Saturday, April 26, 2008


I am not sure whether the RCD video links on my own home page are working (I need a better web generator). In case they are not, here are the links:

Monkey’s Uncle

In a recent post, James Jones at Stanford made an argument (which I guess also stirred up some debate in the EANTH list) in which he challenged the idea that culture lies at the center of ecological anthropology.

Human behavioral ecologists, a group of scholars mentioned in the big-tent description of ecological anthropology also focus their analysis on behavior, and specifically decision-making. Culture may play a role in such decision-making processes, but it need not.

[From On Culture and Ecological Anthropology On monkey’s uncle]

This is an interesting claim that comes from, as Jones admits in his post, from his training in a lineage based in social anthropology rather than cultural anthropology. This lineage of anthropology has it roots in the British observations living populations around the world. In general terms, the experiences and studies were far different than the case for North America anthropologists. Here (i.e., North America) anthropologists like Franz Boaz were largely interested in studying living populations (i.e., Native Americans) with the goal of extracting elements that were supposedly in common with non-extant populations (i.e., prehistoric groups). This focus is the root of Americanist anthropology has many have noted. It is important to recognize here that the interests for early North American anthropologists were not in recording the living conditions, behavior, health, and social and economic relations of Native Americans of the time (generally around the turn of the 20th century). Rather, the emphasis was placed on identifying common themes that comprised “traditions,” “practices,”, “arts,” language, songs, myths, stories and “material culture.” The emphasis of course is based on the idea that the ideas held in common by contemporary Native populations given their ancestry were shared with their prehistoric ancestors. This focus is “culture” and its the engine that drove cultural anthropology in North America until after WWII.

Social anthropology, on the other hand, was based in a context of world wide colonialism. British anthropology emerged as natural historians began to systematically describe populations that lived in regions across the globe. For the Brits, culture just wasn’t a necessary or central concept since they had no need to reconstruct anything: they could just observe behavior directly. It is useful to note, however, that the roots of social anthropology also hold many of the roots of cultural evolution (sensu Spencer, Tylor, Morgan, etc.) since the British were in a position to compare living systems to one another and within Victorian thinking, one could array scaled descriptions along a line of “evolution” from simple (people elsewhere) to complex (i.e., Europeans). This is just common sense thinking, of course, hidden the guise as “meaningful” observations that are predetermined by the descriptions used, and assumptions about the nature of the arrow of change and the direction that the arrow is supposed to take.

So, from this, we can see why Jones might argue that culture just isn’t necessary to do anthropology. From the perspective of his educational and training lineage, it isn’t.

But then what of the notion of culture? What role does culture need to play (if any) in the description and explanation of human history, behavior and diversity? I think there are two ways we can look at this.

First, from ideational basis - we can ask whether the concept of culture is core to ecological anthropology as discussed by Jones. From this perspective we can see that the answer depends. It depends on the kind of anthropology one is trying to do (i.e., the lineage in which one works.) Are you describing behavior or are you describing cultural variability? In contemporary anthropology in North America, these questions have no single answer and are the source of many debates. For this reason, most anthropology departments define themselves as “socio-cultural anthropology” in order to make the tent large enough to cover anyone (and anything they do). Contention still arises. For example. a variety of the “debate” that marked the 70s and 80s between Schiffer and Binford had at their origin the issue of whether or not the goal of archaeology is to reconstruct behavior directly (to explain it as decision making) or reconstruct behavior in order to reconstruct the cultural system (where culture = an adaptive system) that then can be explained by generalizations. This is not the place to address these issues other than to point out they are based on the same question: do we need culture in our analyses?

The second way we might evaluate the notion of “usefulness” of culture is from a phenomenological perspective. Is there a “chunk” of the world that we might want to account for that lives under our common sensical empirical generalization of “culture?” It is here, that I say that the answer is qualified yes, though more discussion is required to talk about the what this phenomena is where our explanation of it comes from and how we can conceive the explanation.

Empirically and Binford’s (i.e., Leslie White’s) notion of culture as a “system” (which is a derivation of the behavioralist agenda, rather than culture per se as discussed by early cultural anthropologists) aside, speaking the “identification” of culture tends to center on the recognition that some sets of observations in which similarity is measured (though not all) can be explained due to sharing. Here, sharing is meant to imply “relatedness” or and explanation that suggest that information moved between two entities through some process we call “culture.” Culture as used in this way is specifically ideational not empirical, though the concept is used to describe (and thus explain) some chunk of the world. Cornealius Osgood (1951) did an admirable job (though on initial reading, completely baffling) of teasing out the various ontological aspects of culture.

