HRAF Academic Quarterly, Vol 2023-03

HRAF Academic Quarterly Vol 2023-02

People working in a library

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 excited to share new research on forager beliefs, myths and decision-making; several publications on hunting tools, strategies and women’s hunting; a cross-cultural study of variation in norm enforcement; gender differences in play; and the universality of music. Publications from HRAF staff this quarter include an ethnography of cultural tradition in the face of digital change; a study of ethnomedical specialists; and a worldwide cross-cultural comparison of uniformity in dress.

Featured Publications

HRAF congratulates Ramon van der Does on the publication of his doctoral dissertation at UCLouvain. For his look into the human propensity to deliberate, Van de Does used an extensive list of 97 subject categories from the Outline of Cultural Materials (OCM) to identify paragraphs in eHRAF containing evidence of political decision-making among hunter-gatherers.

Homo, hunter-gatherer, Habermas: An inquiry into deliberation and human nature
Ramon van der Does (PhD thesis, UCLouvain)

The overarching goal of the dissertation is to assess to what degree and in which ways insights into human evolution can help to explain the propensity of people (not) to deliberate. […] Based on the  analysis of manually coded ethnographic materials retrieved from the electronic Human Relations Area Files (eHRAF) World Cultures, the results suggest that in the majority of hunter-gatherer cultures there is evidence of people talking before they make political decisions and that there is also some evidence that such talk in cultures in different parts of the world involves reasoning and/or respect.

Researchers from the University of Oregon investigate how foraging societies preserve and transmit accumulated cultural knowledge through rules regulating myth performance and narrative.

Cross-cultural forager myth transmission rules: Implications for the emergence of cumulative culture
Michelle Scalise Sugiyama, Kieran J. Reilly

For most of human evolution, accumulated cultural knowledge has been stored in memory and transmitted orally. This presents a daunting information management problem: how to store and transmit this knowledge in a portable format that resists corruption. One solution–widespread among foragers–is to encode knowledge in narrative. However, this strategy depends on accurate performance of the story. Significantly, some forager cultures have rules regulating myth performance, although the extent of this phenomenon is unknown. We hypothesize that these rules subserve high-fidelity transmission across generations. […] To test these predictions, we searched the forager ethnographic record for descriptions of myth performance, and coded them for prescriptions/proscriptions regarding narrator age, performance context, audience composition, narrative delivery, and audience comportment, as well as sanctions associated with rule transgression or compliance. Results indicate that rules regulating myth performance are widespread across forager cultures, and are characterized by features that reduce the likelihood of copy errors. These findings help elucidate the role that anthropogenic ratchets played in the emergence of cumulative culture.

Navajo women talking

Hunting behavior, strategy and cognition

Three recent articles on hunting shed light on the role of women, mimicry and deception as strategic tools, and the sophistication of 300,000-year-old wooden throwing sticks.

The ecological and social context of women’s hunting in small-scale societies
Jordan Hoffman, Kyle Farquharson, Vivek Venkataraman

Women participate in hunting in some foraging societies but not in others. To examine the socioecological factors that are conducive to women’s hunting, we conducted an ethnographic survey using the Human Relations Area Files and other selected sources. Based on life history theory and behavioral ecology, we predicted that women should engage in hunting when: i) it poses few conflicts with childcare, ii) it is associated with few cultural restrictions around the use of hunting technology, iii)  it involves low-risk game within range of camp, with the aid of dogs, and/or in groups, and, iv) women fulfill key logistical or informational roles. We systematically reviewed ethnographic documents across 64 societies and coded 242 paragraphs for the above variables. The data largely support theoretical expectations. […] Women commonly fulfilled crucial informational, logistical, and ritualistic roles. Cultural restrictions limited women’s participation in hunting, but not to the extent commonly assumed. These data offer a cross-cultural framework for making inferences about whether and how women’s hunting occurred in the past.

Aggressive Mimicry and the Evolution of the Human Cognitive Niche
Cody Moser, William Buckner, Melina Sarian, Jeffrey Winking

The evolutionary origins of deception and its functional role in our species is a major focus of research in the science of human origins. Several hypotheses have been proposed for its evolution, often packaged under either the Social Brain Hypothesis, which emphasizes the role that the evolution of our social systems may have played in scaffolding our cognitive traits, and the Foraging Brain Hypothesis, which emphasizes how changes in the human dietary niche were met with subsequent changes in cognition to facilitate foraging of difficult-to-acquire foods. Despite substantive overlap, these hypotheses are often presented as competing schools of thought, and there have been few explicitly proposed theoretical links unifying the two. Utilizing cross-cultural data gathered from the Human Relations Area Files (HRAF), we identify numerous (n = 357) examples of the application of deception toward prey across 145 cultures. By comparing similar behaviors in nonhuman animals that utilize a hunting strategy known as aggressive mimicry, we suggest a potential pathway through which the evolution of deception may have taken place. Rather than deception evolving as a tactic for deceiving conspecifics, we suggest social applications of deception in humans could have evolved from an original context of directing these behaviors toward prey.

