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Cultural Anthropology
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Anthropology is the study of humans, who are part of the natural world. However, unlike plants and most animals, humans can control their environment. Much of human behavior is determined by culture, rather than by nature. Thus, cultural anthropology is a subset of anthropology that examines any aspect of human behavior that is not determined by nature, but rather has been learned. This would include such things as material culture (what people make or use), religion, social organization, and foodways.

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To study cultural artifacts in a meaningful way, scholars try to delve deeper than the obvious use of an object. They research whether a particular design, weave, image, or pattern has additional symbolic or ceremonial significance. These design patterns, which may appear as a random assortment of lines to modern eyes, may hold very specific meanings for the cultures that created and used these objects.

Anthropologists at the Academy, including Senior Collections Manager Russell Hartman, seek this kind of insight. It helps that the Academy’s collection of over 16,000 artifacts focuses on western North America and the Pacific Rim. The more material scholars have to work with that describes a place and its people, the better their analysis and interpretation will be.

Cultural artifacts aren’t limited to objects only from the past. Everything people make and use—past, present, and future—is an artifact of that culture. A television set is a key artifact that will reveal a tremendous amount of information about modern Western culture to future anthropologists. Today, the Academy’s anthropologists study items that people made yesterday as well as objects made a hundred or even a thousand years ago.

One example is the Academy’s online exhibit of contemporary American Indian art, “Gifts Given by the Creator,” curated by Lindsay Jones. Jones, a graduate student from the University of Colorado. Jones, who was also a summer residency at the Academy in 2005, interviewed numerous Indian artists living in California.

Since 1983, the Academy has organized the Traditional Arts Program (TAP) to reach out to local ethnic communities of the Bay Area and document, interpret, and present aspects of our local cultural heritage. The program, which was temporarily suspended during construction of the Academy’s new facility in Golden Gate Park, will resume its programming in late 2008.

Clues to humanity’s past can be found in the most ordinary places. Cooking, for example, is a process and practices that unites every culture throughout the ages. Wherever people cook, they have left behind substantial clues about their lives. Middens—the giant compost piles of Native American tribes—contain shell, bone, stone, clay, and metals, all of which may have been formed into cooking tools.

The Rietz Collection of Food Technology at the Academy illustrates the scope and importance of food-related artifacts. This special collection holds nearly 1,400 culinary objects from places as far-flung as ancient Palestine, Greece, Medieval Persia, Europe, North American, Japan, China, Africa and Oceania. These objects document how human cultures have manipulated food using fire, cutting, fermenting and brewing; the adoption of increasingly complex materials such as stone, fibers, glass, and metal; and ultimately how sophisticated technologies of food storage, preparation, cooking, serving, and eating were introduced into the world’s evolving societies.

Meet a Cultural

Dr. Jack Dumbacher
Senior Collections Manager Russell Hartman studies Native American material cultures, with a special focus on the craft arts of the Navajo and other southwestern U.S. groups.

More about Cultural



Learn about the Traditional Arts Program (TAP)

View Gifts Given by the Creator

Rietz Collection of Food Technology

History of Eating Utensils

Inside the Victorian Kitchen

Native Alaskan Graphic Arts