Cultural Transmission from an Archaeolgical Perspective


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  • Hi! I am Micke and I am a Stone Age archaeolgist. I work at the county museum of Sörmland in Nyköping. I wanted to talk to you today about Cultural Transmission from an archaeolgical perspective .
  • Archaeologists have a special way of looking at culture. Most of you probably think of stuff like opera, dance, paintings or theatre when you hear the word culture, But traditionaly archaeology deals specifically with material culture, that is things like arrow heads, pottery and post holes.
  • In the 1960's the processual or new archaeology defined culture as all non biological responses to the environment, and much focus was aimed at subsistence strategies and there was also a tendency towards natural determinism. This has been especially true for paleolithic and mesolithic studies, that is studies of the time before agriculture was introduced. Richard Bradly has a famous qoute saying: "Successful farmers have social relations with one another, while hunter-gatherers have ecological relations with hazelnuts"
  • Darwinian or evolutionary archaeology how ever defines culture as information capable of changing an individuals phenotype. Wikipedia tells us that a phenotype is any observable characteristic or trait of an organism: such as its morphology, development, biochemical or physiological properties, or behavior . Thus this definition is much broader and incorporates things as dance, speach or even opera. These thing are still very hard to study using archaeological methods so I guess that is why most of us still deal mainly with arrow heads, pots and post holes.
  • Using a Darwinian perspective on culture is quite useful when looking at cultural transmission in prehistory. When Thomsen devised his Three-age system comprizing of the Stone Age, Bronze Age and Iron Age in the 1820s he used methods similar to Cladistics and phylogenetic systematics. But then what is transmitted? In 1976 Richard Dawkins, that you can see here in the picture, proposed that the term meme can be used to discribe these cultural genes. A meme is simply a unit of culture such as a specific dance, an arrow head or a symbol. M emes are cultural analogues to genes, in that they self-replicate and respond to selective pressures.
  • But why is it important to study Cultural Transmission? This is a hard question to answer, because culture is an intrinsic part of being human. Culture is so natural to us that it is actually quite hard to look at from a distance. But I will say this: transmitting and receiving culture is what makes us human. And I mean this in a very literal sense.
  • Human ancestors started using handaxes about 2.6 million years ago. This is the first piece of culture that we have found. This type of hand axe that you can see here in the slide is called an olduwan hand axe. The Olduwan tradition is named after the Olduwai gorge in Tanzania, where the first traces of human culture was found.
  • It takes about 1 million years of evolution to go from the olduwan hand axe to the achulean hand axe that you can see here on the left. In the olduwan hand axe only a couple of flakes are removed from the edge of the tool but on the achulean hand axe flakes are removed from the entire circumference of the hand axe and flakes are also removed from both sides of the tool using a bifacial knapping technique. Neurological studies show that the parts of the brain that are used when making the newer achulean hand axe are the same as those used when speaking. Dietrich Stout writes: This is consistent with the hypothesis that selection acting on tool-making ability could have contributed to the evolution of language-relevant neural circuits (and vice versa) through a process of developmental displacement. This would mean that copying culture in a very real sense could have given us the ability to speak. Living in Sweden where it would not be at all possible to live without such cultural advancements as clothes, shoes, axes and the Linux kernel I am quite sure that speech is not the only thing that we can thank cultural transmission for.
  • Genes are spread through sexual reproduction and the frequency of a gene in a poulation is affected by the processes of mutation, selection and drift. A meme however have a slightly more complex way in which it is transmitted and that effects its frequency in a society.
  • There are several modes of transmission of memes. If we are just as likely to copy a meme from anyone, it is called unbiased transmission and the degree of which a certain meme is copied is relative to the frequency of which it already occurs in a society. For example: if you walk past some guy in the street with a terrific hair cut, and you decide to get that same hair cut. That is unbiased transmission. In unbiased transmission any member of a society is just as likely as anybody else to have there memes copied.
  • But there is also biased transmission, that is, we are for example some times more likely to inherit some memes from our relatives than from some random guy on the street, even if that guy have a terrific hair cut.
  • One form of biased transmisson is the conformist-biased. This describes the tendency in humans to copy the most frequent behavior in a society. That is, we are more likely do what a lot of other people do all ready. If every one uses the iPhone, than it is likely that we will also get one.
  • We are also more likely to do what a prestigious person is doing. We often decide do things in a certain way becouse some one who is influential in our community does things that way. That is why companies spend millions of dollars on movie stars and sport stars in adverisments.
  • Sätt på video! First comes the independent decision, a guy starts dancing thus creating a meme. After that we have some unbiased transmission, people walk by this random guy who is dancing and start dancing too. And somewhere here the conformist-biased transmission starts kicking in. The people who previously sat still looking quietly at the dance now just have to jump in.
  • So now we have seen that culture is realy important for humanity and we have seen all the ways it can be transmitted. But why is there a tendency in so many places to restrict access to culture for others? Given that culture is so important to people, and all the ways that it can be copied, it has also been important for people to restrict access to technology and information through out prehistory. Especially when such technology is prestigous or has a large financial value.
  • Every technology comes with a recipe, in French that recipe is called the “ Chaîne d’opératoire” which roughly translates to “production sequence” Once a technology gets complex enough that it is possible to keep the production sequence of that technology secret, people start to try and profit from that because sooner or later you will be in a possition where more people are interested in having access to a certain product than are able to easily produce it. And if you can stop the competion of gaining acces to your cultural recipes you can become a wealthier and more prestigious member of your society.
