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Culture Area

Culture Area


Culture areas are geographical territories in which characteristic culture patterns are recognizable through repeated associations of specific traits and, usually, through one or more modes of subsistence that are related to the particular environment. As one formulation within the general school of historical particularism that has developed in anthropology in the United States, the concept of culture area reflects the theoretical position that each culture, on whatever level it may be analyzed, must be examined with regard to its own history and also with regard to the general principles of independent invention, culture borrowing, and cultural integration. Although many factors at the base of any recognizable culture area are ecological in nature, the culture-area concept is one that conforms to the doctrine of limited possibilities rather than to a simple geographic determinism.

Viewed in this light and assessed according to the size and character of the geographic units and the degree of complexity of cultural similarities within, and differences beween, the units, the culture-area concept takes shape as a classificatory device of marked utility in describing the cultural regions of the world. Since “culture” and “area” are both generalized terms, their use in combination gives no real clue as to precise meaning, which must be specified. When contrasting one culture area with another, the level of abstraction must be the same.

In its original formulation the culture-area concept applied primarily to the ethnographic present and occupied an important niche in the natural-history phase of anthropology that was concerned with the orderly description of the cultures of the world. The geographic distribution of culture traits within such areas served as indirect evidence for the reconstruction of cultural histories. The formulations for each of the major continents were used for convenience in the ordering of ethnographic descriptions but were otherwise ignored or discarded as being too limited in time, too static in concept, and too generally conceived to be of much use to the developing trends of concern with inter-personal and social dynamics. The steady expansion of archeological research, which furnishes direct evidence for the construction of the historical chronicle in local terms, reduced the role of indirect evidence furnished by contemporary data in the reconstruction of culture history. Although the culture-area concept went into temporary eclipse as a tool for theoretical research, it was still retained for the arrangement of museum collections, for which it was originally devised, and for the presentation of descriptive data on the classroom level (e.g., Herskovits 1955; Keesing 1958). It should, however, be noted that efforts to sketch a culture-area map of Asia persisted into the 1950s, as a move to complete the world picture. The organization of data in culture-area terms persists in standard anthropological works of the present day (e.g., Gibbs 1965; Murdock 1959). The utility of the concept with regard to cultural dynamics and other current interests appears in Service’s discussion of differences in acculturation in colonial Latin America that were conditioned by the aboriginal culture-area patterns (1955) and in such studies as those of Hallowell (1946) and Devereux (1951), which deal with personality types characteristic of specific culture areas and their survival through time and acculturation.

The culture-area concept can add insight to the processes of culture history by filling in the archeo-logical record (see, for example, Steward 1955, chapter 11); in the mapping of culture areas or of trait or trait-complex distributions for successive periods, the same general areas or boundaries show tendencies to survive (Bennett 1948; Kroeber 1944; Smith 1952) or recur (Ehrich 1956; 1961). Culture-area mapping must initially be done with regard to single periods, but it is the repeated geo-graphical and distributional patterns that give some intimation of physiographic and ecological influences, and the dynamic processes of cultural formation and adjustment must in each case be separately analyzed and evaluated.

Wissler is generally considered to have formulated the culture-area approach during the course of arranging the ethnological exhibits of the North American Indians for the American Museum of Natural History; his first major work on the subject appeared in 1917. Kroeber (1939, pp. 4–8), although describing Wissler’s approach as of gradual, empirical, almost unconscious growth, gives him full credit for the codification and development of then current usages, the recognition of the stabilizing effects of environment on cultural patterns, and the foundation of the idea of temporal culture climax by his enunciation of spatial culture centers.

Driver (1962), however, points out that as early as 1904, Kroeber himself dealt with areal subdivisions of California, and that Wissler first mentioned the culture area in 1906. Also in 1904 Livingston Farrand suggested a seven-part classification of North American Indians, including considerations of both geography and culture, and then discussed them at some length (1904, pp. 101–194). Holmes (1903), writing on museum exhibits, mapped the North American Indians according to 19 geo-ethnic groups, which correspond well to the groupings in the later work of both Wissler and Kroeber. Furthermore, Kroeber (1939, p. 7, note 6) cites an article by O. T. Mason, published in 1896, that recognizes 18 culture areas or environments in the Western Hemisphere. Museum exhibits of ethnographic materials had been geo-graphically organized for some years (Wallace 1887), and this approach to ethnographical data was clearly derived from zoogeography.

