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About Dr. Julian Steward – Julian Steward Collection 2

About Dr. Julian Steward



Born in Washington, DC on January 31, 1902, Julian Haynes Steward was an American anthropologist and ethnographer best known for the advancement of his concept of “cultural ecology,” the idea that cultural development is not simply the result of cultural interaction, but interaction with the environment. Steward argued that regularities in these relationships could be used to explain cultural change.Additionally, he actively promoted the theory of multilinear cultural evolution, the concept that cultural complexity occurs in different ways within different societies--and does not follow a strict path from the primitive to the more civilized. His broad spectrum of research interests involved both traditional and modern societies. 


Julian Haynes Steward's first academic appointment was at the University of Michigan where between 1928 and 1930 he established the anthropology department. In 1930, he moved to the University of Utah where he became an associate professor, a teaching position that afforded him ample time to pursue procurement research at a university-affiliated museum. The museum focus of his job allowed him to concentrate on archaeology and study material culture among the nearby Puebloan Native American groups of the US Southwest--a choice well-suited to his growing propensity for the scientific approach to anthropology, rather than the humanistic (which maintains that ambiguities and uniqueness are no less important than regularities).

From 1930 to 1931, Steward conducted fieldwork on the Paiute people of the Great Basin Desert in the vicinity of the Great Salt Lake in Utah (which included excavation at Promontory Point), a survey sponsored by the University of Utah and the Smithsonian Institution’s Bureau of American Ethnology (BAE). In 1933, two years after leaving the University of Utah, Steward was appointed to the Smithsonian’s Bureau of American Ethnography, spending the following year (1934) conducting research in Owens Valley and Death Valley (in eastern California) and northward through Nevada to Idaho and Oregon, accompanied by his wife, Jane. The following year he published his controversial essay, “The Economic and Social Basis of Primitive Bands,” (which would subsequently appear in his major theoretical work, Theory of Culture Change: The Methodology of Multilinear Evolution, in 1955). Drawing on his intensive fieldwork in the US Great Basin Desert, what would become Steward’s revolutionary new theory began to take shape with this article in which he defined three types of socio-cultural bands: patrilineal, matrilineal, and “composite,” linking each type to particular ecological circumstances.

While this essay had little immediate impact on his fellow anthropologists, his position as an anthropologist at the BAE gained him considerable support for his research and writing, with the Institution publishing some of his most influential works including Basin-Plateau Aboriginal Sociopolitical Groups in 1938, which fully outlined the workings of his “cultural ecology” model. With his theories now picking up greater academic support, this book is credited with marking a turning point in American anthropology, away from the traditionally-held “cultural diffusionist” orientation which supported the idea that the flow of an idea or artifactual style from one culture to another explains all major similarities between widely dispersed cultures throughout the world.



As Director of the Institute of Social Anthropology under the BAE, Steward became an administrator with considerable authority, using his growing clout to edit the multivolume work, Handbook of South American Indians between 1940 and 1947, which became one of his most widely-read contributions to anthropological literature--and to the anthropological community in general. He also took a position at the Smithsonian Institution where he founded the Institute for Social Anthropology in 1943. By editing Handbook, Steward not only found a broader, more receptive professional audience for his new approach to cultural anthropology, he was able to refine the theory and methodology behind it. Many of the central concepts that lay at the core of Steward’s later theoretical treatises were included in Handbook such as “culture type,” “culture area,” and “culture change/evolution.” While Steward’s focus on cultural typology in some of the volumes did not always mesh with his culture area proposal, in the final version of the handbook he settled on a compromise between culture area and culture type as organizing principles, designating distinct cultural types within culture areas--a perspective most anthropologists up until this time had never considered. Additionally, Steward didn’t support the “unilinear” evolution idea (the 19th century theory that social status occurs in societies and cultures in a single line that moves from primitive to civilized--with European culture the accepted peak of social evolution), introducing instead his concept of “multilinear” evolution.

During these years, Steward was active in numerous academic as well as civil endeavors. During one year of his tenure at the Bureau of American Ethnology, he was loaned to the Bureau of Indian Affairs (BIA) at the request of its director, John Collier, to assist in creating various new programs to reform the BIA. The final product--which many considered a radical transformation in the organization and functioning of the BIA--is usually referred to as the “New Deal for American Indians,” a policy change that led to what was essentially a Federal Bill of Rights for Native Americans. His involvement gave Steward the opportunity to observe firsthand the practical and theoretical significance of the relationship between subcultures and the larger society of which they are a part--an issue that came to underlie his teaching, research, and writing for the remainder of his life and is the central theme of his major works, Area Research, Theory and Practice (1950), The People of Puerto Rico: A Study in Social Anthropology (1956), and the three-volume Contemporary Change in Traditional Societies (1967?), as well as a number of shorter pieces dealing with the study of non-isolated, non-self-sufficient cultures.

