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Mortuary Practices: Their Study and Their Potential

Published online by Cambridge University Press:  07 August 2018

Lewis R. Binford*
Department of Anthropology, University of New Mexico


The explanations of burial customs provided by previous anthropologists are examined at length together with the assumptions and data orientations that lay behind them. Both the assumptions and explanations are shown to be inadequate from the point of view of systems theory and from a detailed examination of the empirical record. A cross-cultural survey drawn from the Human Relations Area Files shows that associations do exist between measures of mortuary ritual variety and structural complexity. It was found that both the number and specific forms of the dimensions of the social persona commonly recognized in mortuary ritual vary significantly with the organizational complexity of the society as measured by different forms of subsistence practice. Moreover, the forms that differentiations in mortuary ritual take vary significantly with the dimensions of the social persona symbolized. Hence, much of contemporary archaeological conjecture and interpretation regarding processes of cultural change, cultural differentiation, and the presence of specific burial customs is inadequate as well as the ideational propositions and assumptions underlying these notions. Inferences about the presumed “relationships” compared directly from trait lists obtaining among archaeological manifestations are useless without knowledge of the organizational properties of the pertinent cultural systems.

Research Article
Copyright © Society for American Archaeology 1971

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