Considering taxonomies in the twenty-first century

Submitted by Sammy Smith (sammy@thesga.org)

Archaeologists deal with taxonomies, and sometimes help develop them.

A taxonomy is a system for classification, and in science is usually rank-based. A ranked hierarchy begins with the most general characteristics—for example, plant versus animal, and keeps becoming more specific.

Perhaps the best known taxonomic system in science is the Linnaean system for classifying living organisms. In fact, the Encyclopedia of Life is an online presentation of known organisms, along with their taxonomic classification. The EOL was recently discussed on this website.

Another classification system for living organisms is cladistics. Cladistics focuses on evolutionary relationships, and thus generates descent trees, rather like a family tree.

An August 10th 2009 article in the New York Times by Carol Kaesuk Yoon called “Reviving the Lost Art of Naming the World” argues that taxonomic classification is rather esoteric these days.

Ms. Yoon notes that anthropologists have studied classification systems used by peoples from around the world. She writes:

Cecil Brown, an anthropologist at Northern Illinois University who has studied folk taxonomies in 188 languages, has found that people recognize the same basic categories repeatedly, including fish, birds, snakes, mammals, “wugs” (meaning worms and insects, or what we might call creepy-crawlies), trees, vines, herbs and bushes.

Dr. Brown’s finding would be considerably less interesting if these categories were clear-cut depictions of reality that must inevitably be recognized. But tree and bush are hardly that, since there is no way to define a tree versus a bush. The two categories grade insensibly into one another. Wugs, likewise, are neither an evolutionarily nor ecologically nor otherwise cohesive group. Still, people repeatedly recognize and name these oddities.

Archaeologists classify pottery and other material culture remains. Simple taxonomies are useful that give a name to, for example, pottery with a particular decoration and other physical characteristics. That way we know what is meant when someone says, for example, Deptford Check Stamped or Deptford Cord Marked.

Artifact classification is perhaps more subjective than the common categories Dr. Brown has identified in many cultures, because not infrequently archaeologists get into heated discussions about the “right” way to classify some artifact types.

For discussion: is this kind of classification system in the Linnaean style or does it more closely resemble a cladistic classification system?