspeople are not copycats: Potter idiosyncrasies in vessel morphogenesis

  • Gandon Enora
  • Nonaka Tetsushi
  • Endler John A
  • Coyle Thelma
  • Bootsma Reinoud J.

  • Cultrural evolution theory
  • Elliptical Fourier analysis
  • Morphogenesis
  • Human learning
  • Learning
  • Imitation Learning
  • High-fidelity copying


Ceramics are quintessential indicators of human culture and its evolution across generations of social learners. Cultural transmission and evolution theory frequently emphasizes apprentices' need for accurate imitation (high-fidelity copying) of their mentors' actions. However, the ensuing prediction of standardized fashioning patterns within communities of practice has not been directly addressed in handicraft traditions such as pottery throwing. To fill this gap, we analysed variation in vessel morphogenesis amongst and within traditional potters from culturally different workshops producing for the same market. We demonstrate that, for each vessel type studied, individual potters reliably followed distinctive routes through morphological space towards a much-less-variable common final shape. Our results indicate that mastering the pottery handicraft does not result from accurately reproducing a particular model behaviour specific to the community's cultural tradition. We provide evidence that, at the level of the elementary clay-deforming gestures, individual learning rather than simple imitation is required for the acquisition of a complex motor skill such as throwing pottery.