Exercises Using eHRAF World Cultures

Return to Teaching eHRAF: Tile View | Table View

View exercise overview

Exercise ID: 1.21
Class size: Any
Level(s): I
Source: Produced by HRAF

Learning Objectives

Does the exercise compare 2 or more cultures? Yes
Subject selection: Multiple subjects specified by teacher
Subjects/OCMS, if applicable:
Region selection: pre-selected
Region, if applicable: Various
Culture selection: Set by teacher
Cultures/OWCs, if applicable:
Samples: PSF

Classroom Guide

Instructions for navigating eHRAF included? Yes
Assignments for students to complete in groups? No
Assignments for students to complete on their own? Yes
Instructions for Microfiche version? No

Carol R. Ember, Human Relations Area Files


The database you are about to use contains information on all aspects of social and cultural life from 60 cultural regions around the world. The sample of cultures, known as the Probability Sample Files (PSF), is a subset of a larger collection of ethnographic materials called eHRAF World Cultures.

The purpose of eHRAF World Cultures is to provide information to facilitate comparisons of cultures. The unique feature of the database is that every paragraph of every document (mostly ethnographies) is subject-indexed with over 700 subject categories. These subject categories make it easier to rapidly find information, often more accurately than by word searches alone.

The exercises contained here were originally designed to accompany the textbook Cultural Anthropology (Carol R. Ember and Melvin Ember) in its 12th edition.  However, more broadly these exercises are designed to give you not only a feeling for the range of cultural variation, but also to get a feeling for different methodological approaches in anthropology. Some of the exercises are designed to replicate cross-cultural generalizations; others to explore one or more cultures.

Exercise I. Milk in Diet

Many adults in the world cannot drink or eat milk without feeling sick. A major cause of their problems is lactose intolerance, the inability of their body to breakdown the milk sugar, lactose. (Lactose intolerance typically develops after infancy.) Lactose intolerance is common in some adult populations, particularly in Africa, Asia, and around the Mediterranean. Many cultures appear to deal with lactose intolerance by having food customs that are adapted to the biological problem, such as avoiding drinking milk. Or, milk can be processed to make it edible by souring it. Butter, some aged cheeses and yoghurts may be more tolerated by lactose intolerant individuals. In other cultures, fresh milk is an important part of the diet.

Explore whether milk is an important part of the diet and whether or not it appears to be drunk whole or is prepared in some other way.

A. Tiv

1. Where are they located? (Hint: Use Browse Cultures, find a culture with its Collection Document, Collection Description, or Culture Summary)

2. Try a new way of searching for milk in the diet.   In eHRAF World Cultures use the Advanced Search with its “Add Culture and Subjects” function and a keyword.  Click here to see how this is done. This will search the ethnographic texts of the Tiv culture and retrieve paragraphs and pages with information on the use of milk in diet.

Note what was said about the place of milk in the traditional diet in the space below.


What do you conclude about whether milk was an important part of the Tiv diet? Was it drunk or cooked as fresh milk? If not, how was it prepared? Record what is said and note the author, title and page number of the document from which you got your information.

B. Ganda

1. Where are they located? (Hint: Use Browse Cultures, find a culture with its Collection Document, Collection Description, or Culture Summary)

2. Now let us try to search by choosing a culture, subject, and word in an Advanced Search
This search example shows how this is done (just search for Ganda instead of Tiv).

When your results appear in the ethnographic texts, ignore the paragraphs dealing with infants and read about the adult diet and whether it involves milk. Note what was said about the the place of milk in the traditional diet in the space below.


3. What do you conclude about whether milk was an important part of the Ganda diet? Was it drunk or cooked as fresh milk? If not, how was it prepared?

 C. Optional Exercise

Try to look at some  paragraphs involving milk in the diet for a couple of cultures in Europe. How do those descriptions compare to what you read about the African cultures?

