Culture: Definition and Function

“Culture refers to the learned, socially acquired traditions of thought and behavior found in human societies. It is a socially acquire lifestyle that includes patterned, repetitive ways of thinking, feeling, and acting.”  –Marvin Harris and Orna Johnson 2003

If you were to take a person and peel away their clothes, food, tools, language, ideas, beliefs, and worldview, what would you have left? Would that naked body and empty mind still be a person? Would they be able to survive?

Humans are the only animal that depends more on culture than biology. Our bodies are weak and unimpressive compared to most animals. We are ill-protected from the elements in our thin skin, our senses seem mediocre compared to most, and we seem to have few physical adaptations for self-defense or harvesting of food. Nevertheless, we have colonized more of the planet than any other species and have developed strategies for surviving in some of the harshest bioregions.

Since the emergence of anatomically modern humans, 200,000 years ago, culture has been our main way of adapting and evolving. Unlike biological evolution, cultural evolution allows for much faster change. In many cases, cultural evolution allows for adaptations and novelties that would not be possible with biological evolution. Human populations that migrated to the arctic did not have to evolve thick layers of blubber, dense fur, or other physiological adaptations to the cold. Such evolution would have taken thousands and thousands of generations if possible at all.

Cultural characteristics, whether they be material culture or worldview, can be analyzed from a sort of evolutionary perspective. The basic assumption is that if culture is our way of adapting to the environment then there should be a rationale to cultural characteristics. While this view can be criticized as overly simplistic and deterministic I feel that it often provides useful insight and is capable of explaining many things. This way of seeing culture can also be helpful to get away from the idea that some cultures are superior to others or that there is a progression of cultural stages from lesser to greater. All cultures came about as an adaptation to a particular environment over time. Cultures that have been in the same region for thousands of years must adapt to fit that environment. From this perspective, the aboriginal culture of a region is likely to be the best-suited culture for that region.

This essay outlines the basics of the anthropological definition of culture. Whenever I refer to culture it is this anthropological definition that I am referring to.

Why learn primitive skills?

Stretching goat hides - 1
Your ancestors did not hop into their GPS guided, climate-controlled SUV’s and drive (while texting) to the nearest Wal-Mart to take care of their survival needs. They did not have heat, light, and water at the flick of a switch next to the refrigerator full of food. Your ancestors depended directly on their skills and in-depth knowledge of their surroundings to survive.

“Why do primitive skills still matter today? Aren’t we beyond that?” Some people might ask, implying that modern technology negates the importance of such ancestral ways. There are several major reasons why these skills are worthy of study and appreciation. First, I would point out the fact that for 99.9% of our existence humans have lived in small, non-hierarchical, minimally-specialized bands of foragers. That means that individuals understood, owned, and practiced the skills necessary for their survival. That is the context in which our species evolved; that is who we are.

When you begin to learn some of the basic skills that your ancestors used to survive you will develop a new understanding and connection with what it means to be human. You will be humbled by the level of sophistication, strength, dexterity, coordination, and creativity required for “primitive technologies.” Failure, frustration, exhaustion, and blisters will teach you to appreciate ancestral skills and hopefully you will stop taking for granted the luxuries of more modern technologies.

While humbling, primitive skills offer endless rewards for those who take time to practice and learn. In addition to a newfound sense of connection and respect, you will develop an empowering sense of self-sufficiency and a new way of seeing the world. Knowing your survival priorities and how to take care of them from materials found around you is a powerful and extremely basic set of skills. In today’s society the average person knows more about video games and celebrity pregnancies then they know about what their body needs to survive! Ask them to list their survival needs in order of priority and they will fail. No, Wi-Fi and caramel macchiatos are not survival priorities!

Studying ancestral skills will make you feel more confident, more connected, and more self sufficient. It will also put your life in perspective and help you deal with many modern issues. When you understand the basics that have provided for our species for the majority of our existence it will be easy for you to detect bullshit in the modern world. You will have a better grasp on what matters and what does not matter; you will see which modern technologies are indispensably useful and which are worthless trash.

Some primitive skills, such as tracking and nature awareness, have the potential to entirely change how you see the world! You will notice things and recognize patterns that other people will be clueless about. Not only is this perceptual shift fun and intriguing it is also utilitarian. Noticing things and being aware of subtle clues comes in handy in the modern city world just as much as in the woods. It could give you new insights at work, help you find your keys, or save your life.

