Trees and Cultural Phylogenies

Michael J. O’Briena*Mark CollardbBriggs Buchananab &Matthew T. Boulangera 

Anthropology has always had as one of its goals the explanation of human cultural diversity across space and through time. Over the past several decades, there has been a growing appreciation among anthropologists and other social scientists that the phylogenetic approaches that biologists have developed to reconstruct the evolutionary relationships of species are useful tools for building and explaining patterns of human diversity. Phylogenetic methods offer a means of creating testable propositions of heritable continuity – how one thing is related to another in terms of descent. Such methods have now been applied to a wide range of cultural phenomena, including languages, projectile points, textiles, marital customs, and political organization. Here we discuss several cultural phylogenies and demonstrate how they were used to address long-standing anthropological issues. Even keeping in mind that phylogenetic trees are nothing more than hypotheses about evolutionary relationships, some researchers have argued that when it comes to cultural behaviors and their products, tree building is theoretically unwarranted. We examine the issues that critics raise and find that they in no way sound the death knell for cultural phylogenetic work.

[not directly related to Australian languages but relevant to recent work on cultural phylogenetics.]