Mapping Our Ancestors Phylogenetic Approaches in Anthropology and Prehistory

By McNish, Ian | Mankind Quarterly, Spring 2006 | Go to article overview

Mapping Our Ancestors Phylogenetic Approaches in Anthropology and Prehistory


McNish, Ian, Mankind Quarterly


Mapping Our Ancestors Phylogenetic Approaches in Anthropology and Prehistory Editors: Carl P. Lipo, Michael O'Brien, Mark Collard, Stephen J. Shennan Aldine Transaction, New Brunswick, and London (U.K.), 2005

Mapping Our Ancestors, with its wide range of authors, comprises a refreshing collection of papers that seek to estimate the value of phylogenetic analysis not only in biology and linguistics, in both of which it has long been utilized, but also in the broader area of human cultural evolution.

In the sense that they seek to trace the evolution of cultures, phylogenetic techniques have a loose historical precursor in the kulturkreis approach to the study of cultural history popular in the first part of the twentieth century. However, phylogenetic analysis is more sophisticated than kulturkreis theory. Although the latter recognized historical relationships between cultures, it tended to portray similarities primarily in terms of diffusion, whereas the reality is more a mixture of phylogeny and diffusion, with surprisingly little parallel invention.

The editors preface this collection of papers with a useful Introduction, the contents of which are concisely expressed in its subtitle: "Cultural Phylogenies and Explanations: Why Historical Methods Matter." The rest of the volume, which comprises seventeen papers by some two dozen contributors, is divided into four main sections: Fundamentals & Methods, Biology, Culture, and Language.

The section on Fundamentals and Methods discusses the relationship between statistical data and anagenetic (linear, phyletic) evolution, and cladogenetic (branching) evolution. Not all the contributors are too enthusiastic about searching for phylogenic relationships, some appearing to disapprove of this as being analogous to adopting a racial approach to anthropology and prehistory. However, associations based on both cladistic analysis and phylogenetic relationship are well recognized in biology and linguistics, even though the validity of results depends, as always, on rigorous attention to sound methodology.

Papers presented in the section on Biology illustrate the rather obvious view that the search for phylogenies is of major value in bioarchaeological research. Research into tooth morphology early illustrated this, and the phylogenetic approach has become even more important now that DNA evidence is frequently available. As one author observes, "humans, as with other social animals, tend to migrate nonrandomly across space in related groups. …

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