There are also ecological benefits to learning and practicing Ancestral Skills. Basic human survival skills are the most fundamental way in which we relate to our surroundings. When you spend more dirt time practicing you get more connected to your environment and better understand your relationship with it. This should lead to a sort of environmental ethic that is not naive, city-born, or blinded by the human-nature dichotomy. Such an ethic and understanding can inform wiser daily choices. In general, our pre-industrial ancestors had a much deeper and culturally codified understanding of sustainability, resilience, and ecological responsibility.

Other benefits of practicing Ancestral Skills can come to our social lives, and our mental and physical health. Getting outdoors and cooperatively working with other people on tasks that we evolved to do has a powerful way of inspiring and satisfying. Communication, teamwork, and conflict resolution are also survival skills that served us in the past and are necessary in the modern world. This social aspect combined with the nature of many of the Ancestral Skills provides great exercise for the brain and the body. Many of the skills require new perceptual training, sensory development, and cognitive functions that we don’t engage sufficiently in modern life. Working on the type of tasks that our bodies and brains evolved to do has a powerful effect.

“Now I see why these skills matter, and they sound fun and interesting, but how am I supposed to learn about them? They don’t teach those things at my school!”
Ironically, now is the best time in history to learn these skills. There is a resurgence in the US and other countries to teach and practice primitive skills and technologies from different cultures and time periods. Below are links to several events and organizations that are good places to start.

The Buckeye Gathering in Northern California
The acorn gathering in Southern California the “original” primitive skills gatherings The Society of Primitive Technology


Diversity and Adaptation: Pastoral Nomads

Since the origins of pastoralism, different pastoral groups have used different strategies to survive. The economies, subsistence systems, and cultural identities of pastoralists are adaptive strategies that exist because of there ability to provide a livelihood for the people who practice them. Taking a cultural ecological perspective we will consider the culture of pastoralists as a survival strategy. These strategies are adaptive, and have “evolved” in response to the ecology of the region where the pastoralists live. They are also responsive to the economic and political context in which the pastoralists find themselves. However, as ecologies, economies, and political climates change, pastoral strategies that were once successful may cease to be so.

Some pastoralists have developed survival strategies that combine multiple subsistence systems, multiple economic strategies, or multiple cultural identities. Many pastoral groups are diversified in more than one of these ways. Other pastoralists have evolved strategies that focus almost exclusively on one sector of production or one economic pursuit. These pastoral groups are the opposite of diversified, they have specialized economic or ecological niches.

Some pastoral societies have been much more successful than others at adapting to changing circumstances. This has been especially obvious in the last century with the combined effects of government policies, conflicts, introduced diseases, and naturally occurring droughts. These rapid changes and crises have hit some pastoral people much harder than others, causing large-scale sedentarization, loss of herds, loss of independence, and death.

Looking at this differential success we must ask: why have some pastoralists been better at adapting to rapid changes in the ecology, economy, and politics of the modern world? Have those pastoral groups with diversified survival strategies fared better in some way than more specialized pastoralists?

Examining those pastoral groups that have been most successful in coping with change and disaster we can see that indeed, diversification is a key factor in adapting to change and recovering from crises. This diversity can be manifested in any aspect of a group’s cultural survival strategy:  in their religious or ethnic identity, in the makeup of the herds, or in the environments exploited. Those pastoral people that are diversified in one or more of these ways have multiple options with which to approach change, and they have multiple sources of livelihood in case of disaster in one area.

Here, we can use a metaphor that is helpful in understanding the differences between a specialized pastoral group and a more diversified one. We can equate a pastoral cultural survival strategy with a toolbox, and specific cultural traits we will equate with different tools. A pastoral people, such as the Bedouin camel-specialists, only have a few tools in their relatively small tool box. In comparison, the Baluchi shepherds of Southern Iran, and the Ariaal herders of Kenya, have large toolboxes with many different tools; both of these pastoral groups have diversified survival strategies.

