Julian Haynes Steward is best known for his seminal contributions to cultural ecology, multilinear evolutionism, archaeology, and ethnography of the Great Basin and Plateau region, ethnology of South America, the settlement pattern and salvage approaches in archaeology, irrigation agriculture and early civilization, hunter-gatherers, peasants, and area studies. Steward became the single most important individual in cultivating an ecological approach to culture and cultural change from the 1930s into the late 1960s. In his research, publications, and teaching, he persistently developed a theoretical and methodological framework for studying cultural change as adaptation in which environmental influences were especially important.
Steward was born on January 31, 1902, in Washington, D.C. In 1918, at the age of 16, he entered the college preparatory school in Deep Springs Valley north of Death Valley, in eastern California close to the border with Nevada and at the western edge of the Great Basin. Local natural history was an integral part of school instruction and nature was part of his daily experience beyond the classroom.
After a freshman year at the University of California in Berkeley, Steward followed some of his fellow preparatory school students to Cornell University where he studied geology and zoology. His BA degree was awarded in 1925 at Cornell. Then Steward returned to Berkeley for graduate work in anthropology where he received a PhD in 1929.
In the late 1920s to 1936, Steward returned several times to various areas of the high desert environment that had been such a profound attraction to him at Deep Springs School. Now, however, he was devoted to field research in archaeology and ethnography, and this was the formative period in the development of his cultural ecology, aspects of which can be found in many of his early publications. He had avoided taking any side in the academic debate of his predecessors. Environmental determinists argued that the natural environment strongly influences human behavior, society, culture, and history. Environmental possibilists countered that the environment presents many opportunities allowing a wide latitude for human responses in which culture is decisive. Instead of armchair speculation and debate, Steward sought to subject the question of the relationship between culture and nature to direct empirical investigation through actual fieldwork on particular cultures in their habitat, although his own fieldwork mostly involved interviewing scattered elderly informants about their memory culture.
Steward believed that the environment had the greatest influence on societies with less developed technology. This reflects his Deep Springs experience, where relatively recent Euro-American ranching and farming contrasted with the ancient foraging life styles of the original indigenous occupants, two very different modes of adaptation. This contrast stimulated his interest in change through time, especially in relation to new technology and its social repercussions. The desert impressed on him the role of water in human adaptation, a recurrent theme in much of his work, particularly with regards to demographic and economic factors in the evolution of early civilizations.
Through his ethnographic investigations on the Shoshone, Paiute, and other indigenous societies of the Great Basin and Plateau region, Steward specified three interrelated foci for field research on the cultural ecology of a particular society: the natural resources and the technology used to extract and process them from the environment; the behavior and social organization involved in the labor in these subsistence and economic activities; and the influence of these two sets of phenomena on other aspects of culture. The third component Steward termed the culture core, although he later retreated from that concept. Accordingly, by the 1950s Steward developed an ecological framework for describing, and to some degree explaining, a particular culture. His approach emphasized the relationships among the biophysical environment, natural resources, technology, labor, economy, and social organization. Steward discreetly rejected the dominant position of Franz Boas and his followers like Alfred Kroeber, namely, that culture and history were sufficient to explain all of culture. Cultural ecology was the focus of Steward’s last fieldwork, a six-week trip to the Carrier people of British Columbia in the summer of 1940 where he worked mostly with one key informant.
In subsequent decades, Steward’s cultural ecology was criticized on several grounds. His theoretical concepts, like the culture core, were not very clear and readily operational; his method was mostly intuitive; he was a functionalist with some of the pitfalls of that approach; correlations were confused as cause and effect relationships; and he ignored relevant aspects of biological ecology. In addition, Steward focused rather narrowly on subsistence economy to the neglect of many other important factors, such as population dynamics, natural hazards, political institutions, religion, and the larger regional and world systems. His biographer, Kerns, has also revealed male gender bias in his work, especially his concept of the patrilineal hunter-gatherer band which in turn contributed to the “Man the Hunter” image. In addition, Steward’s ethnographic field methods involved interviewing individual elderly informants in English or through an interpreter to record memory culture, a common practice at the time. Like most anthropologists until recently, Steward focused on traditional culture and ignored the colonial situation that oppressed indigenous societies, assuming the inevitability of their socio-cultural assimilation or even extinction. Nevertheless, Steward, far more than any other single individual, launched ecological research in cultural anthropology and archaeology in America. His successors, including his critics, built and continue to build their own work on the basic foundation he established.
