HRAF Academic Quarterly, Vol 2023-02

HRAF Academic Quarterly Vol 2023-02

Man in front of white board planning research

This summary features some of the exciting research accomplished using HRAF data from the eHRAF World Cultures and eHRAF Archaeology databases as well as Explaining Human Culture (EHC), Teaching eHRAF, and other open access materials from HRAF. If you would like to stay informed of the latest eHRAF research, sign up here to receive an email when our next summary is available.

In this edition of the Academic Quarterly, we are delighted to share new publications from a variety of fields and perspectives, including cultural evolution; archaeology; evolutionary ecology; biogeography and conservation; the supernatural; material culture and sensory experience; the body; COVID-19; metadata, library science and ethics. You will also find an overview of recent, ongoing and/or upcoming research and presentations by HRAF staff and affiliates.

Featured Publications

In the field of cultural evolution, a fascinating paper published in Science uses eHRAF data and the Standard Cross-Cultural sample to understand the universality and persistence of body-based measurement units. In addition, an MA Thesis tests hypotheses using data on gendered fire activity among hunter-gatherers.

Body-based units of measure in cultural evolution
Roope O. Kaaronen, Mikael A. Manninen, Jussi T. Eronen

Measurement systems are important drivers of cultural and technological evolution. However, the evolution of measurement is still insufficiently understood. Many early standardized measurement systems evolved from body-based units of measure, such as the cubit and fathom, but researchers have rarely studied how or why body-based measurement has been used. We documented body-based units of measure in 186 cultures, illustrating how body-based measurement is an activity common to cultures around the world. Here, we describe the cultural and technological domains these units are used in. We argue that body-based units have had, and may still have, advantages over standardized systems, such as in the design of ergonomic technologies. This helps explain the persistence of body-based measurement centuries after the first standardized measurement systems emerged.

An Examination of Gendered Fire Activity Among Hunter-Gatherer Ethnographies
Brady Dain Nelson  (MA Thesis, University of Wyoming)

The ability to create and control fire is often considered a cornerstone for modern human adaptability, with some suggesting fire’s potential advantages and social regimens of use being integral to the evolution of our species and the development of gendered division of labor. As a test of this hypothesis, the variable expressions of fire use among ethnographically documented hunter-gatherer populations are examined to determine if aspects of pyrotechnology adhere to patterns of preferentially gendered behavior, particularly regarding ignition, fire maintenance, and fuel acquisition. Statistically significant results for these elements of fire use indicate a widespread pattern of preferentially male ignition activity along with preferentially female fire maintenance and fuel acquisition. These findings indicate gender-based enculturation of fire-related behaviors that are compatible with hunter-gatherer modes of residence and subsistence globally; however, other dimensions of fire use regimes exhibited less evidence of specialization and may have been more easily transmitted as cultural behaviors through unique sub-populations of hominins.

Using eHRAF, Nelson compiled the ethnographic data set by selecting four OCM identifiers to find fire-related behaviors [(Fire (372), Lumbering (313), Heating and lighting equipment (354), and Division of labor by gender (462)] in order to search among hunter-gatherer groups within the Standard Cross-Cultural Sample.

Fire burning forest


Archaeological findings on material culture using eHRAF include an article in the Cambridge Archaeological Journal on mesolithic resins, and an MA Thesis from Trent University on paleolithic limestone tools:

Material and Sensory Experiences of Mesolithic Resinous Substances
Aimée Little, Andy Needham, Andrew Langley, Benjamin Elliott

Mesolithic resinous adhesives are well known for their role as hafting mastic within composite technologies, yet it is increasingly clear that their usage was more diverse than this. Birch-bark tar has been recovered from Mesolithic contexts as chewed lumps linked to medicinal treatment of toothache and oral diseases, and as a decorative element on ornaments and art objects; and an amorphous resinous substance possibly derived from pine or spruce resin has been found within a burial context. This diversity of applications suggests that resins and tars may have been understood in different ways which did not always privilege their mechanical functionality. To underscore the limited archaeological perspective of conifer resins and tars as hafting agents, we draw on data sourced from a wide range of ethnographically documented societies, demonstrating the array of economic and social functions these materials have for contemporary hunter-gatherer groups. Using archaeological case studies, we illustrate how a deeper understanding of the material and sensory properties of resins and tars, and the trees from which they are derived, opens new insights into the diverse roles resinous materials performed within Mesolithic worldviews.

