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Technology as Human Social Tradition: 15 Trait-Based Datasets of Hunter-Gatherer Material Culture (Northwest Siberia, Pacific Northwest Coast, Northern California). Data PaperOpen Data

Peter Jordan

Referee statement by Anna Marie Prentiss

Cite this as: Jordan, P. 2021 Technology as Human Social Tradition: 15 Trait-Based Datasets of Hunter-Gatherer Material Culture (Northwest Siberia, Pacific Northwest Coast, Northern California). Data Paper, Internet Archaeology 56.

1. Dataset Location

The dataset has been deposited with the Archaeology Data Service

2. Content of the Dataset

The digital archive supports the monograph "Technology as Human Social Tradition: Cultural Transmission among Hunter-Gatherers" (Jordan 2015), published by University of California Press. It consists of 15 Excel files which were used to conduct in-depth analysis of the factors driving diversity and change in material culture traditions. Each file contains a high-resolution survey of the design features of one material tradition practised by groups living in a geographic region. Three regions are investigated: Northwest Siberia (storage platforms, shrines, skis); Pacific Northwest Coast of Canada (houses, canoes, basketry-matting); Northern California (basketry, houses, ceremonial dress).

3. Research Context

Archaeologists have long-standing interests in explaining diversity and change in human technological traditions. The surviving material remains of these traditions provide archaeologists with their primary data for understanding developments in past cultures and societies. Yet these processes remain poorly understood. In the formative years of the discipline, it was frequently assumed that multiple traditions bundle together to form "archaeological cultures", which mapped rather directly onto language groups and ethnic identities.

Recent decades have seen two important developments. First, material – or "embedded" technological – traditions are now viewed as a more contingent expression of agency/practice, with deliberate choices made by human actors in every stage of production. This focus on human creativity and innovation, combined with the assumption that individuals from different groups have always mixed freely, exchanging ideas and information, usually leads to the assertion that all traditions will quickly become hybridized. Second, alternative perspectives on the same set of processes have examined cultural traditions in terms of an inter-generational inheritance system in some ways analogous to, but also fundamentally different from, genetic inheritance. The emphasis here is not just on how traditions are reproduced in practice, but also the extent to which their deeper histories can be reconstructed and explained (Jordan 2015).

The aim of the monograph was to integrate insights from both approaches, generating a new synthesis. An "ethnoarchaeological" approach was selected because it offered detailed contextual information on both the material traditions as well as the socio-cultural contexts in which they are reproduced. While the propagation of cultural traditions is central to all societies irrespective of time and place, the book also focused on hunter-gatherer communities to support a more cross-cultural and comparative approach to the core issues.

The project addressed a suite of inter-locking questions: how are material traditions propagated; does this result in coherent lineages of tradition; at what social or linguistic scale do these lineages emerge; do they evolve in a branching pattern; to what extent do they bundle together and track language history? These themes were investigated at two inter-locking scales: "micro-scale" (among individuals living within communities) and "macro-scale" (between cultures and societies, and most typically, among "ethno-linguistic communities" living within one geographic region).

4. The Role of the Dataset

The archived data were fundamental to the project and provided an empirical foundation for the application of quantitative methods from the natural sciences. These were used to reconstruct the descent history of different cultural traditions. Use of quantitative methods required high-resolution information on the design features of different material culture traditions. In turn, this information needed to be embedded in deeper qualitative understanding of particular ethnographic contexts, investigating how particular lifeways and sociocultural dynamics structured social learning, personal innovation and the subsequent evolution of specific traditions.

5. General Data Methodology

Research into "micro-scale" cultural inheritance involved original ethnoarchaeological fieldwork in Northwest Siberia. This was primarily conducted between 2003-2005 and involved systematic material culture surveys, interviews and participant observation across several dialect communities.

