Explaining Human Culture

The importance of the eHRAF database ultimately lies in what it can tell us about patterns of cultural variation. But we already know a great deal. The purpose of Explaining Human Culture is to briefly summarize what we have learned from cross-cultural research, or more precisely, what we think we know, and to point out some of the things we do not yet know. These summaries are only a starting point and I encourage you to use the references to delve into the theories, the measures, and the samples used in the actual research. Research usually gives rise to more questions or more research directions to pursue. We have barely begun to scratch the surface.

Thousands of cross-cultural studies have been published. We plan to put out a new topical summary regularly, with references to the original studies, links to some examples in eHRAF, and some examples of what we do not know. There are currently three modules in the series (hunter-gatherers or foragers, dwellings, games and sports). A module on altered states of consciousness will be coming out in a month or two.

In addition to the modules, we have been working on a database for Explaining Human Culture that summarizes hypothesis-tests and findings. This Spring we will be launching a beta version that contains information on over 900 cross-cultural studies.

We invite you to send us comments and tell us what we might have missed. Send comments to help@ehraf.org and put Explaining Human Culture in the subject line. — Carol Ember

Topical Summaries

Hunter-Gatherers (Foragers)

Most cross-cultural research aims to understand shared traits among hunter-gatherers and how and why they vary. Here we look at the conclusions of cross-cultural studies that ask: What are recent hunter-gatherers generally like? How do they differ from food producers? How and why do hunter-gatherers vary?

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What does a house tell us about peoples’ social and cultural life? We know that different societies typically have very different types of houses or dwellings. Dwellings are one of the main cultural remains unearthed by archaeologists. This is one of the main reasons cross-cultural researchers have tried to predict and explain dwelling size and shape. And research has uncovered many predictors from the shape, size, and building materials.

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Games and Sports

Games and sports are found in early human history and appear to be cultural universals. But types of games and sports are not randomly distributed in the world’s cultures. Cross-cultural research has found that type of games and sports vary in some very predictable ways–they are related to social and political complexity, to how children are raised, and aggressive sports are related to warfare.

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Altered States of Consciousness (coming Spring 2016)

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