In this study, the eHRAF was used to document birch and pine use by contemporary northern-hemisphere hunting and gathering groups. The sample consisted of 256 published sources, comprising 3865 eHRAF entries in total.

Functional Variation Within Middle Paleolithic Ground Stone Tools: Use-Wear Analysis of ad-hoc Limestone Tools from Nesher Ramla Units I-II
Jelissa Kollaard  (MA Thesis, Trent University)

In the southern Levant, ground stone tools (GST) provide insight into early plant food exploitation, butchery, and cognition. Outside of these examples, GST evidence is scarce, particularly for the Middle Paleolithic. An extensive assemblage of GST recovered from Nesher Ramla, an open-air hunting camp in Israel, presents the unique opportunity to study the role of GST within Middle Paleolithic behaviour. Use-wear and residue analysis, together with replication experiments are employed to investigate GST function within a specific period of site use by focusing on GST from the Upper Sequence (Units I-II) which reflects a trend of decreasing site-use intensity.

In this thesis, the ethnographic accounts for the use of ad-hoc pebbles and cobbles are derived predominantly eHRAF World Cultures and “include a diverse range of cultural and geographic contexts. Despite the fact that details on the implements themselves are often minimal, these accounts are valuable in that they provide descriptions of actual use as well as the context in which collection, use, and discard occurred”.

Paleolithic ground stone tools

Dithapelo Medupe, a PhD student in the Department of Anthropology at Penn State University, was announced as the New Investigator winner at the 2023 annual conference for the Human Behavior & Evolution Society for the following paper published by the Royal Society. Dithapelo was a participant in last year’s NSF-supported HRAF Summer Institute for Cross-Cultural Anthropological Research. Co-author Seán Roberts is an instructor at the Institute.

Why did foraging, horticulture and pastoralism persist after the Neolithic transition? The oasis theory of agricultural intensification
Dithapelo Medupe, Seán G. Roberts, Mary K. Shenk, and Luke Glowacki

Despite the global spread of intensive agriculture, many populations retained foraging or mixed subsistence strategies until well into the twentieth century. Understanding why has been a longstanding puzzle. One explanation, called the marginal habitat hypothesis, is that foraging persisted because foragers tended to live in marginal habitats generally not suited to agriculture. However, recent empirical studies have not supported this view. The alternative but untested oasis hypothesis of agricultural intensification claims that intensive agriculture developed in areas with low biodiversity and a reliable water source not reliant on local rainfall. We test both the marginal habitat and oasis hypotheses using a cross-cultural sample drawn from the ‘Ethnographic atlas’ (Murdock 1967 Ethnology 6, 109–236). Our analyses provide support for both hypotheses. We found that intensive agriculture was unlikely in areas with high rainfall. Further, high biodiversity, including pathogens associated with high rainfall, appears to have limited the development of intensive agriculture. Our analyses of African societies show that tsetse flies, elephants and malaria are negatively associated with intensive agriculture, but only the effect of tsetse flies reached significance. Our results suggest that in certain ecologies intensive agriculture may be difficult or impossible to develop but that generally lower rainfall and biodiversity is favourable for its emergence.


