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Comparative methods for studying cultural trait evolution: A simulation study


Anthropologists and archaeologists increasingly use phylogenetic methods to test hypotheses involving cross-cultural traits, but the appropriateness of applying tree-based methods to analyze cultural traits is unclear. The authors developed a spatially explicit computer simulation model to investigate trait evolution in relation to phylogeny and geography and used the simulation to assess the sensitivity of two comparative methods (independent contrasts and partial Mantel tests) to different degrees of horizontal transmission. Simulation results show that (a) the method of independent contrasts is sensitive to even small amounts of horizontal transmission in cultural data sets, (b) Mantel tests fail to cleanly discriminate between datasets characterized by different levels of horizontal and vertical trait transmission, and (c) partial Mantel tests do not produce markedly improved statistical performance when testing for associations among traits (as compared to independent contrasts). The results highlight the need for empirical estimates of horizontal transmission and extinction rates in cross-cultural datasets.

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