It is significant that the initial growth and formulation of the culturearea concept took place with regard to the North American Indians, for whom the documented ethnographic evidence was reasonably full and for whom the environmental settings were contrasting and limiting.

Methodological considerations. The initial objective of the culture-area concept as a classifica-tory device is the organization of the vast number of individual cultures into a coherent system of units that can be analyzed and compared. Such an ordering of data is a preliminary step in the study of cultural dynamics and culture history, and it is static only insofar as one wishes to treat its descriptive categories as ends in themselves.

Although there is a general tone or pattern to a culture area, the distributions of its elements are not necessarily uniform, and Kroeber’s concept of climax (1939, pp. 4, 5, 222 ff.) refers to peaks of intensity. The boundaries between areas are not necessarily distinct, for recognizable cultures within a given area may contrast with those of neighboring ones, and if the boundaries are not sharply delineated, zones of composite culture or blended traits may make the transition from one to another a matter of gradation. Within a single area, however, as in the southwestern United States and in the Congo region of Africa, quite different ways of life may coexist as characteristic patterns.

In a hierarchical classification the criteria selected as determinants become more numerous and more detailed as the levels of categories become more specific. In this sense, Kroeber’s 84 divisions in “Cultural and Natural Areas of Native North America” (1939) are a more detailed elaboration of Wissler’s original major culture areas; and Murdock’s article on South American culture areas (1951), using nine major types of positive information, does not merely attempt to revise Steward’s formulation (1946–1959) but also actually increases the number of recognizable subareas. It seems at least in part to be a matter of categorical level that leads to divergence in the assessment of the theoretical significance of the concept. Thus, Naroll, in discussing the major culture areas of Asia, writes, in support of Wissler’s theoretical interpretations, that “while the environment does not of itself either produce or determine cultural patterns, it does have a powerful influence on them; it not merely states the economic problems which people must solve, but in each ecological region it tends to standardize some particular pattern which the people have chosen as a solution” (1950, p. 186). On the other hand, Murdock, while minimizing its theoretical importance, describes it as “nearly as useful in ordering the immense range of ethnographic variation as is the Linnaean system in the ordering of biological forms” (1951, p. 415).

Operationally, it makes little difference whether one’s original approach is through the somewhat intuitive recognition of similarities and differences in integrated patterns viewed as cultural wholes, whether it is based on detailed distribution studies of traits and trait complexes, or whether it stems from a delineation of geographic and ecological factors. All three procedures must be brought into play, and distributional studies, such as cross-cultural surveys and the Human Relations Area Files documentation, can serve as controls.

Kroeber’s recognition of areal distinctions preceded the extensive work on trait-element distributions in California (Driver 1962). On the other hand, the Midwestern Taxonomic System of archeo-logical classification (McKern 1939), although not originally concerned with spatial considerations, did show the areal distributions of “aspects” in a methodology that seems clearly derived from the California studies. Although distributions of specific North American Indian traits, as mapped in Driver and Massey (1957), did not result in an automatic delineation of culture-area boundaries, correlations of traits did fall consistently into areal clusters (Driver 1962, p. 23). On the other hand, Naroll (1950, p. 186) paid as much attention to ecological frontiers as to cultural. An additional factor seems to be that geographical entities such as river systems or plains areas may focus human contacts inward, resulting, on the one hand, in a form of isolating mechanism that establishes consistency in culture patterning, while at the same time tending to delimit independent trait and trait-complex dif-fusion (Ehrich 1956). Also to be noted are continued attempts to produce temporally flat geographic maps of culture patterns at given points in time.

Time depth . Although much of the work on culture-area analysis and delineation has been carried out with relation to the ethnographic present or to particular periods, some attempts have been made to consider the concept with relation to time depth. These efforts have two major orientations.