Now, of course, this doesn’t really “prove” that we need culture - this recognition simply points out that anthropologists have found it useful to describe parts of the world as “cultural” which implies something about sharing. More recent work has sought to expand this generalization into something more systematic (you might look here for some references related to this but this is only a small subset ). Here, researchers agree that some portion of any particular description of human behavior is the product of “sharing” caused by observation of the world around them. Does this mean that human behavior is “cultural” and thus culture must be involved in any explanation of humans? Well, not exactly.

First, we have to see that ultimately everything we do has a biochemical origin. From bones to organs to behavior to language to ideas” there are empirical mechanisms to which cause can ultimately be attributed. Now, this isn’t very far from the general statement that science has a theory component that permits it to create statements that can be evaluated in terms of veracity. It simply points out that we can evaluate our claims (and this is what make what we say science). The claim also just distinguish we are going to say from the many other ways in which one might account for human behavior — spirits, deities, or whatever.

What frightens many people about this claim is that somehow implying that (1) we are not separate from the natural world and (2) that this claim means that we are robots driven mechanistically by biology and the physical world around us. Well, the first worry is one that caused by our (Eurowestern) common sense. The truth, though, perhaps scary is simply the way it is: we need to man up and recognize this fact as philosophers, natural historians, poets (e.g., Gary Snyder) and writers have told us over and over over. We are part of the natural world. There is nothing intrinsic about us that makes us separate from the natural world and to believe differently is to ignore 150 years of work since the publication of Darwin’s Origins of the Species. Of course, we can define ourselves, as special by waving flags around about "creativity" and "cleverness" or whatever -but anything can be differentiated from anything else if you pick the right words. The key here is that from a science perspective we are part of the natural world and there is no reason we can't explain ourselves in a falsifiable, empirically robust means we explain the rest of the universe. (Just how we do that needs to be the subject of an additional post.)

Regarding the second point, that we are robots, is entirely misguided. It is true that we have a empirical, physical and biochemical basis but it in no way “determines’” what we do. From a science perspective, we hold this to be true: we cannot start with a basis stating that some parts of us are caused by the non-physical world. If we held that as axiomatic, we might as well give up in the first place. But saying that we are physical entities doesn't force us to a position where we are simply robots with behavior dictated by specific empirical inputs and programming. Not at all. Instead we can say that we have a physical basis for everything but not all aspects of what we do are strictly determined by one-to-one inputs/outputs. In fact, most of what we do is not determined in this way. We call this part of our behavior as "cultural" and it is arena that anthropologists hold court.

Conceived in this way, anthropology is generally focused on the area of explanation that is just above that of biochemical (though it can include biochemical dimensions) and below that in which examine us in terms of an example of self-organizing and replicating entities benefiting from the contingent nature of the universe that happened to include things like the sun, planets that coalesce, and other physical determinants. Anthropology is (generally speaking, as there are some really oddball claims out there) somewhere in between. We are bootstrapped beings - historically contingent entities that begin as a series of chemical in a sequence and through iterative expression, growth and development emerge as a series of functionally organized "systems" that work together in a remarkably complex way and that ultimately create additional bootstrapping iterative contingent things we call our "cognitive minds." Its empirical all the way down, but not in a way in which one can look at any historical part and determine all aspects of the outcome. As S.J. Gould has famously said "history matters." That statement is true for us as physical beings and as cultural entities.

But as Dick Gaughan has sung, its not what you are given but what you do with what you got. Behavioral anthropologists (i.e., “ecological anthropology”) tend to focus on explanations that have at their basis the decision making that individuals engage in at any point in time - claiming that (1) these decisions are informed by the structure of the environment and perceived payoffs and (2) we have algorithms for making decisions that have evolved over time (usually some time in the Pleistocene). At some level, this position works — we do make decisions and some of those decisions seem to be explicable in terms of our particular ice-y history. But is it complete as Jones might argue?