The exclusive, camel pastoralism of the Bedouin only evolved in parts of Arabia and North Africa. In The Nomadic Alternative, Barfield explains the specialization of this cultural survival strategy. “By making themselves at home in an environment where no other nomads could survive, they were able to exploit not only a unique ecological niche, but in time a unique political and economic position[…](1993:60)” All of the Bedouin’s tools revolved around the camel and included: raiding, military power, control of trade routes, and political negotiations or extortion of sedentary centers. These tools were specific to the ecological, political and economic particularities of the region at the time. Barfield notes the modern results of this specialization, “Bedouin camel raising has been on the decline for at least seventy years. This is a product both of the profound economic changes in the region and a changing balance of political power which has given sedentary states much more control over formerly autonomous tribes (1993:87).” Barfield attributes the decline of the Bedouin’s economy to its specialization.

Even a diversified cultural identity can give pastoralists an adaptive advantage. The Ariaal people of Marsabit district in Kenya are a perfect example of this phenomenon. The Ariaal are a bridge culture between a Nilotic culture, the Samburu, and a Cushitic culture, the Rendille. The Samburu are related culturally to the Maa speaking cattle keepers such as the Maasai. They herd their cattle in the wetter highlands and plains in Samburu district. The Rendille belong to the Cushitic speaking cultures such as the Gabra and Somali (Fratkin 2004).

In his ethnographic study, Ariaal Pastoralists of Kenya, Elliot Fratkin describes the origins of the Ariaal as a mixed culture. “During the last decade of the nineteenth century, poor Samburu migrated toward Rendille and formed mixed Samburu/Rendille communities of impoverished herders attempting to build up small stock, camels and cattle near the mountain bases. These groups were alternatively called Masagera (meaning roughly “those Rendille who follow the Maasai” in Samburu), Turia (Samburu for “mixture”), or Ariaal ( 2004:48).

The Ariaal have also combined the subsistence strategies that are at the cultural core of the Rendille and Samburu groups. They practice the camel and small stock herding of the Rendille and the cattle-dominated pastoralism of the Samburu. This mixed herding system of the Ariaal has several advantages. Because they rely on different animals with different grazing requirements and capabilities, the Ariaal can exploit different environmental zones.

With camels they can convert the irregular and widely dispersed leafy vegetation of more arid environments into camel milk, meat and transport potential. At the most, camels require water every four days; this, combined with their long distance walking makes it possible for them to be herded in areas with sparse vegetation. About 30% of Ariaal grazing territory is represented by arid brush from 700 to 100 meters. This area is used for camel grazing in the dry season. Another, even more marginal environment that  the Ariaal are able to exploit through their camels is the Kaisut desert lowlands. This area makes up 55% of the Ariaal grazing territories. The desert provides an opportunistic resource when seasonal rains produce extensive pastures in the short wet season; this pasture is grazed by Ariaal camels and small stock (Fratkin 2004).

In contrast to camels, cattle are the most productive at converting the grassy vegetation of wetter environments into milk and meat. The Ariaal are able to utilize the resources of the savanna between 1000 and 1400 meters altitude through their cows. At this altitude there is much more rainfall to provide for the needs of the cattle herds. These highland environments of Marsabit and the Ndoto Mountains are the most important grazing area for Ariaal cattle even though in terms of area, these highland pastures only comprise 10% of their total herding territory (Fratkin 2004).

It is obvious then, that the Ariaal exploit a diverse environment, comprising at least four distinct ecological zones. They are able to utilize these different ecologies because of their diversified herds. The different diets, mobility, and water requirements of their different animals allows them to convert the vegetative products of several ecosystems into human food and animal labor.

The Ariaal’s ability to use these environments is also a factor of their mixed identity and ability to relate to both the Samburu and the Rendille. “[…] the Ariaal have greater access to grazing lands than the Rendille, as they utilize their broad ties of intermarriage, descent, and friendship with both Samburu and Rendille clans and can herd in their areas (Fratkin 2004:3).” The Ariaal speak the languages of both the Samburu and the Rendille. They belong to Samburu clan-names and practice Samburu age-set rituals. They also practice the Rendille customs of annual blessings of camels and evening group prayers led by elders. These cultural traits allow the Ariaal to associate with and get help from both the Samburu and the Rendille. These traits are also valuable resources that the Ariaal rely on as much as they rely on the different environments that they utilize. In a new situation or new economic opportunity, the Ariaal have twice as many cultural options to choose from in approaching the circumstances.

