the importance of culture

To understand the similarities and differences among cultures.
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Corncobs and a peach pit from Old Mobile
tell us about the colonists' diet.
Students will be able to:
  • explain how they meet their basic needs of life
  • recognize how different cultures meet needs differently
  • identify how archaeologists study past cultures
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The Hand and Eye Motif (Image from Certain Aboriginal Remains of the Black Warrior River by Clarence B. Moore, Journal of the Academy of Natural Sciences of Philadelphia 13:125-244, 1905.)

Key Words:

Anthropology - the scientific study of humans. Archaeology is a branch of anthropology that studies past cultures through the analysis of material remains or artifacts.

Culture - shared behaviors, ideas, and artifacts. A way of life passed from one generation to another.

Cultural relativism - studying other cultures without imposing our values on them.

Ethnocentrism - an attitude or perception that one's own culture and values are the only right and proper way, and that other cultures are wrong or deficient.

Comparing Cultures
Chalkboard or overhead projector
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Prehistoric Native Americans cracked and ground nuts and acorns on stones like this one. Notice the worn place in the center, caused by many seasons of use.
Procedure: Make a four-column chart with the following headings at the top: Basic Needs, Us, and French Colonists of Old Mobile. The forth column heading can be filled in with any past culture that the students wish to discuss. As a class, fill in the chart and compare and contrast how basic needs are or were met in the different cultures, such as Native Americans or ancient Egyptians. You may wish to discuss the types of artifacts that each culture might leave behind and how that relates to their basic needs.


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Different cultures have different manners of dress.

  • What do you need to survive? All human beings, regardless of their culture, have the following basic needs that must be met in order to survive: food and water; clothing and shelter; reproduction of culture through marriage, kinship, education. Humans also have a need to interpret and explain the world around them through religion, philosophy, and science.
  • The way you satisfy your needs can be a reflection of your culture. Every culture fulfills its needs in different ways, resulting in the great cultural diversity that we see in the world.
  • Should we emphasize similarities and differences when studying other cultures? Both similarities and differences can enrich our knowledge of other cultures. However, there is a tendency to point out differences between our own culture and the culture of others. A focus on differences often leads us to view other cultures as "simple" or "less" than our own. This attitude or perception of cultural superiority is called ethnocentrism.
  • How can we study cultures without being ethnocentric? Ethnocentrism can be avoided by studying other cultures without making judgements about them. This approach is called cultural relativism. One way to achieve cultural relativism is to study cultures scientifically and without cultural biases.
  • Why is it important that archaeologists use scientific methods to study past cultures? Archaeologists cannot see or talk to the people they are studying, so they must be careful when making judgements about past cultures. By scientifically studying the foods, raw materials, and other artifacts people used to meet their basic needs, archaeologists can make general inferences about that culture.

Copyright © 2013 by The University of South Alabama
Last Updated:
Thursday, July 23, 2015 8:58 AM