Biologists and linguists have devised ways to measure evolution in genes and language. But changes in human culture are difficult to quantify. Scott Ortman, an SFI Omidyar Fellow, thinks metaphor might be a cultural unit suitable for mathematical study.

Ortman wants to model genetic, archaeological, linguistic, and cultural data and better understand human cultural evolution, and especially why genes, language, and culture sometimes evolved together and sometimes evolved separately in human history. 

His approach is to translate expressions of conceptual metaphors into data suitable for modeling. He is getting a lot of mileage out of a common feature of the archaeological record: pottery.

Using artifacts from the ancient Mesa Verde culture in Colorado, he is showing how the painted designs on pottery derived from weaving techniques. The evidence implies that the deep-seated analogy “pots are textiles” was a central structuring principle of this famous pottery style.

In studying some 60 sites that span 300 years up to AD 1300, Ortman found that pottery decoration increased in complexity as the repertoire of weaving techniques expanded, and as potters utilized the imagery of textiles to create designs.

“Most patterns reflect the same motifs, whether they’re in woven objects, baskets, or cotton blankets,” he says. The conceptual parallels between pottery and weaving appear to have been adopted subconsciously to make implicit statements regarding a widely shared concept. Such parallels suggest the designs insinuated themselves so deeply into the cultural psyche that they were a natural choice. Recognizing such cultural defaults is key in studying cultural change.

“The aspects of culture that are most powerful in structuring human behavior are the ones individuals are least aware of,” Ortman says. “Archaeologists are actually pretty good at noticing these, but until now, we haven’t had a currency for describing them. Conceptual metaphor theory gives us a way of doing so.”

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