Fratkin shows how the Ariaal have benefited from their mixed identity and their exploitation of a mixed environment. In many cases they have faired better than the neighboring groups of pastoralists with less diversification. When bovine pleuro-pneumonia swept through East African cattle herds in 1882, camels and small stock were unaffected. Those pastoralists, such as the Samburu, who were heavily dependent on cattle were hit the hardest. The same thing happened when the rinderpest epidemic decimated cattle in 1891 and 1898. However, when smallpox spread through the human population at the end of the nineteenth century, the Rendille, who were more isolated and had no resistance, lost many lives. The resulting lack of herders to care for the large camel herds was one of the historical events leading to the emergence of the Ariaal.
The appearance of the Ariaal as a mixed culture around the time of these disasters is extremely significant. The diversified survival strategy that defines the Ariaal evolved as a response to the problems faced by the Samburu and the Rendille. Therefore, it is not surprising when Fratkin notes that the Ariaal, with their big toolbox, have been more able to maintain a successful pastoral way of life then many of the neighboring pastoralists. By not putting all their eggs in one basket, the Ariaal are less susceptible to disaster.

Another group of pastoralists that have met changing circumstances with diversification are the Baluchi. In his studies of the Baluchi shepherds of Iran, Philp Salzman has come up with the idea of a “multi-resource economy” to describe their diversified strategies of production. Most Baluchi households pursue sheep and goat pastoralism, agriculture, date farming, raiding/trading, and even some hunting and gathering. This history of supplementing the pastoral economy has made it possible for the Baluchi to remain pastoralists or return to pastoralism despite losses in the herding sector. The Baluchi have also been better at incorporating the opportunities offered by global capitalism into their multi-resource economy than those Irani pastoralists with more specialized economies.

Salzman describes how the Baluchi have benefited from their diversification. “The plurality of skills and abilities needed for prosecuting the Sarhadi multi-resource economy has proved to be invaluable for the Baluchi in adapting to changing conditions. The audacity and mobility developed in raiding was adapted to migrant labor, smuggling, and trading. And the flexibility of residence group nomadism was used to accommodate irrigation cultivation as part of the multi-resource economy (Salzman:352).” In other words Salzman is saying that the Baluchi have a big toolbox.

The opposite of a diversified economy is a specialized one. A specialized economy is usually the most productive adaptation to a specialized ecological or economic niche. Rendille camel pastoralism is the most productive system in the driest parts of Marsabit district. The economy of the Basseri is also more specialized (Salzman 2000: 357). Intensive sheep production in the high quality pastures of the Zagros Mountains is so productive that Basseri culture has evolved to focus almost exclusively on that sector, putting little energy into other sectors such as grain cultivation. Specialization limits a culture’s options when confronting change and does not provide much of a backup plan in case of failure in the sector of specialization.

Salzman notes that unlike the diversified economies of the Balcuhi “[…] the economies of the Basseri (Barth 1961) and Qashqai (Beck 1991) were more specialized. Pastoral sheep production predominated, with only a limited amount of supplementary grain cultivation. Similarly specialized were nomadic pastoral peasants such as the Yoruk (Bates 1973), the Sarakatsani (Campbell 1964), the Komachi (Bradburd 1990, 1994), and the peasant pastoralists of India (Salzman 1986, 1988).” Notice  that Salzman has defined  many of these pastoral groups as “peasant pastoralists.” These specialists have lost much of their political and economic autonomy in recent times. Many households have become permanently removed from the pastoral economy and alienated from their respective pastoral cultures.

It is apparent that pastoralists whose survival strategies are already diversified are better at adapting to change; this does not mean however, that specialized pastoralists are doomed in the face of change. Those pastoralists whose small toolboxes and specialized tools have not been successful in adapting to change have not just rolled over and died; they have not just disappeared or sedentarized. In many instances they have discarded their old tools and diversified their toolboxes. While the Bedouin have seen the decline of their specialized camel pastoralism, they have responded by developing new sectors of their economy by becoming sheep herders, smugglers, traders, and mercenaries (Barfield 1993).

The collapse of particular cultural traits and economic sectors should not be seen as the failure of pastoral people to adapt; it is a vital part of the cultural survival strategy. The sloughing off of cultural mechanisms that are not beneficial is as important to adaptation as the development of new mechanisms, or the exploitation of new economic opportunities. As the Bedouin have exemplified, even specialized pastoralists, whose old techniques are no longer adaptive, are more than capable of adjusting their survival strategies to meet new circumstances. The key for policy makers and development organizations is to realize this, and make the economic and subsistence opportunities available for pastoralists, who will diversify, and who will adapt, if only given the chance.