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ANTH 3650 Lecture Notes - Mals, Franz Boas, Ethnography

Course Code
ANTH 3650
Edward Hedican

of 6
Muckle Chapter 4 Summary:
Studying Population, Languages, and Cultures in North America as They Were at AD
Although Europeans had been in the north-east part of the continent before this
time, their impact on the populations, languages, and cultures of the indigenous
peoples had been largely insignificant beyond their local areas
Population at AD 1500
Certain kinds of subsistence strategies, settlement patterns, and social and political
institutions, for example, only make sense if populations are within a specific size
One of the things that many of the early researchers failed to consider was that
many populations suffered significant decline through diseases brought by Euro-
peans long before they encountered Europeans themselves, with these diseases
spreading through contact between infected and non-infected indigenous groups
One of the most well-known scholars focusing on North American indigenous popu-
lations is indigenous demographer Russell Thornton, who suggests that the pop-
ulation at about AD 1500 was approximately 7 million
The major approaches to estimating population rely on research from ecology, eth-
nohistory, ethnography, archaeology and biological anthropology
Most estimates use a combination of different approaches
Ecological research involves determining the carrying capacity of a locality, which
requires a reconstruction of the environment before estimating population
Central problem with this approach is that while it allows inferences about how
many people the environment could have supported, it does not necessarily
prove how many people actually lived there
Ethnohistoric research on the population at AD 1500 involves examining the written
documents detailing these populations, which were created mostly by Europeans;
these include letters, journals, and government reports
Often provide valuable information but can have limited use for the many areas of
the continent where population loss was significant
Most indigenous groups in North America reached their lowest population numbers
during the 1800’s and early 1900’s
Researchers calculate the rate of decline over the time the records started being
kept and then use the same rate to go back to AD 1500
Problem with this technique is that it is impossible to know whether the rate of de-
cline was steady
Ethnographic research often takes into account the oral traditions of indigenous
peoples in regard to past populations, but these are of limited value without phys-
ical evidence
Archaeologists use several different methods for reconstructing population size
Primary method used involves making inferences based on habitation dwellings, in-
cluding the total number of dwellings, size of rooms and number of rooms
Archaeologists generally use ethnographic analogy to support their inferences
Archaeologists also use the content and size of refuse deposits to make inferences
about populations size, but these are less reliable conclusions than those using
habitation dwellings
Indigenous Languages at AD 1500
Almost all anthropologists working firsthand with indigenous peoples have recog-
nized the value of learning the language of those they seek to study
Language is but one kind of communication system
Language may be broadly defined as a set of rules governing speech, which in ad-
dition to vocabulary include grammar and syntax
Other forms of communication include gestures, signals, rock art, and the creations
and use of other kinds of symbols
Despite the problems with estimating the number of languages, it is widely accept-
ed that there were about 400 distinct languages being spoken in North America
around AD 1500 and possibly more
Many are endangered; these languages have very few speakers remaining and
their documentation is incomplete
Linguists can compare differences in languages and then using assumptions about
the rate of language change, draw inferences about how many hundreds or thou-
sands of years the speakers of the same language have been isolated from each
One of the implications is that the substantial differences in languages may reflect
multiple migrations to and within North America during the prehistoric period
Studying Traditional Lifeways
Traditional lifeways is usually used to refer to a group’s cultural patterns as they ex-
isted at AD 1500 or otherwise immediately before the arrival of Europeans
Lifeways include all aspects of culture including those related to the economic, so-
cial, political and ideological spheres of culture
Many traditional lifeways have persisted through the historic period to contemporary
The principal method of anthropological research into tradition lifeways has been
recall ethnography
It was rarely made explicit, it was mostly recall ethnography that Franz Boas and
other anthropologists of the late 19th and early 20th centuries were practicing, re-
sulting in the many ethnographies written during that period
The basic technique consisted of ethnographers working closely with one of more
elders or other people in a group who were knowledgeable about that group’s life
in the past
Potential problems with recall ethnography include faulty memories of informants,
informant bias, and deliberate attempts to deceive anthropologists
The ethnographic present which is usually taken to mean describing cultural pat-
terns of the past in ways that suggest they are being practiced in the present
Concept of Culture Area
May be defined as a geographic area in which separate societies have similar cul-
Many separate societies, each with its own distinctive culture, exist in a single cul-
ture area
Those who criticize the use of the concept tend to focus on the problems occurring
with the oversimplification of complex phenomena and recognize that while cul-
ture area is useful for providing generalizations, it remains an arbitrary, artificial
construct that fails to adequately consider a number of factors, including the di-
versity of cultures within regions
The northern parts of the arctic have limited land resources but the southern por-
tion includes tundra, providing a suitable habitat for caribou and other game ani-
Natural resources include plentiful sea mammals off the coasts and islands
Caribou and other game animals in the southern inland areas