Data for analysis of "macro-scale" cultural inheritance was assembled at the scale of ethnolinguistic communities. The comprehensive "Western North America" ethnographic record offered an ideal source of high-resolution information (Jorgensen 1980). These records were gathered in the early 20th century and formed part of the "Rescue Anthropology" programme completed by Alfred Kroeber and his colleagues. This work generated standard ethnographies but also detailed trait lists that systematically recorded material, social and religious practices of different tribal communities. Datasets 7-9 in the current archive are derived from the Coast Salish records, and Datasets 10-15 from the Northwest and Northeast California records (see archive and Jordan 2015 for the original sources). The archived datasets underwent significant editing prior to analysis to ensure that only fully-documented material traditions were retained for final analysis.

6. Summary Description

Analysis of these 15 datasets indicated that the social reproduction of material traditions is both complex and situationally variable, but that important insights, relationships and mechanisms could also be clarified and explained (Jordan 2015).

In Northwest Siberia, storage platforms are subject to high levels of personal innovation, leading to extreme variability in design features and a blur of hybrid forms. Shrines form more coherent traditions at the scale of the local community patrilineages that maintain the sacred sites and also hunt on the lands that they symbolically protect. Ski and binding designs were subjected to the most detailed analyses. The new cloth protectors fitted around the bindings are subject to high levels of innovation, but the underlying ski designs are reproduced as a highly coherent tradition that is passed with high fidelity from one generation to the next, and within the compact dialect community of a particular river basin. Comparison of designs between rivers and regions also points to the formation of coherent traditions with separate histories.

Among the Coast Salish communities on the Pacific Northwest coast, housing is associated with the male gender, and construction traditions appear to have evolved in a branching manner, partially linked to language history. Canoe-making forms a corpus of secret knowledge, and while these traditions have a branching history, this does not track language history (specialist carvers move between dialect communities if sponsored by wealthy patrons). Basketry and matting are female crafts and were hybridized across the wider region, an outcome impacted by the kinship system, which ensures higher female post-marital mobility, and a steady movement of individuals across dialect groups. The results from Northern California provide further insights into the intersections between technological traditions, kinship and linguistic boundaries.

Overall, the research indicated that coherent material traditions emerge in many different settings, and that cultural hybridization should not be assumed to have dominated. These lineages can also emerge at the scale of the linguistic communities, and in some cases have tracked language history, forming a set of "core" traditions. Other lineages may have their own independent histories, while other traditions are shared widely across groups speaking quite different languages. The main conclusion is that material culture traditions frequently contain deeper historical signals that need to be reconstructed on a case-by-case basis using the right kinds of data and methods. The research also highlighted the importance of gender roles, kinship practices and settlement and interaction dynamics.

7. Structure of the Datasets

The 15 datasets were designed to be as clear and simple as possible in order to encourage further re-use (see next section). Each Excel file contains a block of binary presence/absence data recording variability in a particular material culture tradition.

Datasets 1 to 6 (Northwest Siberia) document the construction of raised storage platforms; design features of shrines built at sacred places in the landscape; ski and binding designs across different communities. Each design trait is recorded in a row of binary data (no rows contain missing data). Each column forms a particular example of a building or ski that was surveyed during fieldwork (with additional examples derived from the ethnographic literature or museum collections and archives). Further information about each structure / artefact is provided below the main block of binary data, including the geographic location of the example, and the linguistic affinities of the communities in which it was produced. The surveys of ski-making traditions (Datasets 3-6) were designed in "modular" format so the information on ski traditions in one geographic area (e.g. a river basin occupied by a single dialect community) could be expanded by adding information from other regions to make larger comparative datasets (see explanatory notes in each file).

Datasets 7-15 (Pacific Northwest Coast, Northern California) take a slightly different approach. The rows also record the definite presence (or absence) of design traits in particular material traditions. However, these are recorded across different ethno-linguistic communities, which form the columns. Additional information about these communities is provided below the main block of binary data (e.g. geographic locations and linguistic affinities). Efforts were also made to record multiple material traditions across the same set of ethno-linguistic groups in each study region, so that the history of these individual traditions could be compared and contrasted within each study (i.e. the Pacific Northwest Coast datasets record housing, canoe-making and basketry-matting; the California datasets all record basketry, housing and ceremonial dress styles in both the Northwest and Northeast sub-regions of North California).

