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Joyce Marcus has published a bold review in the Annual Review of Anthropology where she argues that anthropology must be willing to generalize — cultures must be compared and contrasted in order identify similarities in the ways cultures have responded to challenges. In other words, relativism has no place in trying to understand the evolutionary pattern to human social structure.

She further argues that such a comprehensive and comparative analysis of cultural evolution must be done with collaboration between ethnologists and archaeologists. She stresses the impact of archaeology has in investigating cultural evolution, using the transition to agriculture and animal domestication as a critical moment when we can see the emergence of institutions not seen in previous lifestyles. She further relates the relationship between ethnology and archaeology is analogous to that,

“… between zoology and vertebrate paleontology. Zoologists are able to study both muscle tissue and behavior at a level of detail unavailable to paleontologists. Paleontologists, however, can find the muscle attachments on fossil bones that provide evidence for specific muscles; they can then draw on the zoological literature both on those muscles and on the behavior they reflect. Paleontologists can also elucidate long-term trends and recover the skeletons of transitional species unknown to zoology; such fossils show us the order in which certain structures (and hence behaviors) arose. In an important sense, the fossil record is the proving ground for any theory of change based on comparisons of living species.”

In order for us to understand how cultures evolve, she’s very right, cultural anthropologists and archaeologists do need to collaborate. Hell, archaeologists even need to understand that they’re not just digging up cultural noise. Both disciplines need to agree upon a common terminology and see that cultures can be compared. But I don’t know if many cultural anthropologists are ready to hang up their relativist coats on the hanger just yet.

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