  • So copyright is nothing new, For instance, the people who were capable of producing the danish flint daggers in the picture here had a certain status in the late neolithic society in which they were produced and the flint knappers were keen on keeping that status within the family. So they inveneted a system where flint knapping where taught from parent to child within certain families or clans. Jan Apel studied the production of late neolthic type IV danish flint daggers in his doctoral dissertation and reached the conclusion that the know how of making these daggers where such a valuable commodity that it triggered a limitation in the recruiting of new flint knappers and also that this development help in the transition from a segmented tribal society to a chiefdom society.
  • I am going to give you one more example of copyright in prehistory. In 2007 I and three collegues excavated a site called Ändebol in the parish of Stora Malm, in Katrineholm in eastern central Sweden. The site dates back to 6300 BC, that is the middle mesolthic, and comprizes of two parts.
  • On the southernmost part of a large Island the main settlement site was situated. On this site we uncovered hearths, flaked quartz and flint, post holes and we also found remains of the final stages of production of green stone axes. The general interpretation of the site is that it is a place where a group of people have lived for a longer or shorter period over more than one season.
  • On the other site, situated on a small island about 400 meters north of the first island we found a site that yielded nothing but debitage from green stone axe production. How ever all of the debitage comes from the initial stages of the production and we didn't find any evidence of people actually living on the site, no hearths and no evidence of food production. Our interpretation is that people have been living on the larger island to the south for maybe a couple of weeks at a time. During this time a part of the group have made shorter trips to the small island in order to produce axes away from the larger group. We think that the reason for this is that someone have had an interest in conceiling the technique utilized when making these axes. In short they produced the axes on a Copyright island.
  • So in conclusion, we have seen that culture is enormously important to humans as a species but also that there has been economical and social reasons for individuals to limit access to culture for others, probably ever since technology got complex enough that it was possible to keep the production sequence of that technology secret. But that is what humans want, what about culture it self? Does culture want to be copied? I think the answer to that question must be yes. Genes can reproduce at the expense of the organism. One example of this is some male spiders that carry genes that make them reproduce although it shortens their own life since the cannibalistic female eats the male after reproduction. The same is true for memes. Some memes reproduce at the cost of the vehicle, take smoking, drinking and skydiving for instance. All of these memes reproduce at the cost of their host and I think this is clear evidence of self replicating memes wanting to reproduce on their own accord. We are not only benefiting from culture, culture is also benefiting from us. But the relationship is symbiotic rather than parasitic so I think that it is in our own best interest to help culture to reproduce because culture will in turn, for the most part, help us reproduce too, as it has for the last 2.6 million years. Thank you for listening.
  • Cultural Transmission from an Archaeolgical Perspective

    1. 1. Cultural Transmission from an Archaeological Perspective Micke Nordin
    2. 2. Culture from an Archaeological Perspective Traditional archaeology Traditional archaeology defines culture as a set of artefacts that occur together during a certain period in time.
    3. 3. Culture from an Archaeological Perspective Processual archaeology "Culture, man's extrasomatic means of adaptation to the environment" - Binford 1972:106
    4. 4. Culture from an Archaeological Perspective Darwinian archaeology "Culture is information capable of affecting individuals' phenotypes which they acquire from conspecifics by teaching or imitation" - Boyd & Richerson 1985:33
    5. 5. Culture from an Archaeological Perspective Memes "A meme is a postulated unit or element of cultural ideas, symbols or practices, and is transmitted from one mind to another through speech, gestures, rituals, or other imitable phenomena." - Wikipedia "Meme" 2009-10-29
    6. 6. Culture from an Archaeological Perspective Why is Cultural Transmission important?
    7. 7. Culture from an Archaeological Perspective Why is Cultural Transmission important?
    8. 8. Culture from an Archaeological Perspective Why is Cultural Transmission important?
    9. 9. Modes of transmission
    10. 10. Modes of transmission <ul><li>Unbiased Transmission </li></ul>
    11. 11. Modes of transmission <ul><li>Unbiased Transmission
    12. 12. Biased Transmission </li></ul>
    13. 13. Modes of transmission <ul><li>Unbiased Transmission
    14. 14. Biased Transmission
    15. 15. conformist-biased transmission </li></ul>
    16. 16. Modes of transmission <ul><li>Unbiased Transmission
    17. 17. Biased Transmission
    18. 18. conformist-biased transmission
    19. 19. prestige-biased transmission </li></ul>
    20. 20. Modes of transmission
    21. 21. Copyright in Prehistory
    22. 22. Copyright in Prehistory Chaîne d’opératoire
    23. 23. Copyright in Prehistory
    24. 24. Copyright in Prehistory
    25. 25. Copyright in Prehistory Main Site
    26. 26. Copyright in Prehistory Copyright Island
    27. 27. Does Culture Want to be Copied?
    28. 28. Attribution CC-BY-SA 3.0 By Gubaer CC-BY-SA 2.5 By José-Manuel Benito Álvarez CC-BY-SA 2.0 By Zoe Margolis CC-BY-SA 1.0 By Nordelch PD,_Nordisk_familjebok.jpg