It is argued that archaeology has made few contributions to the general field of anthropology with regard to explaining cultural similarities and differences. One major factor contributing to this lack is asserted to be the tendency to treat artifacts as equal and comparable traits which can be explained within a single model of culture change and modification. It is suggested that “material culture” can and does represent the structure of the total cultural system, and that explanations of differences and similarities between certain classes of material culture are inappropriate and inadequate as explanations for such observations within other classes of items. Similarly, change in the total cultural system must be viewed in an adaptive context both social and environmental, not whimsically viewed as the result of “influences,” “stimuli,” or even “migrations” between and among geographically defined units.
Three major functional sub-classes of material culture are discussed: technomic, socio-technic, and ideo-technic, as well as stylistic formal properties which cross-cut these categories. In general terms these recognized classes of materials are discussed with regard to the processes of change within each class.
Using the above distinctions in what is termed a systemic approach, the problem of the appearance and changing utilization of native copper in eastern North America is discussed. Hypotheses resulting from the application of the systemic approach are: (1) the initial appearance of native copper implements is in the context of the production of socio-technic items; (2) the increased production of socio-technic items in the late Archaic period is related to an increase in population following the shift to the exploitation of aquatic resources roughly coincident with the Nipissing high water stage of the ancestral Great Lakes; (3) this correlation is explicable in the increased selective pressures favoring material means of status communication once populations had increased to the point that personal recognition was no longer a workable basis for differential role behavior; (4) the general shift in later periods from formally “utilitarian” items to the manufacture of formally “nonutilitarian” items of copper is explicable in the postulated shift from purely egalitarian to increasingly nonegalitarian means of status attainment.