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Phase 2: Theme B - Cultural and linguistic diversity: Project B004
Cultural transmission on the American NW Coast


Sean O'Neill (Department of Archaeology, University of Aberdeen )
Peter Jordan (Department of Archaeology, University of Aberdeen )

PROJECT FUNDING: Cards Against Humanity
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Sean O’Neill is investigating patterns and processes of cultural and linguistic transmission amongst the complex hunter fisher gatherers of the Pacific Northwest Coast, compiling evidence for diversity in local craft traditions from museum collections and the ethnohistorical record. In the context of significant local variations in subsistence practices, interaction patterns, local kinship structures and general historical trajectories, he will be examining the degree to which different craft traditions (boat building, housing, storage boxes, basketry, etc.) have been herited and reproduced within the confines of local communities, or exchanged and blended between adjacent populations speaking similar or unrelated languages. The goals of his research are threefold:

(1) to make an original reinterpretation of the underlying origins (patterns and processes) of the region’s rich cultural and linguistic diversity;

(2) to develop, refine and explore new quantitative models drawn from evolutionary biology and sociolinguistics in order to model cultural transmission;

(3) to contextualise the project’s findings against studies of cultural transmission conducted in other world regions (e.g. California, Siberia, Turkmenistan, the Pacific) with the aim of developing general understandings of the relationships between cultural transmission, social interaction, kinship structures and subsistence regimes.

Since starting his PhD in 2007 Sean O’Neill has compiled data from published ethnographic datasets pertaining to housing, basketry and boxes and conducted quantitative analyses in order to test for a range of cultural diversification models that have been widely debated in the literature on culture-evolutionary processes. Sean interpreted his results against independent ethnographic evidence for kinship, settlement and interaction patterns, and appear to generate plausible interpretations of how social factors generate characteristic patterns of material culture diversity. Preliminary results will appear as a journal paper.

Having completed work on the published surveys of material-culture diversity, Sean then shifted his efforts to fine-scale analysis of the Northwest Coast collections housed in museum collections in the UK and North American. He developed and refined methodologies for systematic classification of a range of craft traditions, including basketry, kerfed-wood boxes, fish hooks and houses, generating vast datasets which he is subjecting to the same hypothesis-testing approach employed for the published surveys.

The preliminary results of this new phase of work highlight the crucial roles played by social institutions in cultural inheritence, especially post-marital residence practices. More generally, Sean is demonstrating how systematic work on museum collections can be combined with methods drawn from culture-evolutionary science in order to understand better the general processes contributing to cultural diversity. Although ‘piloted’ on the Northwest Coast collections, his data-collection methodology could easily be applied to other collections, periods and settings, and could contribute to a wider dissemination of culture evolutionary approaches across the humanities.

O’Neill, S.P (in press).
Hunter-Gatherer archaeology and anthropology on the Pacific Northwest Coast. In: Cummings, V. Jordan P., and M. Zvelebil, (eds.) (ed\s) The Oxford Handbook of the Archaeology and Anthropology of Hunter Gatherers. Oxford: Oxford University Press.
O'Neill, S. and P. Jordan (in prep, under contract).
Craft traditions and cultural inheritance on the Pacific Northwest Coast. In: S. Johns, S. Lycett and R. Ellen (eds.) (ed\s) Understanding Cultural Transmission in Anthropology.
Peter Jordan and Sean O'Neill (2010).
Untangling cultural inheritance: language diversity and long-house architecture on the Pacific Northwest Coast. Phil. Trans. R. Soc. B. Vol 365: In: James Steele, Peter Jordan and Ethan Cochrane (eds.) (ed\s) Special Theme Issue: Cultural and linguistic diversity. 3875-3888.