Social Inference and Mortuary Practices: an Experiment in Numerical Classification

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World Archaeology

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The material residues created as the by products of human behaviour have been recognized for many years to contain the potential for yielding information concerning many of the social characteristics of prehistoric communities. Of the various classes of materials preserved in an archaeological context, perhaps no single category of data has greater utility for the archaeologist attempting to draw social inferences than the physical remains of mortuary procedures. The empirical justification for investigating the social correlates of prehistoric mortuary patterns lies in recent cross-cultural studies of ethnographically recorded mortuary systems which have demonstrated that both the structure and the organization of social systems, as well as the status positions occupied by the members of such systems, are symbolized at death through variations in the form of mortuary ritual (Saxe 1970; Binford 1971). Since much of mortuary ritual is preserved in the archaeological record, the analysis of burial patterns can potentially yield detailed information concerning the social organization of prehistoric groups.

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