Investigating the Evolution of Cultural Diversity

The Evolution of Cultural Diversity Initiative (ECDI) unites researchers from multiple disciplines and institutions to investigate how Oceania came to be the most culturally and linguistically diverse region on the globe. ECDI Research Fellow Ben Shaw reflects on this effort and describes how the field school he has proposed will further the mission of the Initiative.

Oceania is home to 1500 languages, comprising 20 percent of the world’s linguistic diversity in only 0.5 percent of the global population. The Evolution of Cultural Diversity Initiative seeks to understand what factors—from the environment to how people moved across and inhabited space—contributed to this variety throughout history and into the present. To answer these questions, ECDI takes an intra-institutional and trans-disciplinary approach, uniting academics from archaeology, linguistics, psychology and more.

A number of projects sit under the ECDI umbrella, including the School’s flagship seminar series, Synapse. In 2020, Synapse invited scholars from Australia, France, the United Kingdom, the United States and beyond to discuss topics including knowledge generation through experimental archaeology; evolution and variation in kinship terminologies; and reconstructing deep history through ancient DNA analysis.

The Initiative works in collaboration with indigenous communities across Oceania and aims to share insights and outcomes generated with the next generation of students and researchers.

While global in its scope and implications for the understanding of human development, society and culture, the Initiative currently focuses on four Oceanic regions historically home to some of the most diverse environments and populations in the world: Northern Australia, Eastern Indonesia, New Guinea and Island Melanesia.

Archaeologist and ECDI Research Fellow Ben Shaw, who joined the Initiative in 2020, plans to establish a Papua New Guinea field school to deliver on the knowledge-sharing and community-engagement ideals that are close to both his heart and that of the project.

The Initiative in action

The PNG field school will take a small group of students from diverse disciplines to a field site to collaborate with the local community and each other over the course of three weeks.

“Students will have the opportunity to work together and individually on research projects that will contribute to answering overarching questions about the evolution of cultural diversity,” says Ben. He hopes that the experience will encourage students to appreciate the richness of sharing insights across disciplinary boundaries.

As an archaeologist, Ben sees his contribution to the Initiative as an exercise in investigating the deep history of human society through material culture. Yet he remarks that archaeologists must work in tandem with other disciplines to make archaeological data truly ‘talk’.

“Archaeology is unique in some respects because we work to establish time depth for human behaviour through the material culture left behind in the ground, but we rely on other disciplines to help translate these records into a human story,” he explains.

Transdisciplinarity is perhaps the only way ECDI can pin down the story it’s trying to tell.

“Human beings are just so complex, and different disciplines offer unique perspectives on the human past. Archaeologists often team up with linguists, anthropologists, ecologists and historians to tell a more nuanced narrative of the past.”

“The field school teaches interdisciplinary approaches by showing students firsthand how archaeological data is collected and how we get from a fragmented collection of ‘voiceless’ broken pot sherds, for example, to understanding human behaviour in the deep past.”

The field school will also emphasise the importance of working and consulting with the communities ECDI works in.

“Consultation begins long before we arrive in the field and continues long after we leave,” says Ben. “Transparency and honesty are so necessary when working with any community, no matter where in the world that may be.”

“Students will be involved in collaborative work and consultation with communities in Papua New Guinea where we are working. As we are hosted by the community and stay in the village for the duration of the field school, there are many opportunities to discuss what archaeological research means to the community and to learn from each other.”

“[They] will also learn skills in survey, community engagement, excavation and to critically assess new data as we find it. Our aim is to provide students with collaborative, interdisciplinary, analytical and practical skillsets with a high degree of cultural literacy that will give them an edge in whatever profession they pursue in the future.”

Telling a human story

Transdisciplinarity and community collaboration are key pillars of Ben’s academic research. He derives deep enjoyment from solving novel problems by working closely with his colleagues, asking how their disciplines would approach the challenge. He also notes that community consultation “is essential to everything we do as archaeologists.”

Building on this vein of acknowledging that his academic efforts would be impossible without the communities he works with, Ben has begun communicating his research findings in new, community-oriented ways.

“I have taken to making videos of the fieldwork and the research process which present a much more human side to archaeology,” he explains. “The videos are not aimed at a scientific audience but the local communities where we work to show where we had been and what we did.”

This imperative to turn academic findings into an accessible, human story is just one way of giving back to the community. The practice of giving back speaks to a sea-change in fieldwork practice. Half a century ago, many researchers took their fieldwork findings back to their ivory towers; now, fieldwork emphasises not only collaboration with the community, but gratitude for it. As Ben reflects: “It is such a privilege to work in these amazing and visually stunning places in the Pacific.”

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