“Cultural values are a web of linked concepts, fixed in time and space.”

Cultural values are the core attitudes, beliefs, customs and guiding practices that underpin a society. They are interdependent and in a state of constant flux, evolving over time in reaction to advances in learning and technology or changes in the environment.

This essay illustrates the interdependence of cultural norms and values such as systems of descent and attitudes towards female sexuality. It will also also highlight the impact that space, which refers to the habitat of the society in question, has on these values, along with the cumulative effect of change over time.

Cultural values change as a society learns

Central to the concept of a constantly evolving culture is the capacity of human beings to transmit knowledge from one generation to the next through behaviours such as imitation and teaching (Tomassello, 1990 as cited in Caldwell, Millen 2009). Each generation takes the knowledge that was passed on and develops it further, leading to cumulative cultural evolution (Caldwell, Millen 2009).

As a society learns and adapts to its current environment, the cultural values that hold that specific group of people together change to reflect what is required to best survive in those specific circumstances (Mesoudi 2017). As a result different societies all over the world created vast knowledge about how best to exploit diverse environments. For this reason human beings were able to adapt to habitats ranging from the lush to the arid, or the polar to the tropical (Acerbi, Mesoudi 2015).

As a society learns and adapts to its current environment, the cultural values that hold that specific group of people together change to reflect what is required to best survive in those specific circumstances.

Mesoudi 2017

Cultural values are interlinked and interdependent

The linked nature of cultural values was first recognised by Tylor (1889), who used statistical correlation to prove that three separate and apparently unrelated customary practices – avoidance of in-laws, residence after marriage and the practice of naming the parent after their children – were in fact mutually interdependent, with each practice varying according to changes in the other two (Tylor 1889). 

Furthermore, he showed that the choice of residence (matrilocal vs patrilocal) after marriage is also correlated to the system of succession and inheritance. When new husbands move to live with their wife’s family then descent is matrilineal. When the wives move in with their husband’s family descent is patrilineal. Societies that are still under transition from one system to the other would have a mix of descent mechanisms (Tylor 1889).

The choice of residence (matrilocal vs patrilocal) after marriage is also correlated to the system of succession and inheritance.

Tylor 1889

Ethnographic examples of changes in cultural values over time

To illustrate the correlation of cultural values, the evolution in values over time and the impact of changes in the environment, we will refer to the transition from matrilineal to mixed-descent or patrilineal inheritance of Bantu-speaking tribes living in sub-Saharan Africa and the Himba tribes in Namibia.

Bantu tribes in sub-Saharan Africa

The system of inheritance adopted by a society has a profound impact on its members and its organisation. This has implications ranging from the suitability of different marriage partners to the status of women in the tribe (Scelza, Prall et al. 2019). It is therefore inevitable that changes in succession will lead to further change in other customary practices of the tribes.

Thousands of years ago matrilineal Bantu tribes living in Cameroon and Nigeria migrated in different directions. Those who went towards the east found an arid climate that was not conducive to agriculture, so they became pastoralists, raising livestock for a living. Those who migrated south, on the other hand, found more temperate climes and focused on horticulture (Scelza, Prall et al. 2019).

Different cultural evolution trajectories

Over time the separate tribes’ culture evolved to enable them to best exploit their habitat and improve their living conditions, with parents investing their resources in a way that best maximised return (Clare, Mace 2003).

The tribes that raised cattle gravitated towards patrilineal inheritance. This was because sons were better placed to protect the herds and provide for multiple wives and children.

The tribes that depended on horticulture, on the other hand, retained matrilineal inheritance. This is because it was women who traditionally tended the gardens, giving them an important role in the tribe (Clare, Mace 2003).

The abovementioned different cultural evolution trajectories show that the migration from the rainforests of equatorial Africa to other locations with different climates required diverging adaptation. In some cases this resulted in the adoption of cattle, which then kicked off a domino effect, changing the organisation and values of the tribe and radically altering customs relating to inheritance to benefit sons instead of daughters, which then resulted in women losing autonomy.

Further studies showed that women in tribes that shifted to patriliny experienced a reduction in sexual freedom and reduced access to divorce (Barry H, Schlegel A. 1986, as cited in Scelza, Prall et al. 2019), clearly illustrating the interlinked and interdependent nature of the cultural values of a population.

Himba tribes in Namibia

It is important to note, however, that such change does not happen overnight. It takes time for such transitions in cultural values to occur. Each generation adapts slowly to changes in circumstances.

The multi-generational ethnographic study of the Himba in Namibia illustrates this concept clearly(Scelza, Prall et al. 2019). The tribe lives in Omuhumba, where a tributary of the Kunene river provides a habitat that is conducive to both raising cattle and agriculture.

The tribe’s customary system of inheritance is dual in nature, with cattle traditionally inherited according to the matrilineal line from a man to his younger brothers and after that to his sister’s sons, with only a small portion of his property going to his own sons. Other resources such as access to water are inherited patrilineally. Women in this tribe have more autonomy than those in purely patrilineal tribes. However they have less than women who are in tribes that fully adopt matriliny, who have more of a say in who they marry and more sexual freedom, both before marriage and after (Scelza, Prall et al. 2019).  

A time of transition

Clearly the Himba are in the transitory phase between matriliny and patriliny as described by Tylor (1889). This is evidenced by the current system of mixed descent succession, as well as the emerging shift in values between generations of Himba men.

The researchers (Scelza, Prall et al 2019) found that the older generation of Himba men (aged over 40) were more accepting of the traditional system of inheritance and the sexual freedom of women than younger Himba men (aged 15 to 25) who believed the tribe should shift from matrilineal to patrilineal inheritance, stating that fathers should leave their cattle to their sons even though this broke traditional societal norms.

The younger generation of Himba men also favoured more restrictions on female sexuality, particularly after marriage (Scelza, Prall et al. 2019), presumably to ensure the indisputable paternity of sons, safeguarding the patrilineal line. One can therefore deduce that this tribe is undergoing a radical transition in cultural values which will accelerate as the older generation dies out and the new generation takes over.

Conclusion

In conclusion and referring to the original quotation – “Cultural values are a web of linked concepts, fixed in time and space” – it has been shown that cultural values are indeed interlinked and interdependent. This is illustrated by the chain reaction in values triggered by changes in environment that led to new subsistence strategies, which led to shifts in descent and inheritance mechanisms, which then impacted the autonomy, sexual freedom and access to divorce of women in the societies in question.  It has also shown that over time the values of a society change because of incremental social learning. As successive generations better adapt to their environment, their cultural values shift accordingly.  

Bibliography

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Bowles, S. (2009). Did Warfare Among Ancestral Hunter-Gatherers Affect the Evolution of Human Social Behaviors? Science (American Association for the Advancement of Science); Science, 324(5932), pp. 1293-1298.

Caldwell, C.A. and Millen, A.E. (2009). Social Learning Mechanisms and Cumulative Cultural Evolution: Is Imitation Necessary? Psychological science; Psychol Sci, 20(12), pp. 1478-1483.

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Scelza, B.A., Prall, S.P. and Levine, N.E. (2019). The Disequilibrium of Double Descent: Changing Inheritance Norms among Himba Pastoralists. Philosophical transactions.Biological sciences; Philos Trans R Soc Lond B Biol Sci, 374(1780), pp. 20180072.

Tylor, E.B. (1889). On a Method of Investigating the Development of Institutions; Applied to Laws of Marriage and Descent. The Journal of the Anthropological Institute of Great Britain and Ireland, 18(3), pp. 245-272.

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