A popular research theme this quarter was darkness and the supernatural. Developing codes using ethnographic data from eHRAF and the Standard Cross-Cultural Sample, Jackson, et al. compare supernatural explanations for natural and social phenomena between non-industrial, small-scale communities versus large and urbanized societies:

Supernatural explanations across 114 societies are more common for natural than social phenomena
Joshua Conrad Jackson, Danica Dillion, Brock Bastian, Joseph Watts, William Buckner, Nicholas DiMaggio & Kurt Gray

Humans across the globe use supernatural beliefs to explain the world around them. This article explores whether cultural groups invoke the supernatural more to explain natural phenomena (for example, storms, disease outbreaks) or social phenomena (for example, murder, warfare). Quantitative analysis of ethnographic text across 114 geographically and culturally diverse societies found that supernatural explanations are more prevalent for natural than for social phenomena, consistent with theories that ground the origin of religious belief in a human tendency to perceive intent and agency in the natural world. Despite the dominance of supernatural explanations of natural phenomena, supernatural explanations of social phenomena were especially prevalent in urbanized societies with more socially complex and anonymous groups. Our results show how people use supernatural beliefs as explanatory tools in non-industrial societies, and how these applications vary across small-scale communities versus large and urbanized groups.

A new edited collection, An Anthropological Study of Spirits by Christine VanPool and Todd VanPool (eds.) uses cross-cultural comparisons to identify common themes and practices in spirits and their manifestation. It discusses the cultural importance of spirits, what spirits want, and how humans interact with them, using examples from around the world and through time. In the chapter “Defense Against the Dark”, the authors describe how a quick search of eHRAF World Cultures for magical “charms” revealed that they are a worldwide phenomenon present in 238 out of the 361 cultures represented in the database (and even more instances of the use of totems, amulets, and relics that may all be used for spiritual protection).

Dark table with crystals and charms

Defense Against the Dark
Christine S. VanPool & Todd L. VanPool

Here we demonstrate that spirits are treated as active agents that can help or hurt humans in most cultures. We discuss prayers, magic, talismans, salt, and smudging as forms of spiritual protection. We also consider how various cultures maintain that unwanted spirit possession by the dead and/or demons is an empirical reality with direct physical manifestations (e.g., often indicated by a horrible odor, unusual speech including knowledge of foreign languages, foaming at the mouth, unpredictable rages, and even superhuman strength). As part of this discussion, we compare voluntary spirit possession (e.g., mediums, Pentecostal possession by the Holy Spirit), which is often associated with beneficial outcomes for those involved, and involuntary possession, which is generally associated with negative outcomes including social isolation and self-harm. The discussion includes analyses of the specific social and behavioral contexts of each type of possession. […] We compare and contrast these with case studies from Brazil, several Muslim nations/cultures, and elsewhere around the world. We discuss the common perception among Western researchers that spirit possession appears to be a human pathology associated with dissociative states, but note that voluntary possession by shamans and mediums is not associated with mental health issues. […] We conclude the chapter by further expanding the comparative model to include magical defense against bad luck, as well as the importance of the motives of spirits on their influences on humans.

On a related theme, see also this 2021 article by Pelayo Benavides and José Tomás Ibarra in Anthropos, which explores how owls “trigger unsettling experiences of the “normal,” with the ensuing feelings of unhomeliness, which may explain their saliency across human societies”: Uncanny Creatures of the Dark: Exploring the Role of Owls across Human Societies

Environment & Conservation

More recent cross-cultural research on birds using eHRAF was published in the journal Ornithological Applications:

Bird signs can be important for ecocultural conservation by highlighting key information networks in people–bird communities
Felice S Wyndham, Karen E Park

The ways people think, feel, speak about, and act in and with environments are inextricably intertwined with the well-being of other living things, including birds. We report on the kinds of messages contained in 598 examples of locally-defined signs from 498 bird taxa from 169 sources and 123 ethnolinguistic groups. […] We argue for the amplification of ecocultural conservation (attending to histories of human–nonhuman relationships in place) to channel resources and land control to local and Indigenous managers who are immersed in relevant bird–people information networks. We discuss the importance of (1) reduction of uncertainty in local and hyper-local environments, (2) biocultural provocations in which birds fulfill important roles in human society, and (3) informational connectivity and locally-defined interspecies ethical relationships as key elements for inclusive and effective ecocultural bird conservation.