(1) The first of these is the persistence of the same culture patterns or configurations in given areas over long periods. One aspect of continuity analysis is implicit in Kroeber’s Configurations of Culture Growth (1944), in which he uses configurations to apply to long-continuing traditions in the civilizations of the Old World, particularly with regard to their geographical locations. The changing interests and bursts of energy that occur at various times, he isolates as temporal climaxes within the main stream of the localized configuration.

Another aspect is the persistence of established traditions or substrata that may have conditioning effects upon the direction of acculturation. Writing on the northwest coast of North America and on Latin America, respectively, Smith (1952) and Service (1955) bring into focus the influences of traditions typical of particular areas upon the local patterns of culture change.

Into a third category of continuities falls Bennett’s development of the “co-tradition” as formulated for Peru, as applied experimentally to the archeology of the southwestern United States, and as suggested for Mesoamerica (1948). The Bronze Age culture of mainland Greece, Crete, and the Cyclades would also seem to fall within the “co-tradition” pattern. The concept is one of somewhat similar and related, although recognizably distinct, cultures that persist for reasonably long periods within an area. The term “tradition” connotes persistence, and the significance is that of cultural linkage, either of enduring parallels descending from common or related origins and remaining in contact or of strong acculturation or convergence.

(2) A second orientation of the culture-area concept with regard to time bears no relation to the continuity of cultural tradition. It is becoming evi-dent, especially in archeological contexts, that the mapping of culture areas at different periods reveals regions and boundaries that persist or reap-pear, even when peoples with distinctly different culture patterns overrun the territory. Sooner or later the same geographic lines tend to re-establish themselves. A striking example of this thesis is the close correspondence between the regionalization of contemporary Anglo-American civilization in the United States and the culture areas of the North American Indians. Here we have the replacement of a population by new peoples with a new technology, but the geographical and ecological factors have reasserted themselves. This would seem to indicate a form of geographic uniformitarianism that, despite cultural discontinuities, brings about the persistence or the re-emergence of areas and boundaries at various times, from the period of earliest settlement onward. Similar processes have marked the culture history of the Mediterranean and the Middle East and of Europe (Ehrich 1956; 1961).

The culture-area concept is a means of organizing a vast amount of variegated ethnographic data into comprehensible units within a classificatory system. Like all such systems, it depends upon an increasing number of criteria or determinants in the isolation of units in a descending order of magnitude. Major considerations in recognizing these areas and subareas are ecological zones, patterns of cultural integration, and correlations of independently diffused traits. Although initial recognition may depend in part upon familiarity and intuition, distribution studies serve as effective controls. Important determining processes seem to be cultural adjustments to the environment and the inward focusing of contacts within an area, caused by regional topographic patterns which produce cultural isolates. These factors persist through time and find expression either in the continuities of cultural traditions or in the reappearance of the same areas and boundaries, even when the local culture history is discontinuous.

The concept is far from static and orders cultural information in a form that makes it useful for comparative analyses and an understanding of cultural dynamics, processes, and cultural history.

Robert W. Ehrich and

Gerald M. Henderson

[See alsoAfrican society; Caribbean society; Ecology; Ethnology; Indians, North American; MiddleAmerican society; Oceanian society.]


Armillas, Pedro 1948 A Sequence of Cultural Development in Meso-America. Pages 105–111 in Wendell C. Bennett (editor), A Reappraisal of Peruvian Archaeology. Society for American Archaeology, Memoir No. 4. Menasha, Wise.: The Society for American Archaeology and the Institute of Andean Research. → The historical chronicle as generalized from archeo-logical sources within the framework of a single major culture area. See also Kirchhoff 1943 and Steward 1955.

Bacon, Elizabeth 1946 A Preliminary Attempt to Determine the Culture Areas of Asia. Southwestern Journal of Anthropology 2:117–132.

Bennett, Wendell C. 1948 The Peruvian Co-tradition. Pages 1–7 in Wendell C. Bennett (editor), A Reappraisal of Peruvian Archaeology. Society for American Archaeology, Memoir No. 4. Menasha, Wise.: The Society for American Archaeology and the Institute of Andean Research. → The initial statement on “co-tradition” as part of a culture-area analysis.

Bennett, Wendell C.; and Bird, Junius B. (1949) 1964 Andean Culture History. 2d ed. Garden City, N.Y.: Doubleday. → See especially pages 1–65. Sketches the main culture areas of South America before discussing the archeology of the Andean region.