Additionally, Steward served on a committee to reorganize the American Anthropological Association, worked with Andean archaeologist Wendell Clarke Bennett to establish the landmark Viru Valley Project in Peru, South America in the late 1940s (a highly significant research program centered at one of Peru’s most ancient settlements), was involved in the planning and establishment of the National Science Foundation, and was instrumental in persuading Congress to appropriate funds for the creation of the Committee for the Recovery of Archeological Remains in 1950 (subsequently called the River Basin Archeological Surveys Program, and often regarded as the model and impetus for the formal establishment of the field of salvage archeology in the United States).

From most perspectives, Steward's most theoretically productive years were from 1946 to 1952, while teaching at Columbia University. During his tenure, he was able to influence a whole new generation of graduate students, many of whom would become prominent figures in the field of anthropology in their own right. This list included Marvin Harris (influential in the development of the field of cultural materialism), Sidney Mintz (best known for his studies of Latin America and the Caribbean), Robert Murphy (whose work included studies of the Munduruku people of the Amazon and the Tuareg people of the Sahara), Eric Wolf (who advocated Marxian perspectives within anthropology), as well as social anthropologist Morton Fried--all of whom would credit Steward with contributing to their research. And it was also during these years that he wrote what many scholars contend were his most important contributions to anthropological theory including: “Cultural Causality and Law: A Trial Formulation of the Development of Early Civilizations (1949), “Levels of Sociocultural Integration” (1951), “Evolution and Process (1953), and “The Cultural Study of Contemporary Societies: Puerto Rico” (with Robert Manners, 1953). Many scholars view the works published between 1949 and 1953 as representative of nearly the entire scope of his broad range of interests--from cultural evolution to prehistory to archaeology; from the search for causality and cultural concepts to area studies; from the study of contemporary societies to the relationship between local cultural systems and national ones.



After leaving Columbia for the University of Illinois at Urbana in 1952 (where he would hold tenure until 1968), Steward undertook the final work of his already distinguished career. Although his days conducting fieldwork had ended, his research professorship at Illinois enabled him to develop and publish further refinements of his theory until his retirement.

The most notable of these works, Theory of Culture Change (1955), fleshed out in precise terms the essential elements underlying “cultural ecology,” emphasizing the concepts of “culture core” and “multilinear evolution.” Steward conceived of this core as if in opposition to what he considered the periphery of a society, stating that “the core includes the sectors of society such as politics and religion that interact directly with the techno-economic base,” whereas, “the periphery is composed of cultural factors resulting from diffusion or simply independent creations.” The so-called “techno-economic” base, according to Steward, includes the various technologies used in subsistence activities that come about in response to the demands of a given ecosystem.

Steward spend consider effort in his latter years advancing his multilinear evolution perspective so as to distinguish his view of culture change from that of his colleague and fellow cultural theorist, Leslie White. White had sought to revive the 19th century unilinear model presented by pioneering American anthropologist and social theorist Lewis Henry Morgan in his The Science of Culture (1949) and The Evolution of Culture (1959), emphasizing the use of technology to harness energy as the driving force behind cultural evolution.

In both theories, the development of more efficient subsistence technology in response to the environment is a central factor in culture change, but Steward argued that White’s version proceeds (incorrectly) in only one direction and cannot skip stages. Steward believed that evolution can branch off in numerous directions as cultures adapt to unique and varied circumstances--a distinction he wanted to make abundantly clear to future scholars. And though his efforts may not have accomplished what he’d intended, Steward’s diversity in anthropological subfields, his extensive and comprehensive fieldwork, and his profound intellect were all brought to a new generation of academics through Steward’s latter efforts.

In 1952, Steward was awarded the Viking Fund Medal in General Anthropology, with many of his contemporaries enthusiastically supporting the tribute. Alfred Kroeber, the first professor appointed to the Department of Anthropology at the University of California, Berkeley, said that he believed Steward was the "finest teacher in our field in the past 20 years." In 1954, Steward became one of the earliest scholars outside the hard sciences to be elected to the National Academy of Sciences, and in 1956 and 1957 went to Japan as Director of the Kyoto American Studies Seminar. From 1960 to 1961 he was appointed a fellow of the Center for Advanced Study in Behavioral Sciences at Palo Alto, California, and was one of the four initial appointees (the only social scientist) out of a faculty of 4000 when the University of Illinois established its own Center for Advanced Study.