Steward’s methodological approach, which he called multilinear evolution, was to select for detailed comparison a small number of particular cultures that were in similar environments (e.g., same types of desert or forest) and at the same level of sociocultural complexity (family, tribe, or state). The cultures selected should be widely separated geographically to avoid the possibility of cultural similarities arising from diffusion. Consequently, similarities in the sample of cultures that Steward selected would be the result of parallel adaptations in the sense of similar responses to similar environmental conditions.
This thinking fed into the evolutionary typology of political organization still used to this day by many anthropologists of band, tribe, chiefdom, and state. However, Steward rejected 19th-century unilinear evolutionism, the idea that all societies inevitably pass through a series of stages from simple to complex cultures. Instead, he envisioned far more complex phenomena with multiple lines and rates of cultural evolution, each depending on the variables in specific situations. Actually Steward had a deep revulsion to any grand theorizing or dogma. Unlike another neoevolutionist, Leslie White, who was concerned with universal laws of culture, Steward searched for specific cause-effect relationships in a limited set of circumstances and phenomena.
Steward’s multilinear evolutionism was variously criticized for demonstrating correlations rather than causality; using inadequate sampling and avoiding statistics; confusing method (multievolutionism) and process (multilinear evolution); and neglecting negative cases where postulated relationships between culture and environment might not be sustained. Nevertheless, several cases of parallel adaptations in cultural evolution in different regions of the world identified by Steward remain widely accepted to this day by many archaeologists and cultural anthropologists.
From 1935 to 1946 Steward worked at the Smithsonian Institution in the Bureau of American Ethnology. At the Smithsonian, one of Steward’s achievements was to conceive and edit the monumental Handbook of South American Indians in seven volumes. However, Steward had a great deal of assistance from Robert Lowie, Gordon Willey, and especially from Alfred Metraux, the latter a specialist on the ethnology of that continent. This benchmark publication included contributions from more than 100 authors from a dozen countries, was organized on the basis of cultural types, and identified major theoretical issues that subsequently guided research for decades. Later, Steward, together with Louis Faron, published a synthesis of this handbook that became a standard textbook on the anthropology of the continent.
While at the Smithsonian, Steward also developed the Institute for Social Anthropology and served as its first director. It was focused primarily on the changing economy of peasant communities in Latin America and yielded more than a dozen monographs by various research associates, many of them Steward’s students. After World War II, Steward contributed to the establishment of area studies, including an innovative project on Puerto Rico and subsequent studies elsewhere in Latin America and in Africa and Asia.
The Puerto Rico project was one of the first efforts by anthropologists to analyze a national society. Steward described Puerto Rico as an American colony. This and other research initiated by Steward also contributed to the development of modernization studies, dependency theory, and world systems theory, especially through some of his students and associates like Sydney Mintz and Eric Wolf. Simultaneously, such work eventually contributed to the foundation of political ecology, which has flourished since the 1990s.
Steward’s cultural ecology certainly continues to strongly influence anthropological research on the relationship between culture and nature. In contrast, his multilinear evolution has not received as much attention, and he lost interest in it as well in later years. Steward’s influence is seldom adequately acknowledged by subsequent researchers who are studying what essentially amounts to cultural ecology or multilinear evolution. Nevertheless, in 1952 Steward was awarded the Viking Fund Medal in General Anthropology, and in 1954 he was elected to the National Academy of Sciences, the latter quite rare for any social scientist during that era. Also, several of his former students recognized him in a collection of essays edited by Manners in 1964. Then in 1969, graduate students at the University of Illinois honored him by establishing the Journal of the Steward Anthropological Society. Steward died on February 6, 1972. An obituary by Manners in 1973 includes an appendix listing Steward’s more than 200 publications. From the 1930s into the 1960s, Steward was one of the main pioneers in the development of a scientific, empirical, materialist, behavioral, ecological, and evolutionary approach to explaining culture and cultural diversity. Steward himself was as extraordinary as his contribution to American anthropology.
- Kerns, V. (2003). Scenes from the high desert: Julian Steward’s life and theory. Urbana: University of Illinois Press.
- Steward, J. H. (1955). Theory of culture change: The methodology of multilinear evolution. Urbana: University of Illinois Press.
- Steward, J. H., & Faron, L. C. (1959). Native peoples of South America. New York: McGraw-Hill.