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Steps Towards Operationalising an Evolutionary Archaeological Definition of Culture

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This paper examines the definition of archaeological cultures/techno-complexes from an evolutionary perspective, in which culture is defined as a system of social information transmission. A formal methodology is presented through which the concept of a culture can be operationalised, at least within this approach. It has already been argued that in order to study material culture evolution in a manner similar to how palaeontologists study biological change over time, we need explicitly constructed archaeological taxonomic units . In palaeontology, the definition of such taxonomic units ? most commonly species ? is highly controversial, so no readily adoptable methodology exists. Here, it is argued that culture , however defined, is a phenomenon that emerges through the actions of individuals. In order to identify cultures , we must therefore construct them from the bottom up, beginning with individual actions. Chaîne opèratoire research, combined with the formal and quantitative identification of variability in individual material culture behaviour allows those traits critical in the social transmission of cultural information to be identified. Once such traits are identified, quantitative, the so-called phylogenetic methods can be used to track material culture change over time. Phylogenetic methods produce nested hierarchies of increasingly exclusive groupings, reflecting descent with modification within lineages of social information transmission. Once such nested hierarchies are constructed, it is possible to define an archaeological culture at any given point in this hierarchy, depending on the scale of analysis. A brief example from the Late Glacial in Southern Scandinavia is presented, and it is shown that this approach can be used to operationalise an evolutionary definition of culture and that it improves upon traditional, typologically defined techno-complexes. In conclusion, the benefits and limits of such an evolutionary and quantitative definition of culture are discussed.
Original languageEnglish
Title of host publicationInvestigating Archaeological Cultures. Material Culture, Variability, and Transmission
EditorsBenjamin W. Roberts, Marc Vander Linden
Number of pages26
PublisherSpringer US
Publication year2011
ISBN (print)978-1-4419-6970-5
Publication statusPublished - 2011

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