HRAF Academic Quarterly, Vol 2023-04

HRAF Academic Quarterly Vol 2023-04

Books open on a table

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.

For 2023’s final edition of the HRAF Academic Quarterly, we are pleased to share more examples of cross-cultural research thriving within and beyond anthropology and archaeology, including library science and economics. Several new studies highlight the importance of ethnographic data and digital resources in an ongoing resurgence of cross-cultural approaches, such as how the eHRAF databases have been used for advancing new theories and analyses. This quarter, HRAF staff attended the American Anthropological Association/CASCA Annual Meeting. The panel – Scientific Perspectives in Human Transitions – was reviewed by the Society for Anthropological Sciences and included six presenters.

Featured Publications

Václav Hrnčíř – a former participant in the HRAF Summer Institutes – and co-author Petr Květina argue that there is a resurgence in comparative ethnology thanks to the digitization of ethnographic data. This work builds in part on the knowledge that Václav Hrnčíř gained at the 2021 NSF-funded HRAF Summer Institute for Cross Cultural Anthropological Research (NSF Grant #2020156). With a focus on hunter-gatherer and kinship studies, the authors argue that cross-cultural ethnographic research can provide many insights into understanding the past, and refer to both the eHRAF databases and the Explaining Human Culture database.

Application of Comparative Ethnology in Archaeology: Recent Decades
Václav Hrnčíř, Petr Květina

The use of ethnographic and ethnohistoric data to inform reconstructions of past human societies has a long tradition. While simple ethnographic analogies have been used since the beginning of archaeological research, since the 1950s there have been several efforts to rationalize and systematize their use. This led to the development of several new methods, including direct historic analogy, ethnoarchaeology, and comparative ethnology. The latter is now experiencing a resurgence, stimulated by the digitization of large ethnographic databases and the development of new analytical methods. As part of a broader cross-cultural research approach, comparative ethnology explicitly aims to answer questions about the incidence, distribution, and causes of cultural variation. Based on the statistical evaluation of theories and large samples of cultures, this approach not only illustrates variation in cultural practices, but also provides supporting arguments for archaeological hypotheses. Specifically, it can (1) reveal archaeological indicators of human behavior, (2) test causal and non-causal associations between diverse cultural and ecological variables, and (3) reconstruct the evolutionary paths of specific cultural traits.

The following article also uses ethnographic insights to shed light on the past. To explore historical and contemporary uses of small stones similar to the lustrous gravels that were examined, Fiona Jordan used the eHRAF World Cultures database to search 186 societies in the Standard Cross-Cultural Sample (SCCS). This yielded 23022 paragraphs across 175 cultures, and eHRAF’s paragraph-level subject codes enabled the development of a “bespoke coding scheme for specificity”.

Multiproxy analysis of Upper Palaeolithic lustrous gravels supports their anthropogenic use
Lila Geis, Francesco d’Errico, Fiona M. Jordan, Michel Brenet, Alain Queffelec

Upper Palaeolithic sites in southwestern France attributed to the Upper Gravettian and the Solutrean yielded sub spherical gravels with a highly shiny appearance that have intrigued researchers since the 1930s. In this work, we analyze specimens from five sites, including the recently excavated Solutrean site of Landry, to establish whether their presence in archaeological layers and peculiar aspect are due to natural processes or human agency. We study the spatial distribution of gravels at Landry and submit archaeological gravels from the five sites, natural formations, Landry sediment sieving, and polishing experiments with a rotary tumbling machine to morphometric, colorimetric, microscopic, and textural analyses. Our results indicate the lustrous gravels found at the five sites result from deliberate selection and suggest their shiny appearance is the consequence of human agency, possibly resulting from prolonged contact with a soft material such as animal skin. Ethnographic accounts indicate that these gravels may have been used for magico-religious ritual purposes (charms, sorcery, divination etc.), in games, as elements of musical instruments, and as items serving other social and personal purposes. We argue that these objects reflect a cultural innovation emerged during the Gravettian and continued into the Solutrean.

In another approach to reconstructing the past with ethnographic data, researchers from the Universitat Autònoma de Barcelona used the eHRAF World Cultures and D-PLACE databases to create “an alternative model of prehistoric Neolithic survival induced from an ethnoarchaeological database describing 173 trans-historical and cross-cultural case studies”:

Causal Networks and Complex Systems in Archaeology
Olga Palacios, Juan Antonio Barceló

Difficulties surrounding the reconstruction of social systems in past communities have propitiated the development of multiple social theories and a variety of approaches to explain archaeological remains. The Bayesian Network approach has proved to be a crucial tool to model uncertainty and probability to estimate parameters and predict the effects of social decisions, even when some data entries are missing. This paper has the principal objective to present a research study centered on exploring how prehistoric early farmers survived in their environmental context by suggesting a causal complex model of a socio-ecological system. To achieve this, two different causal models are proposed, both based on probabilistic Bayesian Networks, one built from expert knowledge and the other learned from ethnoarchaeological data. These models are used to define what variables would have been relevant to the socioeconomic organization of early Neolithic communities and to predict their behavior and social decisions in hypothetical case scenarios. The ultimate outcome is exploring the use of the Bayesian Network for investigating socio-ecological systems and defining its potentialities as a research method.

