Preserving quantifiable ethnographic records of disappearing human lifeways

Thomas S. Kraft, Vivek Venkataraman, Karen L. Endicott, and Kirk M. Endicott


The human evolutionary sciences place high value on quantitative data from traditional small‐scale societies that are rapidly modernizing. These data often stem from the sustained ethnographic work of anthropologists who are today nearing the end of their careers. Yet many quantitative ethnographic data are preserved only in summary formats that do not reflect the rich and variable ethnographic reality often described in unpublished field notes, nor the deep knowledge of their collectors. In raw disaggregated formats, such data have tremendous scientific value when used in conjunction with modern statistical techniques and as part of comparative analyses. Through a personal example of longitudinal research with Batek hunter‐gatherers that involved collaboration across generations of researchers, we argue that quantifiable ethnographic records, just like material artifacts, deserve high‐priority preservation efforts. We discuss the benefits, challenges, and possible avenues forward for digitizing, preserving, and archiving ethnographic data before it is too late.

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Published in

Evolutionary Anthropology, May 2020