Coon, Carleton S. (1951) 1961 Caravan: The Story of the Middle East. Rev. ed. New York: Holt. → Treats north Africa and the Middle East as a major culture area.

Devereux, George 1951 Reality and Dream: Psychotherapy of a Plains Indian. New York: International Universities Press. → Personality types as characteristic of a particular culture area.

Driver, Harold E. 1961 Indians of North America. Univ. of Chicago Press. → Culture traits and subjects treated mainly in a culture-area framework. A fuller and reoriented discussion of much of the material in Driver and Massey 1957.

Driver, Harold E. 1962 The Contribution of A. L. Kroeber to Culture Area Theory and Practice. Indiana University Publications in Anthropology and Linguistics, No. 18. Baltimore, Md.: Waverly Press. → Good discussion and bibliography.

Driver, Harold E.; and Massey, William C. 1957 Comparative Studies of North American Indians. American Philosophical Society, Transactions 47: 165–456. → Outlines subsistence and culture areas. Emphasizes trait distributions, which are given in a series of maps. Culture areas are adumbrated by concentrations of overlapping rather than shown by coterminous boundaries.

Ehrich, Robert W. 1956 Culture Area and Culture History in the Mediterranean and the Middle East. Pages 1–21 in Saul S. Weinberg (editor), The Aegean and the Near East: Studies Presented to Hetty Goldman on the Occasion of Her Seventy-fifth Birthday. Locust Valley, N.Y.: Augustin. → The culture area as a classificatory system; its recurrence through time, with applications to the major areas mentioned.

Ehrich, Robert W. 1961 On the Persistences and Recurrences of Culture Areas and Culture Boundaries During the Course of European Pre-history, Protohistory, and History. Pages 253–257 in International Congress of Prehistoric and Protohistoric Sciences, Fifth, Hamburg, 1958, Bericht iiber den V. Internationalen Kongress fur Vor und Fruhgeschichte, Hamburg vom 24, bis 30 August 1958. Berlin: Mann. → A restatement of culture-area classification and recurrence and a suggested application to temperate Europe.

Europe and Its Cultures. 1963 Anthropological Quarterly 36, no. 3 (Special Issue). → Symposium papers by Conrad M. Arensberg, Michael M. Kenny, Donald S. Pitkin, Robert K. Burns, Jr., and Joel M. Halpern.

Farrand, Livingston (1904) 1964 Basis of American History: 1500–1900. New York: Ungar. → An early discussion of North American Indian culture areas.

Gibbs, James L. Jr. (editor) 1965 Peoples of Africa. New York: Holt. → Organized in accordance with Herskovits’ culture areas. See especially maps on end papers and pages viii-ix.

Goldenweiser, Alexander A. (1937) 1942 Anthropology: An Introduction to Primitive Culture. New York: Appleton. → Contains a discussion of culture areas, particularly with relation to trait diffusion and local integration.

Hallowell, A. I. 1946 Some Psychological Characteristics of the Northeastern Indians. Pages 195–225 in Frederick Johnson (editor), Man in Northeastern North America. Papers of the Robert S. Peabody Foundation for Archaeology, Vol. 3. Andover, Mass.: Phillips Academy; The Foundation. → Psychological factors as distinctive of a particular culture area and as persistent through time.

Herskovits, Melville J. 1930 The Culture Areas of Africa. Africa 3:59–77.

Herskovits, Melville J. 1955 Cultural Anthropology. New York: Knopf. → An abridged revision of Man and His Works, 1948. See pages 396–410 for a good text-book treatment and review of culture areas.

Herskovits, Melville J. 1962 The Human Factor in Changing Africa. New York: Knopf. → See especially pages 56–112 and the map on page 57 for culture-area orientation.

Holmes, William H. 1903 Classification and Arrangement of the Exhibits of an Anthropological Museum. Pages 253–278 in Smithsonian Institution, Annual Report of the Board of Regents of the Smithsonian Institution … for the Year Ending June 30, 1901. Washington: Government Printing Office. → See especially pages 268–269 for a list of the geo-ethnic groups in North America and a map.