  • BS, Zoology and Geology, Cornell University, 1925 (1921–1922 at Berkeley)
  • MA, Anthropology, University of California, Berkeley, 1926
  • PhD, Anthropology, University of California, Berkeley, 1929


Professional Positions

  • Taught at the University of Michigan, 1928–30, becoming first anthropology lecturer
  • Associate Professor, Department Chair at University of Utah, 1930–33
  • Visiting Professor at University of California, Berkeley, 1934
  • Associate Anthropologist, Bureau of American Ethnology (BAE) of the Smithsonian Institution, 1935–46
  • BAE’s (Bureau of American Ethnology) liaison to the Bureau of Indian Affairs (BIA), 1936
  • Director of the Institute of Social Anthropology under the BAE, 1943–46
  • Edited the groundbreaking Handbook of South American Indians (7 vols.) for the BAE, 1946–59
  • Professor at Columbia University, 1946–52
  • Research Professor at University of Illinois, Urbana, 1952–68


Work at Promontory Point, Utah

From 1930 to 1931, the University of Utah and the Smithsonian Institution’s Bureau of American Ethnology (BAE) sponsored archaeological fieldwork in the vicinity of the Great Salt Lake in the Great Basin Desert of Utah (in what is now southern Box Elder County), with particular attention focused on caves that had once been submerged by Lake Bonneville, a prehistoric lake that was some 305 meters above the level of the remnant Great Salt Lake.

Previous anthropological surveys had revealed that with such caves, as the lake water subsided, indigenous peoples typically came to inhabit them. Archaeological exploration during this pre-Carbon-14 dating era was aimed at identifying the remains of ancient cultures by reference to the chronology of the lake (dating of the geographic stratigraphy at various levels). This fieldwork included thorough excavations of two large caves on the western shore of Promontory Point and one large cave near the old “Black Rock” bathing resort on the southern shore of Great Salt Lake, as well as a visual survey of a number of smaller caves on Promontory Point and the northern shore of Bear River Bay. This project was led by Julian Steward.

As test pit excavation showed, certain of these caves and rock shelters had indeed been occupied by early people when they’d first become habitable. Although absolute age estimates of these sites are now subject to the usual reservations regarding geological reckoning rather than the use of modern-day scientific dating, the stratigraphic relationship of artifacts found in the individual sites and the correlation of the sites with the stages of Lake Bonneville remain valid and anthropologically significant.

The sporadic irregularity of artifacts found, however, prevents adequately defining the earliest cultures, with Steward finding considerable gaps in the fossil record between those artifacts found at the ancient Gypsum Cave assemblage level (a limestone cave in Sunrise Mountain approximately 20 kilometers east of Las Vegas originally dated to 3000 to 4500 years BP but later carbon-dated to 9300 BP), and those found at the Basket Maker cultures level (dated to 1550 BP)--as well as the serious lack of other supportive archeological data from the Great Basin Desert area.

In September of 1930, shovel tests were conducted in the two largest Promontory Point caves, designated Caves Nos. 1 and 2. Cave No 1, which yielded the bulk of artifacts Steward would later describe in his final assessment paper, located on the western shore of Promontory Point, is about 16 kilometers north of the Lucin cut-off of the Southern Pacific Railroad which touches the point in crossing Great Salt Lake. According to Steward, these artifacts belong to a single, relatively recent period (relative to 1930) which was designated the Promontory Culture. In July and August of 1931, excavation of Caves Nos. 1 and 2 was completed, as well as excavation of Black Rock Cave, with other caves on the northern shore of Great Salt Lake also examined. Although at least 12 caves and rock shelters were excavated in total, Caves Nos. 3 through 12 yielded few artifacts of significance--although some bore evidence of hearths, faint red pictographs on the walls, the odd arrow point or potsherd, and even moccasins.

From the archaeological perspective, Cave No. 1 proved the most interesting, containing an extreme abundance of what Steward termed “a culture which is entirely new, although comparatively recent”--evidenced by the fact that the deposits were shallow, with little evidence of human occupation at the lower strata levels. Cave No. 2, although only a short distance above the lake level, had older artifacts extending down to the gravel level (under surface remains identical to Cave No. 1).