Sticks in a cave

To better understand characteristics and contexts of ancient throwing sticks, researchers conducted a systematic review of ethnographic literature using keywords to search in the eHRAF World Cultures database, then coded their results for location, use, prey type and morphometrics.

A double-pointed wooden throwing stick from Schöningen, Germany: Results and new insights from a multianalytical study
Annemieke Milks, Jens Lehmann, Dirk Leder, Michael Sietz, Tim Koddenberg, Utz Böhner, Volker Wachtendorf, Thomas Terberger

The site of Schöningen (Germany), dated to ca. 300,000 years ago, yielded the earliest large-scale record of humanly-made wooden tools. These include wooden spears and shorter double-pointed sticks, discovered in association with herbivores that were hunted and butchered along a lakeshore. Wooden tools have not been systematically analysed to the same standard as other Palaeolithic technologies, such as lithic or bone tools. […]  In illustrating the biography of one of Schöningen’s double-pointed sticks, we demonstrate new human behaviours for this time period, including sophisticated woodworking techniques. […] Through our detailed analysis we show that Middle Pleistocene humans had a rich awareness of raw material properties, and possessed sophisticated woodworking skills. Alongside new detailed morphometrics of the object, an ethnographic review supports a primary function as a throwing stick for hunting, indicating potential hunting strategies and social contexts including for communal hunts involving children.

Cross-Cultural Variation

Fascinating new research sheds light on cross-cultural variation in norm enforcement systems, gendered play, and possible universal interpretations of vocal music.

Cross-Societal Variation in Norm Enforcement Systems: A Review
Catherine Molho, Francesca De Petrillo, Zachary Garfield, Sam Slewe

Across human societies, people are sometimes willing to punish norm violators. Such punishment can take the form of revenge from victims, seemingly altruistic intervention from third parties, or legitimized sanctioning from institutional representatives. Although prior work has documented cross-cultural regularities in norm enforcement, substantial variation exists in the prevalence and forms of punishment across societies. Such cross-societal variation may arise from cultural evolutionary processes, resulting in different moral systems and mechanisms to enforce existing or emerging norms. To date, empirical evidence from comparative studies across diverse societies has remained disconnected, due to a lack of interdisciplinary integration and a prevalent tendency of empirical studies to focus on different underpinnings of variation in norm enforcement. To provide a more complete view of the shared and unique aspects of punishment across societies, we review prior research in anthropology, economics, and psychology, and take a first step towards integrating the plethora of socio-ecological and cultural factors proposed to explain cross-societal variation in norm enforcement. We conclude by discussing how future cross-societal research can use diverse methodologies to further illuminate key questions on the domain-specificity of punishment, the diversity of tactics supporting social norms, and their role in processes of norm change.

Foxes playing

Congratulations to Catherine Marley of Durham University on her PhD thesis investigating rough and tumble play across genders, cultures and species. In order to focus on subsistence societies, eHRAF World Cultures was selected for its “sources of rich description of play across cultures in a curated sample of ethnographic data, which is ideal for cross-cultural comparison.”

A Cross-Species and Cross-Cultural Comparative Analysis of Sex and Gender Differences in Rough and Tumble Play
Catherine Laura Marley (PhD Thesis, Durham University)

Rough and tumble play (RTP) is a form of physically active social play common across diverse social mammals, including humans, which likely provides vital opportunities for the development of physical and social skills. Where adult behaviours are differentiated by sex or gender, RTP is expected to take correspondingly different forms in juveniles. However, we do not yet have a good understanding of how and why sex/gender differences in RTP vary across non-human species and human societies. The first aim of this thesis was to investigate cross-species variation in sex differences in rough and tumble play (RTP) in non-human mammals through the lens of behavioural ecology and life history theory. A systematic review revealed that male biases in RTP are not as consistent as predicted and many studies report a lack of, or inconsistent, sex differences. Contrary to expectations, phylogenetic comparative analyses found no evidence that measures of male-male competition in adults predict male biases in juvenile RTP across species. The second aim of the thesis was to investigate variation in gender differences in RTP in human subsistence societies using cross-cultural data through the lens of cultural evolution. I found that RTP is more common in boys, although in most societies both girls and boys engage in some form of RTP. Gender differences in RTP are not predicted by marriage system or other potentially relevant variables, and are not strongly affected by shared cultural history or spatial proximity. Taken together these results suggest that RTP is a complex, highly variable behaviour which may change rapidly in response to social and environmental factors.

Universal interpretations of vocal music
Lidya Yurdum, Manvir Singh, Luke Glowacki, and Samuel A. Mehr

Music is thought to exist in every human culture, but it varies widely worldwide and appears in highly diverse contexts: from intricate ceremonies with coordinated group dances to informal, private lullabies. How do humans make sense of the music we hear? We test the hypothesis that universal acoustic properties of music make it intelligible across cultures. A globally diverse group of listeners, including native speakers of many non-English languages, heard songs recorded in many different societies. They reported their intuitions about the original behavioral context of each song. Their ratings were largely accurate, consistent with one another, and not explained by their linguistic or geographic proximity to the singer—showing that musical diversity is underlain by universal psychological phenomena.