Couple dancing at Indian wedding

Using the OCM subject identifier 585 Nuptials and the keyword “dance”, Pecka coded paragraphs from eHRAF World Cultures along with additional pre-coded variables acquired from D-Place. The Standard Cross-Cultural Sample, Ethnographic Atlas and Probability file samples were used in eHRAF. A strong focus in this MA thesis on methods and metadata for cross-cultural research presents new avenues to improve the development of cross-cultural databases.

Functions of dance in nuptial rituals: test on ethnographic data, an evolutionary approach
Daniel Pecka (MA thesis, Masaryk University Faculty of Arts)

This thesis investigates dance as an instrument for signaling, which is a kind of sub-conscious nonverbal communication, in the context of nuptial rituals. Specifically, this study examines the functions of dance within these rituals. At the same time, it contributes to the evolutionary discussion about why behavior like dance emerged and what its role is in contemporary humans. Increased attention is paid to cross-cultural databases that are the source of material for this work, as their development and proper use are the subjects of an ongoing scientific discussion.

Cross-cultural Comparison beyond Anthropology

How is cross-cultural research useful beyond anthropology? This next article reflects on a series of workshops dedicated to intercultural dynamics where discourse about diversity brought to light difficulties among participants in naming differences (especially those related to race and ethnicity). At a time where public discourse about diversity is increasingly polarized, adoption of concepts such as “cultural variables” provides a way to cut through the challenges of describing cultural difference in a pluralistic setting. The authors argue that when dealing with intercultural interactions, cross-cultural comparison “is not simply a possibility, or even a risk, but in some situations, it is actually a necessity.”

Talking about Difference: Cross-Cultural Comparison and Prejudice in Anthropology and Beyond
Bob W. White, Mathilde Gouin-Bonenfant, Anthony Grégoire

In recent years, the question of “difference” has become a central feature of public debate and social concern, especially in the context of transnational migration. The underlying question that we attempt to answer in this article is: how can we talk about difference without reinforcing prejudice? Starting from the observation that perceptions and representations of difference have an impact on the way that individuals and groups interact with each other in increasingly diverse urban environments, we argue that a systemic approach to the analysis of intercultural situations gives us a unique window into emerging discourses and evolving norms about difference. After a brief historical overview of debates surrounding cross-cultural comparison in anthropology, we consider how various fields outside of anthropology have drawn inspiration from anthropology in order to gain a deeper understanding of intercultural dynamics in various professional settings. This article also examines several anthropological concepts that have been used as tools to theorize cross-cultural comparison, and how participants in a new research methodology use the systemic notion of “cultural variables” to resolve the basic paradox underlying pluralist philosophy and practice.

In a working paper for the National Bureau of Economic Research, a team of economists used eHRAF data to provide cross-cultural comparisons of traditional religious practices and subsistence types. Ethnographic data from a sample of societies in eHRAF was coded to determine how culturally common it is to pray for rain according to means of subsistence and responses to climate hazards.

Praying for Rain
José-Antonio Espín-Sánchez, Salvador Gil-Guirado & Nicholas Ryan

We study the climate as a determinant of religious belief. People believe in the divine when religious authorities (the “church”) can credibly intervene in nature on their behalf. We present a model in which nature sets the pattern of rainfall over time and the church chooses when optimally to pray in order to persuade people that it has caused the rain. We present evidence from prayers for rain in Murcia, Spain that the church follows such an optimal policy and that its prayers therefore predict rainfall. In our model, praying for rain can only persuade people to believe if the hazard of rainfall during a dry spell is increasing over time, so that the probability of rainfall is highest when people most want rain. We test this prediction in an original data set of whether ethnic groups around the world traditionally prayed for rain. We find that prayer for rain is more likely among ethnic groups dependent on intensive agriculture for subsistence and that ethnic groups facing an increasing rainfall hazard are 53% more likely to pray for rain, consistent with our model. We interpret these findings as evidence for the instrumentality of religious belief.

rain falling on a grass roof dwelling

When the Lafayette College Libraries migrated to a new digital repository, 63% of records being migrated used HRAF’s Outline of Cultural Materials as a controlled subject indexing system. The article explores how the task of implementing OCLC FAST headings acted as a metadata enhancement initiative towards the integration of digital collections from a wide range of disciplines, as well as detailing the challenges of mapping existing subject headings to the new FAST headings.

User Study: Implementation of OCLC FAST Subject Headings in the Lafayette Digital Repository
Nora Zimmerman

Digital repository migrations present a periodic opportunity to assess metadata quality and to perform strategic enhancements. Lafayette College Libraries implemented OCLC FAST (Faceted Application of Subject Terminology) for its digital image collections as part of a migration from multiple repositories to a single one built on the Samvera Hyrax open-source framework. Application of FAST has normalized subject headings across dissimilar collections in a way that tremendously improves descriptive consistency for staff and discoverability for end users. However, the process of applying FAST headings was complicated by several features of in-scope metadata as well as gaps in available controlled subject authorities.