The authors searched all 361 cultures in eHRAF for the terms “ethnozoology” and “bird”. They reviewed a total of 169 sources and compiled details on 598 culturally-defined signs across 498 different taxa of birds from 123 ethnolinguistic groups.

Bird singing on a branch

Researchers from the CaSEs Research Group (Universitat Pompeu Fabra, Barcelona) used eHRAF data to create a robust dataset for cross-cultural comparison on agricultural activities in drylands:

Small-scale farming in drylands: New models for resilient practices of millet and sorghum cultivation
Abel Ruiz-Giralt, Stefano Biagetti, Marco Madella, Carla Lancelotti

Finger millet, pearl millet and sorghum are amongst the most important drought-tolerant crops worldwide. They constitute primary staple crops in drylands, where their production is known to date back over 5000 years ago. Compared to other crops, millets and sorghum have received less attention until very recently, and their production has been progressively reduced in the last 50 years. Here, we present new models that focus on the ecological factors driving finger millet, pearl millet and sorghum traditional cultivation, with a global perspective. The interaction between environment and traditional agrosystems was investigated by Redundancy Analysis of published literature and tested against novel ethnographic data. Contrary to earlier beliefs, our models show that the total annual precipitation is not the most determinant factor in shaping millet and sorghum agriculture. Instead, our results point to the importance of other variables such as the duration of the plant growing cycle, soil water-holding capacity or soil nutrient availability. This highlights the potential of finger millet, pearl millet and sorghum traditional cultivation practices as a response to recent increase of aridity levels worldwide. Ultimately, these practices can play a pivotal role for resilience and sustainability of dryland agriculture.

According to the authors, the eHRAF database facilitates comparative studies of this kind “by providing easy access to a wide range of ethnographic sources and it is being increasingly used to carry out ethnoarchaeologically driven pre-search”.


All documents in eHRAF are indexed by two classification systems: the Outline of Cultural Materials (OCM) and the Outline of World Cultures (OWC). Developed by G.P. Murdock and colleagues, the OCM is an ethnographic subject classification system of social and cultural life. OCM identifiers can be found on each paragraph of text in eHRAF as our entire collections have been expertly indexed by HRAF anthropologists. The OWC is a classification system of cultures of the world organized by region and subregion that covers over 2500 cultures. All cultures in eHRAF have a unique OWC identifier. In addition to their essential role in organizing the eHRAF World Cultures database, both the OCM and OWC can be used to organize and index a wide variety of databases and collections (including, for example, the American Anthropological Association’s open-access resource repository as well as the 23 Journals in the AAA’s AnthroSource portfolio).

The Archives of Traditional Music (ATM), one of the largest and oldest university-based ethnographic sound archives in the United States documents music and culture from all over the world. Its holdings cover a wide range of cultural and geographical areas, vocal and instrumental music, linguistic materials, folklore, interviews and oral histories. In this presentation from the Music Library Association Annual Meeting in St. Louis, Missouri, the authors discuss ethical description at the ATM and using the OWC for indexing records.

Improving Representation and Access Through Ethical Description
Music Library Association March 2023 Annual Meeting in St. Louis, Missouri

Kristi Bergland, Allison McClanahan, Treshani Perera

Session info:

In pursuit of living the values of equity, diversity, and inclusion, and attempting to minimize harm to underrepresented populations, many individuals and institutions have been investigating ways to incorporate or practice ethical description in their metadata and discovery systems. […] To begin the session, panelists will share examples of ways they are practicing or planning ethical description, such as retrospective description of demographics, bilingual description (including original scripts), and finding local solutions for problematic subject headings. Following these snapshot presentations, attendees will discuss in small groups ways they are incorporating or can incorporate ethical description in day-to-day practice. Some topics to guide small group discussions could include balancing creating access with ethical description practice, past or ongoing projects at attendees’ institutions, and how discovery systems impact (or even limit) our ability to create ethical description at present.



