Archaeological Inference and the Concept of Culture

Author(s): Charles Boyd; Donna Boyd

Year: 2016


To anthropologists (as most North American archaeologists consider themselves to be), the ultimate goal of anthropology is the understanding of human cultures. Archaeologists define past cultures through the repeated clustering of specific sets and types of material objects and features in space and time. However, are archaeologists (and cultural anthropologists, for that matter) truly able to reconstruct and "see" that "complex whole" that Edward Tylor defined as culture in the 19th century? In this paper, we describe "culture" as a supranatural concept that is not easily explained or defined through inferences derived from the observation of material objects or remains. Instead, what archaeologists and other observers of humans are seeing is human behavior – something that can be observed and quantified to derive patterns. For archaeologists, this behavior can only be modeled by moving through several levels of inference and cannot be used to define a "culture," except in a very limited and perhaps stereotypical sense. The term "culture" should therefore be considered an abstract concept, not an objective reality. We illustrate this point by discussing several archaeological examples of behavioral change and variability within "cultures" from the southeastern United States.

Cite this Record

Archaeological Inference and the Concept of Culture. Charles Boyd, Donna Boyd. Presented at The 81st Annual Meeting of the Society for American Archaeology, Orlando, Florida. 2016 ( tDAR id: 404517)

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Spatial Coverage

min long: -91.274; min lat: 24.847 ; max long: -72.642; max lat: 36.386 ;