Here, is where I have to wonder. Not all of the variability we see in human behavior (and the phenomenological dimensions in which we can measure) seems to be just about decision making. People’s behavior is strongly correlated with that around them. As work myself and colleagues have shown (and upon which they have expanded), large chunks of human behavior can be explained as a function of copying - not decision making at all. At the same time, people are remarkably conservative in their decisions — continuing to do things long after the environmental conditions should dictate that they make alternate decisions. The continued investment in things like and long after all economic indicators pointed out that this was not going to turn out well can’t easy be explained as simple “decision-making.” We can make up stories about why people didn't change their minds, but these are just stories. What happened is that in general (and with a distribution of probabilities) people tend to more often than not copy themselves and only on a rare basis (relative to the rate at which decisions can be made and scale of the effect of those decisions at any point in time). We know that there must be something to this since we can readily define lineages of many dimensions of culture — continued self-copied variability combined by occasional copying biased by those around individuals. If people changed their minds all the time we would have a bushy history indeed (or as John Terrell would say, an "entangled bank."). At least at some levels of measurements we can see this is not true.

This aspect of the phenomena we study as anthropologists makes me think that culture is ultimately a core concept, if only because it provide the right scale of description and explanation relative to the domain of our discipline. It is true, we could ultimately link everything to specific biochemical dimensions and mechanisms - that is conceptually possible —but its just as possible as it is to explain the behavior of a bouncing ball using quantum mechanics. We can do it, but have we learned more in the end? We have to ask whether or not doing this provides us any new insight into behavior: explaining the chunk of the world at the scale we do continues to challenge us and provide insight into our own history, behavior and materials. Ultimately, we might find that there are dimensions of variability in which we need to invoke other levels of explanation - but that hasn’t proven the case thus far. Like the quantum mechanical explanations of beachball bouncing - there may come a point where that level of explanation may prove useful to account for some particular quirk at some scale that is not readily accountable by newtonian physics, but that day has yet to come. The same is true for "cultural behavior." At least for now.

This is the area of the domain of anthropology that I would have to say requires some kind of concept like “culture” - where culture is about shared ideas.

Friday, April 25, 2008

Online Map Rectification!

Ah, the joys of web 2.0 and web services. This free service from provides an online way of rectifying and georeferencing maps. Free! Online! Too cool for words so check this out:

Saturday, April 19, 2008

MultiSpec - Multispectral Image Procesing and Analysis

One additional note: BILKO is a PC-only package. So for all you mac-fiends you'll have to use Parallels or VMWare Fusion (or the free Q ( in order to run it. One great alternative that also has tutorials and exercises (and is available for mac and windows) is MultiSpec. You can check it out here:

Go crazy.

BILKO- Image Analysis for Remote Sensing

For all of you self-starters out there, you might be interested in: Bilko is an open source and free image analysis package for remotely sensed data (e.g., satellite images but alos other kinds of imagery). The website includes are a variety of tutorials for learning how to use the software and to conduct analyses of image data (mosaic, rectification, classification, etc). Ill probably include a module or three in my next "Archaeological Field Research Design" class provided I'll be able to teach that again. This looks like a great way of getting some hands on skills in image processing and getting some tools for doing these kinds of analyses for your own research.

Monday, April 14, 2008

479 Eastern North America - Video Lectures from RCD

This semester, I am teaching the prehistory of Eastern North America. It is a cool class teach for a couple of reasons: (1) the archaeology of the eastern woodlands and surrounding environments is spectacular. (2) teaching about ENA allows me to build on the foundation created by RCD in ARCHY 479.

In light of this, I have put up a couple of videos from 1996 ARCHY 479. You can download these at:

575! Field Research Design! Bonus 497!

I am happy to report that I was finally able to pry enough time through crafty use of procrastination to create and convert all of the Archy 575 Lectures from the University of Washington (all from the Fall of 1995). You can enjoy the wayback goodness at:

Ive also upload new lectures from 497 (Method and Theory 1). These can be found here:


If you enjoy these or make use of them, let me know!

Shapefile Connection - Providing Access to Public GIS Data

Shapefile connection is a nifty Google Earth Mashup that collates sources of public geodata and shapefiles. Worth a visit or two...

[ Shapefile Connection - Providing Access to Public GIS Data]

Saturday, April 12, 2008

Showcase - Still Time - But it is coming soon!

The May 15 CLA Poster Session is now on the horizon!

