Re: Cross-cultural anthropology: An archaeological perspective.

Paul J Brantingham (branting@GAS.UUG.ARIZONA.EDU)
Fri, 11 Nov 1994 14:26:44 -0700

As an archaeologist I have a slightly different perspective on the
cross-cultural question. This baisically derives from the fact that
archaeologists working in prehistoric periods must rely on ethnographic
analogy (or experimental work such as computer modeling or replication
studies) to make their data intelligible. There is a long history to the
use of ethnographic analogy in archaeology that is directly relevant to
the whole-culture/culture-trait problem of cross cultural comparison.

Much of the 19th century evolutionary anthropology and archaeology was
concerned with the use of entire cultures as examples of prehistoric
cultures. I use the word "example" because these evolutionary
anthropologists were not using principles of analogy to mitigate their
interpretation of arcaheolgical materials. Thus the Australian aboriginal
people or the !Kung *were* savages identical to Paleolitic peoples in
their entirety. From the Victorian perspective, the simple technology,
language, dark skin and immorality of mobile hunter-gatherers went together
as a unit, as did the industrial technology, refined language, light
skin and puritan morality of Western European Civilization. I
like to draw an example from modern evolutionary biology to illustrate
the fallacy of this type of wholesale ethnographic mapping: People
often think of life in terms of a "great chain of being", with
unicellular organisms at the bottom and humans at the top. Yet this
"chain" or branching model fails to recognize that modern unicellular
organisms and humans are equally evolved (any contemporaneous organisms
are equally evolved), albeit in radically different ways and to radically
different environmental conditions. The mistake is to assume
differneces in organizational complexity provide a means of ranking those
orgnisms on an evolutionary scale.

Another example that illustrates some of the problems with emphasizing
"organizational complexity" as a means of evolutionary ranking, draws on
the common assumption that some languages are inherently more complex than
others. On a point to point basis we could say that Chinese characters
are more complex than the roman alphabetic system. But such differences
in the complexity of orthographic systems are perhaps ballanced by
differences in grammatical systems (Chines does not have verb conjugations,
whereas English has many complex tenses and
an unbelievable number of irregular verbs). This is to say that when we
look at modern languages in their entirety (phonetics, word morphology,
syntax, semantics) they all appear to be equally complex (this goes back
to the Sapir-Whorf Hypothesis). Consequently, it is very difficult to
rank modern languages in terms of their overall complexity. On a point to
point basis it may be possible, but not as an entire system.

The point I am trying to make is that the use of entire cultures as
ethnographic analogies in archaeology, or for cross cultural comparison,
confuses the scale at which analogies are useful. Archaeologists
and anthropologists have recognized this for many years and have
accordingly moved away from the use of entire cultures as the basis of
of cross cultural comparison or archaeological analogy into looking at
more particulate relationships. Bruce Trigger's _A History of
Archaeological Thought_ (1989, Cambridge U. Press) gives a fantastic
discussion of the development of the use of ethnographic analogy by
early Scandanavian archaeologists to explain the function of particular
forms of technology, as independent from other aspects of culture. The
current state of etnographic analogy in archaeology is methodologically more
sophisticated. But the principle of using analogies of limited scale
remains the same (e.g. how does tool form relate to tool function; how do
the energetic requirements of mobility among modern hunter-gatherers
effect what kinds of technology they can carry around with them?). The
construction of these analogies should ideally apply to any
archaeological situation regardless of time or space. That is,
ethnographic analogies may be useful for generating "empirical laws" of
limited scale. Behavioral Archaeology (Schiffer 1976, Academic Press)
has produced one of the most useful approaches to the use of
ethnographic analogy and experimental studies in archaelogy. As the
title of this research program indicates, the apropriate scale of
theory building in archaeology and, therefore, the appropriate scale of
cross cultural (analagous) comparison is that of behavior--how
artifacts and people are brought together to perform certain
activities. Because archaeology is tied to material remains of behavior
the emphasis on artifact-people interactions is understandable. My
suggestion is that cross-cultural comparison in modern ethnography
should also involve limited scale behaviors, functions, symbols,
representations... The important thing is to figure out how limited
scale phenomena are related to their context and whehter it is
appropriate to generate "priciples" of behavior, function,
symboling, and representation outside of those contexts.

I have a question about anthropologists, their field notes and what
eventually gets published from their resarch. Since archaeology often
looks to ethnographies (or ethnohistoric documents) for limited scale
analogies archaeologists have a considerable interest in the way that
ethnography is done. As publications have moved more and more into
issues of representation and power the useful connetions with
archaeology have grown slim. This is not to say that the issues of
representation and power are not important to archaeologists, they most
certainly are. Rather, these issues have tended to produce
ethnographies where data on material culture, demography, or subsistence
(archaeologically tractable forms of evidence), for example, are not
published because the connections with representation and power are
seen as peripheral or unrealted. This makes it incredibly difficult for
archaeologists to consult those ethnographies and develop correlates
for addressing issues of power and representation in prehistoric
times. Archaeologists have gone on to develop "ethnoarchaeology" to
as a means of providing more operational forms of data. This tends to
alienate arhcaeologists from their cultural colleagues, each doing
their own ethnography. My question is, do field anthropologists still
collect information that might be more directly useful to
arcaheologists. Are your ethnographic field notes filled with data that
might be useful for addressing issues of power in prehistoric times? If
so, why not publish that data?

I appologize for the length of these ponderings,

Jeff Brantingham