Towards the Challenges of Cross-Cultural Research: Experience on COVID-19 Project
Valentina N. Burkova

A researcher from the Institute of Ethnology and Anthropology, Russian Academy of Sciences reflects on the challenges of using cross-cultural methodologies pioneered by Murdock and HRAF to compare behavior across 23 societies during the COVID-19 pandemic.

Anthropologists and psychologists engaged in cross-cultural research face numerous methodological challenges. These studies aim to identify universal behavioral traits across all populations on Earth, as well as culturally specific features. This article attempts to describe and comprehend the main problems that researchers encounter while carrying out such projects, using specific examples from the author’s field practice. The primary example is data from a large-scale cross-cultural project that studied anxious, aggressive, and empathic behavior during the COVID-19 pandemic in 23 countries worldwide. Existing experience in cross-cultural research demonstrates how various terms and concepts transform under the influence of globalization processes. On the one hand, cultural boundaries become less defined, while on the other hand, the desire for self-identity strengthens. Familiar biological and social constructs such as sex or marital status are modified and require new understanding and analysis. Thanks to the methods of social anthropology and the anthropological approach to humans as biosocial beings, the data obtained can be interpreted, taking into account the cultural specifics and behavioral norms of each society.

COVID 19 microscopic

Research from HRAF

A team of researchers including HRAF President, Carol R. Ember, published an article in the Journal of Biogeography testing associations between land ownership and environmental, subsistence and other predictors:

The biogeography and evolution of land ownership
Hannah J. Haynie, Geoff Kushnick, Patrick H. Kavanagh, Carol R. Ember, Claire Bowern, Bobbi S. Low, Ty Tuff, Bruno Vilela, Kathryn R. Kirby, Carlos A. Botero, Michael C. Gavin

Land ownership norms are well documented and play a central role in social–ecological systems. Yet only recently has the spatial and temporal distribution of land ownership been examined using biogeographical and evolutionary approaches. We incorporate biogeographical and evolutionary modelling to test associations between land ownership and environmental, subsistence and cultural contact predictors. […] We find support for multiple evolutionary pathways. Lack of resolution may be due to localized horizontal transfer of norms consistent with the influence of neighbours we find from biogeographical analyses. We cannot rule out other untested mechanisms. Although long-standing theories propose links between subsistence practices and land ownership, our results suggest subsistence plays only a modest role. Our results also support resource defensibility theory (i.e. land ownership is more likely where environmental productivity is predictable). Overall, we demonstrate the value of combining analytical approaches from evolution and biogeography to test hypotheses on the spatial and temporal variation of human cultural traits.

At the annual meeting of the Society for Applied Anthropology in March 2023, HRAF Research Anthropologist Ian Skoggard gave a paper entitled “The Submissive Gene: Deference and the Evolution of Human Sociality and Morality.” The paper asked the question, “Does deference behavior and rituals predict less in-group conflict?”  Skoggard attempted to theorize a cognitive argument for the pacific influence of deference behavior as part of a larger hypothesis of behavioral mechanisms for group selection. While the coding for deference behavior is still in progress, the paper was able to test precoded data on food conventions and etiquette (HRAF coders), internal and external warfare (Ember & Ember 1992) and the unacceptability of violence in and between communities (Ross 1983).

The food convention and etiquette variables coded differences in access to food based on gender, age or class; and differences in seating arrangements and order of eating at dinner times. Surprisingly, the results were the opposite of what he predicted. Food conventions and food etiquette were associated with more acceptability of violence towards other communities and societies, and more internal warfare; not less, as hypothesized. In other words, violence and warfare predict more deference, suggesting that deference may be more about group cohesion and maintaining a command structure, rather than a means to avoid violence and promote group-living.