Keesing, Felix M. 1958 Cultural Anthropology: The Science of Custom. New York: Holt. → See pages 107–137 for a good textbook treatment and review of culture areas.

Kirchhoff, Paul (1943) 1952 Mesoamerica: Its Geographic Limits, Ethnic Composition and Cultural Characteristics. Pages 17–30 in Sol Tax (editor), Heritage of Conquest: The Ethnology of Middle America. Glencoe, III.: Free Press. → First published in Acta americana.

Kroeber, Alfred L. (1939)1963 Cultural and Natural Areas of Native North America. Berkeley and Los Angeles: Univ. of California Press. → First published in Volume 38 of the University of California Publications in American Archaeology and Ethnology. → A classic work.

Kroeber, Alfred L. 1944 Configurations of Culture Growth. Berkeley and Los Angeles: Univ. of California Press.

Kroeber, Alfred L. 1947 Culture Groupings in Asia. Southwestern Journal of Anthropology 3:322–330.

Linton, Ralph 1928 Culture Areas of Madagascar. American Anthropologist New Series 30:363–390.

Linton, Ralph; and Wingert, Paul S. 1946 Arts of the South Seas. New York: The Museum of Modern Art. → See especially the maps on the end papers and on pages 7–9.

McKern, W. C. 1939 The Midwestern Taxonomic Method as an Aid to Archaeological Culture Study. American Antiquity 4:301–313.

Murdock, George P. 1951 South American Culture Areas. Southwestern Journal of Anthropology 7:415–436.

Murdock, George P. 1959 Africa: Its Peoples and Their Culture History. New York: McGraw-Hill. → A culture-area treatment is implied but is not specific.

Naroll, Raoul S. 1950 A Draft Map of the Culture Areas of Asia. Southwestern Journal of Anthropology 6:183–187.

Patai, Raphael 1951 Nomadism: Middle Eastern and Central Asian. Southwestern Journal of Anthropology 7:401–414.

Patai, Raphael 1952 The Middle East as a Culture Area. Middle East Journal 6:1–21.

Service, Elman R. 1955 Indian-European Relations in Colonial Latin America. American Anthropologist New Series 57:411–425. → The effect of differences in cultural patterns characteristic of different culture areas upon the course of acculturation.

Smith, Marian W. 1952 Culture Area and Culture Depth: With Data From the Northwest Coast. Pages 80–96 in International Congress of Americanists, 29th, New York, 1949, Selected Papers. Edited by Sol Tax. Volume 3: Indian Tribes of Aboriginal America. Univ. of Chicago Press. → Emphasizes historical time depth in the formation, survival, and continuity of culture areas under acculturation.

Steward, Julian H. (editor) (1946–1959) 1963 Handbook of South American Indians. 7 vols. U.S. Bureau of American Ethnology, Bulletin No. 143. New York: Cooper Square. → See especially Volume 1, page 12, and Volume 5, pages 669–772, for South American culture areas.

Steward, Julian H. 1955 Theory of Culture Change: The Methodology of Multilinear Evolution. Urbana: Univ. of Illinois Press. → Deals with regularities in cultural development within similar natural environments, thus implicitly bringing into focus cultural depth and continuities which characterize geographic regions as culture areas. An aspect of multilinear evolution. Also contrasts culture-area with culture-type studies.

Tax, Sol (editor) 1952 Heritage of Conquest: The Ethnology of Middle America. Glencoe, III.: Free Press. → Contains Kirchhoff 1943. The concept of Meso-america is basic throughout the book. See especially the map on page 304.

Wallace, Alfred R. (1887)1900 American Museums. Volume 2, pages 16–58 in Studies Scientific and Social. London and New York: Macmillan. H> First published in the Fortnightly Review. Indicates the organization of museum collections, e.g., the Peabody Museum of Harvard University, by geographical area prior to the formulation of the culture-area concept.

Wissler, Clark (1917)1957 The American Indian: An Introduction to the Anthropology of the New World. 3d ed. Gloucester, Mass.: Smith. → A pioneer and classic work on the formulation and application of the culture-area concept.

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culture area

culture area See CULTURE.

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