Exercise II. Diet

In discussing how theories are tested by deriving a hypothesis that can be said to be true or false, we used as an example John Whiting’s theory that the long post-partum sex taboo is an adaptation to a low protein diet. The level of protein in the diet is roughly measured by looking at the dietary staple. Root and tree crop staples are rated as having low protein, cereal crop staples are rated as having medium protein, and societies depending largely on hunting, fishing or herding are rated as having high protein.

Pick XX of the societies from the table below

Root and Tuber Crop Staples (e.g., bananas, plaintains, cassava)–RT Cereal  Crop Staples (e.g., rice, wheat, barley, millet)–C Hunting, Fishing, Herding–HFP
Akan (Africa) Amhara (Africa) Libyan Bedouin (Africa)
Ganda (Africa) Azande (Africa) Maasai (Africa)
Chuuk (Oceania) Bemba (Africa) Somali (Africa)
Lau Fijians (Oceania) Dogon (Africa) Chukchee (Asia)
Tikopia (Oceania) Kanuri (Africa) Yakut (Asia)
Aymara (South America) Wolof (Africa) Saami (Europe)
Bahia Brazilians (South America) Central Thai (Asia) Blackfoot (North America)
Guarani (South America) Garo (Asia) Copper Inuit (North America)
Kogi (South America) Iban (Asia) Klamath (North America)
Kuna (South America) Korea (Asia) Tlingit (North America)
Tukano (South America) Santal (Asia) Ona (South America)
Yanoama (South America) Serbs (Europe)
Tarahumara (Middle America)
Tzeltal (Middle America)
Iroquois (North America)
Hopi (North America)

Below are cases with information on the length of the post-partum sex taboo in the eHRAF Probability Sample Files. We have classified them by the length of the taboo.

1. Look up what the staple is in the diet for each of these societies. You have already learned how to do an Advanced Search for the subject “Diet” in two different ways. Follow the directions in the search example  However, instead of looking for milk*, try adding the word staple* into the keyword box.

A. Short Post-Partum Sex Taboos (less than 1 year) B. Long Post-Partum Sex Taboos (a year or more)
Bemba  (Africa) Azande  (Africa)
Kanuri   (Africa) Maasai   (Africa)
Libyan Bedouin (Africa) Chuuk    (Oceania)
Somali  (Africa) Trobriands (Oceania)
Tzeltal  (Middle America) Tukano  (South America)
Hopi  (North America) Yanoama (South America)
Kogi  (South America)
Ona  (South America)

2. Place a “C” next to the society name in the table above if the staple is described as a cereal crop (common cereals are corn or maize, wheat, rye, millet, barley, oats). Place an “RT” next to societies whose staple is a root, tuber, or tree crop (common crops are potatoes, plantains, bananas, coconuts, yams, breadfruit, taro, cassava or manioc). If you are not sure, look in a dictionary. If the staple is a kind of meat from hunting or pastoralism activities or from fishing, place an “HFP” next to the society name. Do all the societies in the table.

3. Now we are going to create another table with frequency counts to see if the length of the post-partum sex taboo seems to vary with the type of staple as Whiting suggested it would. In the empty “cells” below, put the number of societies that fit the intersection of the row and column. In other words, look at the column labeled “Short”. The next row down is labeled Root and Tree Crop. Count how many RTs there are in column A above. Place the number of such cases in the cell. (So for example, if there is one RT, put a 1 in the cell.) Now move down to the next row. Count the number of “C’s” and put that number in the second row under column A. Count the number of “HFP’s” and put that number in row 3. When you have finished do the same counting for column B.


1) RT Root and Tree Crop
2) C Cereals
3) HFP Hunting, Fishing, Herding

4. So, do most of the Long post-partum taboo cases have root and tree crops (low protein) as Whiting suggested?  Yes    No (circle)

5. And do most of the other societies have short post-partum sex taboos?  Yes   No

6. Overall, do you think you see the same relationship that Whiting saw?

Optional: For two of the societies of your choice, describe the staple in the diet. Give a short quote and the citation (author, title, page number).