In June, HRAF Research Anthropologist Stephen Glazier published a bibliographic entry for anthropologist Vincent Crapanzano with Oxford University Press.

Blue network graphic

HRAF will be presenting at the 19th IUAES-WAU World Anthropology Congress from October 14-20, 2023. This year’s conference theme is: “Marginalities, Uncertainties, and World Anthropologies: Enlivening Past and Envisioning Future”.

Michael Fischer, Sridhar Ravula and Francine Barone will be presenting a paper entitled Unravelling Theories in Ethnography: Data Science in the HRAF Collection of Ethnography, in the panel ‘P099 – Theory of Kinship as Theory of Anthropology ‘.

iKLEWS (Infrastructure for Knowledge Linkages from Ethnography of World Societies) is a HRAF project funded by the National Science Foundation […] concerned with understanding ethnography as ethnographic theory, identifying data, knowledge and circumstances underlying the wide array of means by which ethnographers use textual exposition to relate what they understood to be important information about people. In this paper we relate how the principles underlying the generation and representation of kinship terminologies, as developed by Dwight Read and his colleagues over the past 40 years, can be applied to pan-corpus semantic relations as produced by numerous ethnographers in numerous ethnographies. We are applying this approach to analysis of semantic graphs, ranging from sentential level dependency graphs to pan-corpus hypergraphs of semantically related terms that reflect the composite product of ethnographer judgements on language use in describing various topics. While we will utilise these structures in examining the depiction of kinship related instances in the text, we are interested in broader patterns of semantic relations, and comparing differences in these between ethnographers.

Francine Barone will also be presenting an additional ethnographic paper entitled Burro to Bluetooth: Perceptions of digital and urban change in Catalonia, in the panel ‘P069 – Human with a mobile phone and internet connection. Self-representation and political space in anthropology.’.

Access to online platforms continues to expand. With each new app or tool, user engagement presents challenges and opportunities. Sharing content online has increasingly become an essential aspect of living in the world, whether for personal expression, cultural representation or political activism. At the same time, the new mediated socialities formed on these networks maintain deep connections to place-based experiences and identification. The internet is often characterized as “placeless”, while the opposite is true. Existing cultures and geographies affect how new technologies are received, adapted, leveraged, or even avoided, as well as to what extent actions on digital platforms may motivate changes in everyday life. The web is often seen as “open”; yet, in practice, it can insulate networks to those most closely known to us and whom we deem to share our values. In order to understand the narratives unfolding there, I take an ethnographic approach to the web which asks, what does social media look like in/from specific places? Based on fieldwork in a small Catalan border city, this paper explores the role of the internet and social media in urban life. […] Otherness and marginality are key facets of Catalan identity which contribute to local, everyday responses to the digital. Technology is largely assumed to be inherently disruptive to existing ways of life. However, focusing on themes such as Catalan language politics and nationalism, banal activism, and affordances of social media for youth culture, this research argues that there is equal significance in its continuities.

Sign up for updates

If you enjoyed this roundup of new research, sign up here to receive an email when our next summary of scholarly work is published.

Send us your news

Would you like to see your eHRAF-based work research featured here? To submit items for consideration for the next edition, please email links to your recently published research (including an abstract) to Francine Barone by 5pm EST on Sept 19th, 2023.



Ember, C. R., & Ember, M. 1992. Warfare, aggression, and resource problems: Cross-cultural codes. Behavior Science Research 26(1-4): 169-226.

Ross, M. H. 1983. Political decision making and conflict: Additional cross-cultural codes and scales. Ethnology 22(2): 169-192.


Image credits:

Free images via Canva (Pro)

Research and plan: peshkov from Getty Images
Forest fire: josemoraes from Getty Images Signature
Paleolithic stone tools: jonnysek from Getty Images
Occult table: Africa images
Bird call: Jrleyland from Getty Images
COVID-19: kazuma seki from Getty Images
Network: your_photo from Getty Images