No Vestige of a Beginning—No Prospect of an End: Allen McCartney’s Contributions on the Problem of Cultural Frontiers and Ethnic Boundaries

William B. Workman


I examine identification of prehistoric ethnic boundaries with a focus on the Eskimo/Aleut interface on the Alaska Peninsula and the contributions of Allen McCartney on this topic. McCartney has long been critical of simplistic ethnic identifications in prehistory. In his later writings he emphasizes continuity rather than boundaries in trait distributions and he appears to despair of relating material culture, physical type, and language to one another on the basis of available evidence. Other authors share or even elaborate upon this pessimism, which I believe goes too far. While population biology, language, and culture cannot be correlated in a simplistic way, it appears unlikely that they are totally independent variables. I find merit in Levi-Strauss’s view that all three domains can be viewed as communication systems. Seen in this light, thresholds beyond which the information transferred drops off noticeably must exist among human groups.

  • William B. Workman, Department of Anthropology, University of Alaska Anchorage, 3211 Providence Drive, Anchorage Alaska 99508

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