Just a reminder to everyone that the two hands on "how to make a poster" workshops are going to take place on Wednesday April 23 and Friday April 25th from 12:30 - 1:30 in LA5 352. Seating is limited to just 24 per session so if you think you are going to attend, please let me know right away so I can assure you get a seat.

I also want to point out that it is not too late to get students involved in this project. If you have students doing theses, class papers or projects - have them turn them into posters! A poster is a fantastic way of presenting the summary of a body of research whether its quantitative or qualitative. Posters (using MS Powerpoint) are easy to make, we do the printing (in color) and can assist you with technical issues.

The template can be found here:

More information about the Showcase can be found here:

If you have questions, please let me know.



Sunday, April 6, 2008

Fossil faeces pinpoint earliest North Americans : Nature News

This news item on 14,000 year old feces is being reported widely and is quite cool. While pre-Clovis artifacts are often contentious due to the lack of clear stylistic patterns (except, perhaps, for the Mungai Knife and Lively Complex stuff), the presence of human DNA in 14,000 year old poop is fairly conclusive evidence for a pre-Clovis north American human occupation. Of course, archaeologists (starting with Krieger) have been arguing this for a long time but the Clovis-first, elephant-munching model has held tremendous public intrigue and longevity. This new information should soundly vindicate Jim Adavasio who has suffered for a long time with his pre-Clovis evidence at Meadowcroft, PA. Fossil faeces pinpoint earliest North Americans : Nature News]

Thursday, April 3, 2008

GIS Platform - uDig

Whenever I think I have found the general set of tools for my computer that make me functional and effective, I come across another amazing bit of software out there that blows me away. This time I've stumbled onto uDig - a java based, eclipse rich GIS client. It is platform free and excellent. As they put it:

The goal of uDig is to provide a complete Java solution for desktop GIS data access, editing, and viewing. uDig aims to be:

  • User friendly, providing a familiar graphical environment for GIS users;
  • Desktop located, running as a thick client, natively on Windows, Mac OS/X and Linux;
  • Internet oriented, consuming standard (WMS, WFS, WCS) and de facto (GeoRSS, KML, tiles) geospatial web services; and,
  • GIS ready, providing the framework on which complex analytical capabilities can be built, and gradually subsuming those capabilities into the main application.

With tools like this, ESRI folks should be worried - yeah, they provide the "industry standard" but with the prices they charge they better be offering something that makes one head spin -- and on every platform!

Some good free Mac graphing programs

I am happily a full-on Mac users these days. I still keep a window box at home and at the office to do the kinds of things that remain only possible on a windows box due to specific software packages: ArcGIS, SolidWorks, ERDAS and well, that is about it. Increasingly I am finding new ways of doing even these things on the Mac. For example, QGIS is an excellent (and free) GIS front end to GRASS.

Some of the programs I am finding for the Mac are really gems that make using OS X a techie dream. For example (and this doesn't include the world of X Windows based software):

Plot: This is a great free program for doing XY charts with lots of controls for error bars, perl based scripting, etc.

Octave: An incredible package for solving linear and nonlinear problems numerically using a Matlab language - all for free. See also:

VVIDGET: The rather incredible VVIDGET application that allows one to drag and drop all kinds of features into 2D and 3D graphs. Something ya gotta see...

Tuesday, April 1, 2008

SAA 2008 Posters

You can find downloadable posters from the 2008 Society for American Archaeology meetings at:

Extended Phenotype: Recent Research

Mark Madsen has posted our poster from SAAs up on his blog. This work included the latest round of research using TransmissionLab. You can download the poster in a link posted below.

I just returned today from the annual meeting of the Society for American Archaeology in Vancouver, B.C. I presented a paper (in poster form) about some recent work bridging the gap between formal models of cultural transmission (i.e., social learning and imitation between individuals) on social network graphs, and measures of cultural behavior that are observable in discrete traits (e.g., archaeological artifact classes). A corrected PDF version of the poster is available here

Download madsen-lipo-bentley-saa2008-poster.pdf

and will be published soon along with our entire poster session as an issue of the online Journal of Evolutionary and Historical Sciences. I'll talk more about this soon, but this week is incredibly busy and I wanted to get at least one link up for the paper before I forget.

[From Extended Phenotype: Recent Research]


Just arrived in Vancouver. Typical kind of Pacific NW kind of day - low hanging clouds, snow in the hillslopes, sun in the sky, rain in the distance: all four seasons all at once. And what a view!