In Steward’s subsequent report published on September 16, 1937, he lists his finds from Caves Nos. 1 and 2 as follows (partial list): Arrows and arrow points, Arrow smoothers, Articles of hide, Basketry, Bone awls, Bowls, Bows, Cane gambling pieces, Cord and rope, Cross sections of pot rims, Cutting implements, Dice, Digging sticks, Drills, Drum tops (?), Etched stones, Fire drills/drills with arrow fragments, Flaking tools, Fragments of hide with fringe, Fragments of matting, basketry, netting, and cord, Fragment of tule (bulrush) bag, Fur and feather cords, Games, Gaming bones, Hammer stones, Handles, Hoop-and-dart game, Knives and scrapers, Knots and buckskin fragments, Mat edges, Matting, Miscellaneous fragments of sewed hide, Miscellaneous objects of bone, Miscellaneous objects of wood, Miscellaneous shafts of wood, Miscellaneous stone objects, Miscellaneous weaving, Mittens, Mittens of hide, Moccasins, Mullers (used with stones to grind) or manos (used with metates to grind), Netted hoop, Netting, Objects cut from scapulae (shoulder bones), Objects of bone, antler, hoof, horn, and shell, Ollas (ceramic jars).

In the course of subsequent ethnographic research during 1935 and 1936 (Steward’s involvement in this process is unclear) among the Shoshoni who, a century before had occupied the land on all sides of Great Salt Lake, an interlocutor (informant) was found at Washakie, Utah, who claimed to have been born in a cave on the western side of Promontory Point a few miles north of Cave No. 1 and to have lived there at various times throughout his youth. This interlocutor, known as “Old Diamond,” and his sister, Posiats, both confirmed that at one time the Goshute (a Shoshonean tribe formerly inhabiting the deserts south of Great Salt Lake), besieged their people in Cave No. 1 and attempted to smoke them out.

Regional oral history, however, suggests that if this event actually took place, the raiders was most likely Ute (a tribe from the southern reaches of the Rocky Mountains known to have had horses and a propensity to roam and make war) rather than Goshute, who would have had great difficulty traversing the deserts on foot, and would have had no conceivable motivation to uproot their close kin. Whether this account is true or not, there is little question that the Shoshoni people occasionally wintered in caves in the Great Salt Lake vicinity instead of building their customary conical pole lodges, often using caves and rock shelters as temporary homes. It would be reasonable to deduce, therefore, that the ethnographic picture of Shoshoni culture should be reflected in the artifacts found in the uppermost stratum of the caves Steward and his team excavated.


Published Author of acclaimed writings including:

  • Handbook of South American Indians (1940–1947)
  • South American Culture (1949)
  • Area Research Theory and Practice (1950)
  • Theory of Culture Change (1955)
  • The People of Puerto Rico: A Study in Social Anthropology (1956)



  • Awarded the Viking Fund Medal in General Anthropology, 1952
  • Elected to the National Academy of Sciences, 1954
  • Director of the Kyoto American Studies Seminar, Kyoto, Japan, 1956–57
  • One of the four initial appointees at University of Illinois Center for Advanced Study, 1959
  • Appointed a fellow of the Center for Advanced Study in Behavioral Sciences at Palo Alto, CA, 1960–61



At the age of 16, Julian Steward left what some historians characterize as an unhappy childhood in Washington, DC to attend Deep Springs Preparatory School in Owens Valley, California, at the edge of the Great Basin Desert. Steward's experience at the newly-established boarding school high in the south-eastern Sierra Nevada appears to have had a significant influence on his academic and career interests. Historians believe his direct interaction with the land (specifically, subsistence through irrigation and ranching) and contact with the Northern Paiute culture that lived in the surrounding area may well have become the catalyst for his theory and his development of the field of “cultural ecology.”

Throughout his professional life, Steward carried on his search for cross-culturally valid regularities--essentially seeing his anthropological mission as a search for causes for cultural developments. And while he was cautiously prudent about spelling out specific laws or pointing to specific cause and effect (ever aware of peer scrutiny), he was not beyond criticism from those who dismissed the search for cultural regularities, citing diffusion as an argument against Steward's evolutionary propositions. He responded to these objections by drawing attention to the force of cultural ecological factors that ultimately determine when, where, how, and if diffusion of cultural ideas or artifactual styles could take place, thus making diffusion an aspect of cultural evolution; a dependent rather than independent variable. To his final days, Steward dedicated himself to his search for what may be referred to as “middle-range generalizations” or in scientific terms, “analysis and inference with predictive potential.” Steward hoped that at a minimum, future scholars would accept the premise that culture is an orderly domain in which causality operates, and its operation is apprehensible through scientific method. Even today, there is still much debate surrounding his anthropological perspectives.