The Culture-Historical Approach: Social Evolution and Archaeology

What is the Culture-Historical Approach and Why Was it a Bad Idea?

In the Railway Carriage by Pierre Carrier-Belleuse - Is this the pinnacle of civilization?
In the Railway Carriage by Pierre Carrier-Belleuse - Is this the pinnacle of civilization?. Corbis via Getty Images / Getty Images

The culture-historical method (sometimes called the cultural-historical method or culture-historical approach or theory) was a way of conducting anthropological and archaeological research that was prevalent among western scholars between about 1910 and 1960. The underlying premise of the culture-historical approach was that the main reason to do archaeology or anthropology at all was to build timelines of major occurrences and cultural changes in the past for groups that did not have written records.

The culture-historical method was developed out of the theories of historians and anthropologists, to some degree to help archaeologists organize and comprehend the vast amount of archaeological data that had been and was still being collected in the 19th and early 20th centuries by antiquarians. As an aside, that hasn't changed, in fact, with the availability of power computing and scientific advances such as archaeo-chemistry (DNA, stable isotopes, plant residues), the amount of archaeological data has mushroomed. Its hugeness and complexity today still drives the development of archaeological theory to grapple with it.

Among their writings redefining archaeology in the 1950s, American archaeologists Phillip Phillips and Gordon R. Willey (1953) provided a good metaphor for us to understand the faulty mindset of archaeology in the first half of the 20th century. They said that the culture-historical archaeologists were of the opinion that the past was rather like an enormous jigsaw puzzle, that there was a pre-existing but unknown universe which could be discerned if you collected enough pieces and fitted them together.

Unfortunately, the intervening decades have resoundingly shown us that the archaeological universe is in no way that tidy.

Kulturkreis and Social Evolution

The culture-historical approach is based on the Kulturkreis movement, an idea developed in Germany and Austria in the late 1800s. Kulturkreis is sometimes spelled Kulturkreise and transliterated as "culture circle", but means in English something along the lines of "cultural complex".

That school of thought was generated primarily by German historians and ethnographers Fritz Graebner and Bernhard Ankermann. In particular, Graebner had been a medieval historian as a student, and as an ethnographer, he thought it should be possible to build historical sequences like those available for medievalists for regions that did not have written sources.

To be able to build cultural histories of regions for people with little or no written records, scholars tapped into the notion of unilineal social evolution, based in part on the ideas of American anthropologists Lewis Henry Morgan and Edward Tyler, and German social philosopher Karl Marx. The idea (long ago debunked) was that cultures progressed along a series of more or less fixed steps: savagery, barbarism, and civilization. If you studied a particular region appropriately, the theory went, you could track how the people of that region had developed (or not) through those three stages, and thus classify ancient and modern societies by where they were in the process of becoming civilized.

Invention, Diffusion, Migration

Three primary processes were seen as the drivers of social evolution: invention, transforming a new idea into innovations; diffusion, the process of transmitting those inventions from culture to culture; and migration, the actual movement of people from one region to another.

Ideas (such as agriculture or metallurgy) might have been invented in one area and moved into adjacent areas through diffusion (perhaps along trade networks) or by migration.

At the end of the 19th century, there was a wild assertion of what is now considered "hyper-diffusion", that all of the innovative ideas of antiquity (farming, metallurgy, building monumental architecture) arose in Egypt and spread outward, a theory thoroughly debunked by the early 1900s. Kulturkreis never argued that all things came from Egypt, but the researchers did believe there was a limited number of centers responsible for the origin of ideas which drove the social evolutionary progress. That too has been proven false.

Boas and Childe

The archaeologists at the heart of the adoption of the culture historical approach in archaeology were Franz Boas and Vere Gordon Childe.

Boas argued that you could get at the culture history of a pre-literate society by using detailed comparisons of such things as artifact assemblages, settlement patterns, and art styles. Comparing those things would allow archaeologists to identify similarities and differences and to develop the cultural histories of major and minor regions of interest at the time.

Childe took the comparative method to its ultimate limits, modeling the process of the inventions of agriculture and metal-working from eastern Asia and their diffusion throughout the Near East and eventually Europe. His astoundingly broad-sweeping research led later scholars to go beyond the culture historical approaches, a step Childe did not live to see.

Archaeology and Nationalism: Why We Moved On

The culture-historical approach did produce a framework, a starting point on which future generations of archaeologists could build, and in many cases, deconstruct and rebuild. But, the culture-historical approach has many limitations. We now recognize that evolution of any kind is never linear, but rather bushy, with many different steps forward and backward, failures and successes that are part and parcel of all human society. And frankly, the height of "civilization" identified by researchers in the late 19th century is by today's standards shockingly moronic: civilization was that which is experienced by white, European, wealthy, educated males. But more painfully than that, the culture-historical approach feeds directly into nationalism and racism.

By developing linear regional histories, tying them to modern ethnic groups, and classifying the groups on the basis of how far along the linear social evolutionary scale they had reached, archaeological research fed the beast of Hitler's "master race" and justified the imperialism and forcible colonization by Europe of the rest of the world. Any society that hadn't reached the pinnacle of "civilization" was by definition savage or barbaric, a jaw-droppingly idiotic idea.

We know better now.