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Ethnographic Analogy

"Ethnographic analogy" refers to the logic of using customs and adaptations known from ethnographic or historical sources to inspire or justify a writer's reconstruction of a way of life of a different group of people who are known only on the basis of archaeological evidence.

The point of archaeological study is to model the life of an extinct group of people, whether Neanderthals in central France, soldiers on a Napoleonic battle field, or dinosaurs around a water hole.

It is almost frighteningly easy to make up activities that would produce the archaeological material that we actually find, and some of scenarios are far fetched.

One way of ensuring that our reconstructions are at least plausible is to ask whether the behavior or institution we are imagining has ever been known, anywhere in the world, from ethnographic or historic sources, and if so, how commonly and under what circumstances.

For example, in most ethnographically studied societies, men rather than women herd large animals. If follows that in the archaeological study of a pastoral society, the most plausible assumption, in the absence of contrary evidence, is that men rather than women were the herders.

Much use of ethnographic analogy is far more limited in scope. For instance, ethnographic analogy has been prominent in the interpretation of archaeological sites in the American southwest, which are frequently interpreted in light of what is known of Pueblo life in in the same region in historical times. For example, modern Puebloans have religious structures called kivas, typically round and typically at least partly subterranean. This is the reason why closely similar ancient structures are also called kivas and are considered to be religious structures, even though there is little strictly archaeological evidence bearing on their function. Since the occupants of these sites are generally considered ancestral to modern Puebloan groups, the use of this very limited analogy makes sense, subject always to the possibility of revision if new evidence becomes available. But nobody would extend the term kiva to seni-subterranean structures found in prehistoric China. It is just too much of a stretch.

Generalizations of this kind were facilitated by the development of the fascinating Human Relations Area Files, originally centered at Yale University, which has long provided the major resource for ethnographic generalizations used in archaeological reconstruction. Indeed, any archaeologist who does not use this resource is likely to be an accidental purveyor (or easy victim) of poppycock.

Critics. The use of ethnographic analogy has been criticized on the grounds that we never really know that the analogy is appropriate, and so it can never be more than probabilistic. This is quite true, and nobody claims anything else. It is illogical to pretend that this renders it useless, however, since it still inhibits the kinds of "if-I-were-a-horse" logic that can too easily inform many reconstructions not subjected to the challenge of finding ethnographic analogies.

(Some of the worst "if-I-were-a-horse" offenses come from people speculating on how the universe must "surely" have appeared to "primitive" people. To imagine that early populations were obviously terrified of eclipses or obviously confused dreams with reality may work in pulp novels and grade-B movies. But there is virtually no evidence that such views have actually been common among historically known real populations.)

A more reasonable objection to ethnographic analogy in archaeological interpretation is that a particular proposed analogy may not be appropriate. Does the existence of a custom in Medieval Japan justify our imagining it to have prevailed in ancient Peru? Or should we confine ourselves, say, to customs known to have existed in later Peruvian history which might at least be historically related? No general answer can be given, and each case is persuasive (or not) depending upon circumstances. Finding even a single case shows that humans can behave a certain way. But for the case to be convincing evidence in favor of such-and-such an archaeological interpretation is not necessarily obvious.

Ethnographic analogy has probably nowhere been more abused than in the writings of some "distinguished" popularizers in the field of myth, religion, and symbolism, such as Marcea Eliade (1907-1966), Joseph Campbell (1904-1987), or Herbert Spencer (1820-1903), whose elegantly written and popular work is seriously undermined by their willingness to rip exotic customs carelessly from their contexts in order to buttress arguments they apparently consider weak on their own.



Content Revised: 2018-10-11
Software Last Modified: 2020-06-13
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