Research from HRAF

Digital anthropologist Francine Barone, Director of Academic Development & Operations at HRAF,  published a chapter in an edited collection produced by the Royal Anthropological Institute of Great Britain and Northern Ireland and the Georgian Academy of Sciences. The Concept of Tradition: its Survival, Transformation and Virtual World Refashioning explores how the structure of postmodern society is changing against the backdrop of increasing technological progress, how horizontal connections through social networks are expanding, and highlights cyberethnography as a method of scientific research.

Close without saving? How local traditions may withstand a digital demise
Francine Barone

The irrepressible expansion of social media continues to inspire fear over the losses of distinctive local culture. The more digitally connected humans become – the well-worn dystopian argument goes – the weaker our ties to our geographic and cultural surroundings; our immediate friends and neighbours; and, by extension, the inclination to preserve traditions. Geography and history are certainly key to conceptualizing culture and tradition, but so, too, are those facets central to understanding the digital. How one engages digitally is largely shaped by offline culture, norms, behaviours, and expectations. Thus, any transformative power of the web is best understood situated within specific socio-cultural contexts of offline life. This chapter focuses on the Catalan social drama known as the Passeig. This urban ritual, emblematic of public sociality throughout Catalonia, is at risk of extinction. […] However, a particular type of interaction on social media shares many similarities with the custom of the passeig, despite youth insistence that such a practice is irrelevant to their lives. Is the power of social media to erode traditions the culprit of such a demise, or merely a red herring? A case study of the most popular social media site among young Catalans during this period will reveal that the lifespan of a tradition is surprisingly not platform-dependent.

Maasai dancers

HRAF Research Associate Cynthiann Heckelsmiller and colleagues published a new study on supernatural theories of disease and religious healing in traditional societies. HRAF President Carol Ember and researchers and former HRAF Melvin Ember interns, Abbe McCarter and Erik Ringen published fascinating cross-cultural findings on predictors of uniformity of dress and cultural tightness.

Ethnomedical Specialists and their Supernatural Theories of Disease
Aaron D. Lightner, Cynthiann Heckelsmiller, Edward H. Hagen

Religious healing specialists such as shamans often use magic. Evolutionary theories that seek to explain why laypersons find these specialists convincing focus on the origins of magical cognition and belief in the supernatural. In two studies, we reframe the problem by investigating relationships among ethnomedical specialists, who possess extensive theories of disease that can often appear “supernatural,” and religious healing specialists. In study 1, we coded and analyzed cross-cultural descriptions of ethnomedical specialists in 47 cultures, finding 24% were also religious leaders and 74% used supernatural theories of disease. We identified correlates of the use of supernatural concepts among ethnomedical specialists; incentives and disincentives to patronize ethnomedical specialists; and distinct clusters of ethnomedical specialists that we label prestigious teachers, feared diviners, and efficacious healers. In study 2, we interviewed 84 Maasai pastoralists and their traditional religious and non-religious healing specialists. We found that laypersons relied on medicinal services based on combinations of efficacy, religious identity, and interpersonal trust. Further, laypersons and specialists largely used abstract concepts that were not conspicuously supernatural to describe how local medicines work. We conclude that religious healers in traditional societies often fulfill a practical and specialized service to local clients, and argue that supernatural theories of disease often reflect abstract cognition about rare phenomena whose causes are unobservable (e.g., infection, mental illness) instead of a separate “religious” style of thinking.

Uniformity in Dress: A Worldwide Cross-Cultural Comparison
Carol R. Ember, Abbe McCarter, Erik Ringen

Focusing on clothing and adornment (dress), this worldwide cross-cultural comparison asks why people in some societies appear to dress in uniform or standardized ways, whereas in other societies individuals display considerable variability in dress. The broader research question is why some societies have more within-group variation than others. Hypotheses are tested on 80 societies drawn from the Standard Cross-Cultural Sample (SCCS). The central hypotheses consider the impact of general societal tightness or looseness, degree of egalitarianism as well as other aspects of societal complexity, and the role of resource stress on dress standardization […] As expected, (1) increased societal tightness was positively related to increased standardization and rules regarding dress and (2) increased resource stress is generally related to more standardization of dress and rules regarding adornment. However, contrary to theoretical expectations, the predictors of tightness–looseness differ from the predictors of dress. Most importantly, resource stress negatively predicts tightness but positively predicts three of the latent dress constructs.

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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 Dec 15th, 2023.


Image Credits

Free images via Canva (Pro)

Cover Image by Mathias Reding from Pexels
Navajo Women by grandriver from Getty Images Signature
Cave with sticks by gorodenkoff from Getty Images
Fox Siblings Roughhousing by Susan Hershey from Getty Images
Masai by blueorangestudio