Exercise III. Food

The way a society gets its food seems to affect many aspects of social and political life. How do people who make their living from wild food resources (food collectors) compare with agriculturalists?

Explore some of the differences by reading comparing a native American hunter-gatherer group and an agricultural group. First, read the Culture Summaries for the Copper Inuit and the Hopi. Particularly look at the sections on Settlements, Sociopolitical Organization, Political Organization, and Religion.

1. Summarize the differences in the traditional ways of making a living between the Copper Inuit and the Hopi. (Hint: Go to Browse Cultures in eHRAF World Cultures. Using either the A-Z Index or Regions and find Copper Inuit or Hopi. Click on the Culture Summary. Use the culture summary to answer question 2 below.

2. Summarize some of the differences you find in degree of permanence of settlements, size of settlements, land tenure, inheritance, and political organization. Focus on the traditional patterns.

3. Hunter-gatherers vary considerable depending upon how they make a living. Fishing in particular seems to be associated with more complex social structures. Compare the Copper Inuit and the Tlingit by reading their culture summaries.

Exercise IV. Property

Compare the property concepts of the following societies [Hint: In Advanced Search choose the cultures below in “Add Cultures” and in “Add  Subjects” choose  “Property Systems”):

  • Ganda (Africa)
  • Tiv (Africa)
  • Ifugao (Asia)—(Hint: Look at Barton’s Ifugao Law, pp. 39-42.)
  • Copper Inuit (North America)

1. How do the cultures compare with reference to concepts of land ownership?

2. Is there any concept of private property? What kinds of things are private?

3. Optional: How are the concepts of property in Chuuk different from those in American society? (Hint: Read the description of  property in Goodenough’s, Property, kin and community on Truk, pp. 29-33. In eHRAF World Cultures find Chuuk in Browse Cultures and click Collection Documents to open up Goodenough’s book to page 29. Or use the “Add Subjects and Cultures” functions in eHRAF Advanced Search to the subject “Property systems”  and Chuuk as culture name.

Exercise V. Slavery

Many societies in the ethnographic record had slavery at some point in their history, either because they practiced slavery themselves or because they were subject to slave raiders.

1. The Akan (Africa) and the Ifugao (Asia) are examples of societies that practiced slavery. For each society describe how a person became a slave. Did slaves have any rights? Could a slave become freed, and if so, under what conditions?

(Hint: for the Akan, either go to Browse Cultures, click on Collection Documents to find Rattray, Ashanti Law and Constitution. Read pages 33-38. Or use the “Add Subjects and Cultures” functions in eHRAF Advanced Search to the subject “Slavery”  and Akan as culture name.

2. The Saramaka are an example of a society newly created. In this case, from a group of individuals who escaped from slavery and moved into the “bush” in Suriname. To get an overview of Saramaka first read the Cultural Summary (In eHRAF World Cultures go to Browse Culture, find Saramaka and click on Culture Summary. Then read pp. 11-14 of Richard Price’s First-time: the historical vision of an Afro-American people. You can find the document by clicking on Collection Documents, then on the document title. Use the page navigation drop-down menu to go to page 11, the section beginning “Those Times Shall Come Again.” Read through page 14. Summarize the ways you think the Saramaka have been affected by their slave background.

Exercise VI. Sexuality

Societies vary markedly in their attitudes towards sexuality. Compare the following societies on their attitudes toward premarital sex (use subject “Premarital Sex Restrictions”  and the culture names listed below in an eHRAF Advanced Search…see eHRAF Search Examples and Methodology ).

  • Trobriands (Hint: Use results from Malinowski’s Sex and Repression in Savage Society)
  • Copper Inuit
  • Kanuri
  • Libyan Bedouin
  • Pawnee

Exercise VII. Marriage

Males and females have little or no choice in who they can marry in some societies and almost free choice in others. Compare the following societies and answer questions 1-5.

Hint: Most of the information you will need can be found by searching for the subject category “Arranging a Marriage” in the Add Subjects function of an eHRAF Advanced Search (see eHRAF Search Examples and Methodology).

