A Conceptual Network-Based Approach to Inferring the Cultural Evolutionary History of the Baltic Psaltery


The application of conventional phylogenetic techniques for inferring cultural history is problematic due to differences in the nature of information transmission in biological and cultural realms. In culture, units of transmission are not just measurable attributes, but communicable concepts. Therefore, relatedness amongst cultural elements often resides at the conceptual level not captured by traditional phylogenetic methods. This paper takes a cognitively inspired approach to analyzing material cultural history. We show that combining data for physical attributes of cultural artifacts with conceptual information can uncover cultural influences among different ethnolinguistic groups, and reveal new patterns of cultural ancestry. Using the Baltic psaltery, a musical instrument with a well-documented ethnographic and archaeological record, we recovered a previously unacknowledged pattern of historical relationship that is more congruent with geographical distribution and temporal data than is obtained with other approaches.

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