Detailed ethnographic information on each tradition and its role in local social-cultural settings is provided in Jordan (2015).

8. Future Re-Use Potential of the Data Archive

Several potential directions for re-use are envisaged.

9. Relationship to other Publications / Data Archives

The current archive primarily supports Jordan's book "Technology as Human Social Tradition: Cultural Transmission among Hunter-Gatherers" (2015), which also summarises the wider culture-evolutionary research field. For a more recent in-depth review, see Prentiss (2019). Many publications in this field include full supporting datasets (e.g. Jordan and O'Neill 2010).

The current archive joins two similar trait-based ethnographic datasets collated and deposited by the same author: Californian Basketry Traditions (Jordan 2012); Trait-Based Dataset of Northern Khanty Clothing Traditions (Northwest Siberia) (Jordan 2021).


Comprehensive acknowledgements are provided in Jordan (2015, xiii-x). Siberian fieldwork was supported by a Leverhulme Trust Special Research Fellowship (SRF/2002/0218). The wider research programme was launched by the Centre for the Evolutionary Analysis of Cultural Behaviour (PI: Stephen Shennan) at the Institute of Archaeology, UCL, and later supported by the Centre for the Evolution of Cultural Diversity (Lead PI: James Steele), each supported with major grants from the UK Arts and Humanities Research Council.


Referee statement by Anna Marie Prentiss

University of Montana

Cite this as: Prentiss, A.M. 2021 'Referee statement' in Jordan, P. Technology as Human Social Tradition: 15 Trait-Based Datasets of Hunter-Gatherer Material Culture (Northwest Siberia, Pacific Northwest Coast, Northern California). Data Paper, Internet Archaeology 56.

Cultural evolution is a complex process. Many scholars have questioned whether it even exists. A long-standing assumption since the time of Kroeber has been that given human agency and the complexity of social networks cultural traditions would form impenetrable thickets or in the words of John Moore (1994) patterns more typical of ethnogenesis than descent with modification with branching. The units of cultural evolution have been debated (Dunnell 1989; Spencer 1997). Boyd et al. (1997) offered a solution proposing that culture evolution could proceed on multiple scales including culture as species, hierarchically integrated systems (cores), assemblages of many coherent units (packages), and collections of ephemeral entities (low level traits). The nature of the cultural evolutionary process has been questioned. While scholars widely recognize the importance of the cultural transmission process (O'Brien 2008; Richerson and Boyd 2005), significant questions have remain regarding the effects of social, demographic, technological, and economic conditions on the formation of cultural lineages.

Peter Jordan's (2015) contribution established the first comprehensive empirical examination of the cultural evolutionary process. His study examined cultural evolution on micro and macro scales drawing from his 2003-2005 fieldwork amongst the Khanty people of northwestern Siberia and his wider research into ethnographic traditions of Indigenous peoples of the central Northwest Coast and northern California regions of North America. His results established that in cases where there was significant maker innovation and/or mobility between communities, coherent lineages were hard to detect. However, in situations of strong transmission isolating mechanisms (TRIMS) patterns of descent with modification were confirmed. Finally, his work determined that branching evolution could be recognizable across multiple scales including assemblages of many coherent units and hierarchically integrated systems.

The data provide significant opportunities for new investigations. The data are structured in such a way that each of Jordan's studies can be replicated spanning Khanty, Coast Salish, and various Indigenous Californian technological traditions. This provides a wonderful teaching tool for students eager to learn the basics of phylogenetic analysis. However, the database could be used in a variety of studies seeking to address new cultural evolutionary concerns. I highlight in particular opportunities associated with new phylogenetic procedures drawing upon Bayesian logic that are capable of addressing multiple new problems including variability in tree topology, mosaic evolution, and rates of cultural macroevolution (Gjesfjeld and Jordan 2019).

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