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Steps towards operationalizing an evolutionary archaeological definition of culture

Riede, F; (2011) Steps towards operationalizing an evolutionary archaeological definition of culture. In: Roberts, BW and Vander Linden, M, (eds.) Investigating Archaeological Cultures: Material Culture, Variability, and Transmission. (pp. 245-270). Springer Verlag: New York, US. Green open access

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This paper will examine 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 will be presented through which the concept of a culture can be operationalized, 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’ (ATUs). 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, 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 operationalize an evolutionary definition of ‘culture’ and that it improves upon traditional, typologically defined technocomplexes. In closing, the benefits and limits of such an evolutionary and quantitative definition of ‘culture’ are discussed.

Type: Book chapter
Title: Steps towards operationalizing an evolutionary archaeological definition of culture
ISBN-13: 9781441969699
Open access status: An open access version is available from UCL Discovery
Publisher version: http://www.springer.com/social+sciences/archaeolog...
Language: English
UCL classification: UCL > Provost and Vice Provost Offices
UCL > Provost and Vice Provost Offices > UCL SLASH
UCL > Provost and Vice Provost Offices > UCL SLASH > Faculty of S&HS > Institute of Archaeology
URI: https://discovery.ucl.ac.uk/id/eprint/17774
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