1. The Ganda and Dogon differ in how much freedom males and females have in choosing a spouse. Briefly compare their freedom of choice. Give references for where you found the information (e.g., Author, Title, p. 20).  (Hint: Use Mair sources for the Ganda and Calame-Griaule for the Dogon.

2. Technically, a Maasai male has free choice in choosing a spouse, but that “choice” is considerably different from what most people expect by “free choice.” How do Maasai males choose? What is the situation for females? (Hint: use Leakey source).

3. How does wealth difference affect marriage among the Garo and Ifugao? (Hint: For the Ifugao read all of page 19 in Barton’s Ifugao law in addition to paragraphs found with the subject “Arranging a Marriage.”)

4. How have marriage arrangments changed over time for the Taiwan Hokkien? Hint: Use Diamond source.)

5. For two of the above societies of your choice, give a brief description of how the actual marriage took place. What elements are different from those in our own society? (Hint: If you don’t find the information under Arranging a Marriage, look at Nuptials in the eHRAF Advanced Search “Add Subjects” function. Use the same author, if possible.)

Exercise VIII. Residence

Both the Bemba and the Trobriands have matrilineal descent groups, but they differ in that the Bemba practice mostly matrilocal residence, whereas the Trobriands have avunculocal residence. Searching for “Rule of Residence” and the word “matrilineal*” read the sections by Richard for the Bemba and the Trobriands.

1. What differences and similarities do you see?

2. How do the two societies view the role of the father in conception. Do you think it relates to matrilineality? If so, why do you think so?

Exercise IX. Associations

Associations have considerable importance in some societies. They can be important for mutual aid, defense, and recreation, among other functions. Explore some of the associations in the following cultures:

1. Among the Koreans, how do credit associations work? (Hint: search for Korea as a culture, then add the two subjects sodalities and credit.)

2. Read about age-sets among the Maasai. (Hint: use the Spencer, Maasai of Mataputo source; search for the culture Maasai, the subject “age stratification”) and give a brief description.

3. For the Akan, describe the Asafo and explain some of their functions. (Hint: Read Danquah, Gold Coast Akan, pp. 56-60.)

4. For the Pawnee, describe some of the men’s societies and what they do. (Hint: Search for the Subject “Sodalities” and then read the results from Murie’s, Ceremonies of the Pawnees.

Exercise X. Rules

Trying to get people to “obey the rules” is a problem faced by all societies. However, societies vary markedly in their mechanisms of social control.

1. The Mbuti of Central Africa do not have any formal mechanisms of social control. Describe how they appear to achieve social control. Read pp. 107-109 of Turnbull’s The Forest People and describe how they achieve social control. (Hint: Read instructions on finding a document within a culture.)

2. The important mechanism of social control among the Ojibwa appears to be the threat of sorcery. Read pp. 93-95 of Hallowell’s The Ojibwa of Berens River and describe how this fear appears to work. Contrast the Ojibwa’s use of sorcery with the Ganda of eastern Africa. See Mair, An African People in the 20th Century, pp. 252-253.

3. The Kanuri have higher levels of authority to resolve disputes. Search for the Subject “Judicial Authority” for the Kanuri and read the results for Cohen, “The Kanuri of Bornu. Explain how the system works.


Exercise XI. Children Games

In American society, children are supposed to play. If parents can afford it, they often buy lots of toys for their children.

1. Contrast the following societies with regard to children’s games. How do the four societies compare with each other and with American society? (Hint: Search for the Subject “Games” and the word “child*”)

  • Kurds (Middle East)
  • Blackfoot (North America) (Hint: focus particular on Ewers’, “The Blackfeet: Raiders of ….)
  • Klamath (North America)
  • Kogi (South America)

2. Optional: Does the emphasis on games and play for children appear to relate to how much children are expected to work? (Hint: To explore this, search for “Children’s Activities” for the same set of cultures.)