I. Prehistoric Times > A. Introduction > 2. The Study of Prehistory > b. Culture and Context
  The Encyclopedia of World History.  2001.
b. Culture and Context
Anthropology, and archaeology as part of it, is unified by one common thread, the concept of culture. Everyone lives within a cultural context—middle-class Americans, Romans, and Kwakiutl Indians of northwestern North America. Each culture has its own recognizable cultural style, which shapes the behavior of its members, their political and judicial institutions, and their morals.  1
Human culture is unique because much of its content is transmitted from generation to generation by sophisticated communication systems. Formal education, religious beliefs, and daily social intercourse all transmit culture and allow societies to develop complex and continuing adaptations to aid their survival. Culture is a potential guide to human behavior created through generations of human experience. Human beings are the only animals that use culture as their primary means of adapting to the environment. While biological evolution has protected animals like the arctic fox from bitterly cold winters, only human beings make thick clothes in cold latitudes and construct light thatched shelters in the Tropics.  2
Culture is an adaptive system, an interface between ourselves, the environment, and other human societies. Throughout the long millennia of prehistory, human culture became more elaborate, for it is our only means of adaptation and we are always adjusting to environmental, technological, and societal change.  3
The great Victorian anthropologist Sir Edward Tylor described culture as “that complex whole which includes knowledge, belief, art, morals, law, custom, and any other capabilities and habits acquired by man as a member of society.” Prehistoric archaeologists prefer to define culture as the primary nonbiological means by which people adapt to their environment. They consider it as representing the cumulative intellectual resources of human societies, passed down by the spoken word and by example.  4
Human cultures are made up of many different parts, such as language, technology, religious beliefs, ways of obtaining food, and so on. These elements interact with one another to form complex and ever-changing cultural systems, systems that adjust to long- and short-term environmental change.  5
Archaeologists work with the tangible remains of ancient cultural systems, typically such durable artifacts as stone tools or clay pot fragments. Such finds are a patterned reflection of the culture that created them. Archaeologists spend much time studying the linkages between past cultures and their archaeological remains. They do so within precise contexts of time and space.  6
The Encyclopedia of World History, Sixth edition. Peter N. Stearns, general editor. Copyright © 2001 by Houghton Mifflin Company. Maps by Mary Reilly, copyright 2001 by Houghton Mifflin Company. Published by Houghton Mifflin Company. All rights reserved.