Research from HRAF

2023 AAA/CASCA Annual Meeting header image

American Anthropological Association/CASCA Annual Meeting 2023
Panel: Scientific Perspectives in Human Transitions

Reviewed by: Society for Anthropological Sciences
Organizer: Ian Skoggard
Participants: Ian Skoggard, Carol Ember, Ian Skoggard, Samantha King, Cheng Liu, Brea McCauley, Michael Fischer

Session Description: The dialectic of practice and theory is still relevant today and crucial as humans navigate the quotidian transitions of human unfolding in face of unknown futures. Science offers anthropologists important tools in this venture by providing generalizable insights that enable knowledge production to guide effective practice. Science is a language that can speak across cultures, construct transcendent worldviews, enable interdisciplinary dialogue, and a common ground for trans-global connectivity and widespread collective action. In these papers, the authors use the tools of science, empirical observation and analysis, to gain perspective on cultural transitions in the archeological and ethnographic past, and argue its relevancy for the present. The anthropological record is a storehouse of rich ethnographic data that can allow for the testing of theories, which can render important contributions to understanding and navigating the changing world around us.


Cultural Adaptation to Natural Hazards – Carol Ember

For the past eight years, we have been conducting cross-cultural interdisciplinary research looking at how societies living in hazard-prone environments may have adapted their cultures to deal with climate-related and other resource stressors. Our main strategy was to compare societies living in such environments with those in less hazard-prone environments to see how their culture traits differed in realms such as beyond-household food sharing, subsistence diversification, property rights, cultural tightness or looseness, uniformity of dress, and beliefs that gods are involved with weather.

Cause and Effects of Deference Rituals across Cultures – Ian Skoggard

Deference ritual and demeanor has been a focus of social science research and theory. […] In this paper, we review deference theories in the social science literature. Looking at the ethnographic data, we examine how deference behavior is situated in social practices across different societies and test its relationship with group size and density, in-group violence, environmental stress, warfare, class, and hierarchy. Controlling for these and other factors, we determine to what extent deference influences and is influenced by exogenous and endogenous factors, and determine its overall significance as a principle of social organization.

Investigating Climate Adaptation and Rural Livelihood Sustainability in the Ethnographic Record – Samantha King

Facilitating the sustainability of rural livelihoods is a growing global challenge within the context of climate change. […] This paper utilizes a global cross-cultural sample of nonindustrial societies to (1) understand how societies respond to disasters and (2) investigate the relationship between rural livelihoods and environmental instability. Results demonstrate the power of cross-cultural research to test contemporary assumptions of global development discourse and inform practical and sustainable approaches to support rural well-being and food security in response to growing climate threats.

A Cross-Cultural Analysis of Toolmaking Skill Acquisition in Non-Industrial Societies – Cheng Liu

Toolmaking, together with bipedalism and language, was once regarded as a defining feature that makes humans distinct from other species. […] Yet the ability to make tools is not born with us, and we all need to learn either from others or through repeated trials and errors. To understand the diversity and universality in the process of human toolmaking skill acquisition, this ongoing project analyzed 169 non-industrial societies displaying varying subsistence strategies around the world using the eHRAF World Cultures database, with a particular focus on developmental contexts and transmission biases involved.

Finger amputation: A transdisciplinary study – Brea McCauley

The aim of this transdisciplinary study was to shed some light on the prevalence of finger amputation customs. […] The types of evidence we documented included isolated phalanges in contextually significant deposits, finger necklaces, skeletal individuals with missing phalanges and evidence of healed amputations, impressions of hands with amputated fingers, and incomplete hand images. Overall, we identified 250 cultures with either textual or material evidence for finger amputation. The results of our transdisciplinary study demonstrate that finger amputation has been a surprisingly common practice globally and for thousands of years.

Ethnographic Data Science: inferring cultural patterns from ethnographic writing – Michael Fischer

Ethnography is an amalgam at the crossroads of the sciences and the humanities. Ethnographic writing depends on expository approaches beyond the purely scientific, but well short of literary. Ethnographic data science shows promise for bridging this gap, using natural language processing (NLP) and networks of statistical relations within and between words and texts, to better identify and understand the patterns emerging from ethnographer accounts of observations and experiences in a given society or culture, or an aggregate of these. We demonstrate a range of approaches.

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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 Dr. Francine Barone by 5pm EST on March 15, 2024.

Image Credits

Images via Canva (Pro) license:

Person Studying And Writing Notes On Paper by Karolina Grabowska from Pexels
A Couple Having a Traditional Wedding in India by Varun from Pexels
Heavy Rain by Mac99 from Getty Images Signature
AAA/CASCA 2023 banner via American Anthropological Association


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