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W. C. McKern and the Midwestern Taxonomic Method

Written by R. Lee Lyman and Michael J. O'Brien

Publication Year: 2003

This book explains the deep influence of biological methods and theories on the practice of Americanist archaeology by exploring W. C. McKern's use of Linnaean taxonomy as the model for development of a pottery classification system.

By the early 20th century, North American archaeologists had found evidence of a plethora of prehistoric cultures displaying disparate geographic and chronological distributions. But there were no standards or algorithms for specifying when a culture was distinct or identical to another in a nearby or distant region.

Will Carleton McKern of the Milwaukee Public Museum addressed this fundamental problem of cultural classification beginning in 1929. He modeled his solution—known as the Midwestern Taxonomic Method—on the Linnaean biological taxonomy because he wanted the ability to draw historical and cultural "relationships" among cultures. McKern was assisted during development of the method by Carl E. Guthe, Thorne Deuel, James B. Griffin, and William Ritchie.

This book studies the 1930s correspondence between McKern and his contemporaries as they hashed out the method's nuances. It compares the several different versions of the method and examines the Linnaean biological taxonomy as it was understood and used at the time McKern adapted it to archaeological problems. Finally, this volume reveals how and why the method failed to provide the analytical solution envisioned by McKern and his colleagues and how it influenced the later development of Americanist archaeology.

Published by: The University of Alabama Press


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pp. v-vi

List of Illustrations

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pp. vii-viii

List of Tables

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pp. ix

Preface and Acknowledgments

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pp. xi-xiii

PART I: W. C. McKern and the Midwestern Taxonomic Method

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pp. 1

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1. Introduction

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pp. 3-12

Early last century Franz Boas (1902:1) indicated that “in the study of American archaeology we are compelled to apply methods somewhat different from those used in the archaeology of the Old World.” Although he was not clear about why this was so, part of the reason appears to have been that the then generally accepted time depth of the American archaeological record was much shallower than that of the Old World. By the middle...

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2. Taxonomic Classification and Biological Taxonomy

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pp. 13-50

The conceptual structure of what became known as the midwestern taxonomic method originated with Swedish physician and botanist Carl Von Linné, better known as Carolus Linnaeus. Understanding the Linnaean biological taxonomy—how it was built and what it might signify—is critical to grasping why the MTM took the form it did. As implied in chapter 1, understanding why the MTM failed to accomplish the tasks it...

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3. Developing the Midwestern Taxonomic Method, 1930–1935

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pp. 51-100

McKern began thinking in 1929 about a means of allowing comparative analyses of the myriad archaeological manifestations of the upper Midwest (Fisher 1997). Later that year his colleague Alton Fisher suggested that the Linnaean biological taxonomy might prove to be a good model for a classification method. McKern cited no biological or paleontological publications in his several articles on the...

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4. Subsequent Developments, 1935–1940

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pp. 101-134

Prior to the December 6–8, 1935, Indianapolis conference, two individuals —Thorne Deuel and James B. Griffin—applied a version of the midwestern taxonomic method, although it is probably more correct to say that they misapplied it in various ways. Others would also apply the method in one form or another, but we reserve discussion of those applications for chapter 5. Here we focus on the Griffin and Deuel applications for several...

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5. Applications, Comments, and Later Proposals

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pp. 135-178

McKern’s initial statement on the classificatory method (McKern 1932[7]) was presented to a small group of archaeologists attending the May 1932 Illinois State Academy of Science meeting. Two of the authors of papers included in the proceedings of the meeting—Thorne Deuel (1933) and Richard Snodgrasse (1933)—used McKern’s terminology, although their usage demonstrates they were unsure of what the terms actually meant. ...

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6. The Midwestern Taxonomic Method in Light of Biological Systematics

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pp. 179-195

Looking back at the history of Americanist archaeology in 1961, William Haag (1961:19) observed that the midwestern taxonomic method “grew out of a dissatisfaction with the direct historical approach on the one hand, which could help archaeology to only a limited extent, and with ethnological and linguistic identifications [of archaeological manifestations] on the other. The apparent promise that this method would bring some greater...

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PART II: Historical Documents

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pp. 197

A number of the papers presented here have been previously published, but several of them written in the early 1930s have not. In order to track the ontogeny of the midwestern taxonomic method, the papers should be read in chronological order. We have arranged the papers in that order based on when they were presented or published. All papers were retyped and edited. In order to enhance this part of the volume as a research tool, we...

7. Culture Type Classification for Midwestern North American Archaeology

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pp. 199

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8. A Suggested Classification of Cultures

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pp. 200-203

Archaeological evidence indicates the existence of culture relationship areas of greatly varying size, many of which show correspondingly varying degrees of cultural similarity in their component parts. The uncritical application of the term “culture” to a variety of types of determinantcomplexes, ranging from the essentially simple to the specifically complex, has led to an improper and undefinable generalization of its meaning. This...

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9. Local Types and the Regional Distribution of Pottery-Bearing Cultures

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pp. 204-207

This report sketches briefly late archaeological activities in Wisconsin with specific regard to pottery types, their distribution, and the extent to which they have helped establish our present opinions on the classification and distribution of cultures. Comparisons are attempted with neighboring and other related areas to show the indications of wider regional manifestations...

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10. The Problem of Culture Classification

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pp. 208-213

This communication deals with the problem of culture classification on the basis of determinant complexes which was originally brought to your attention in my letter of October 24, 1932, and the accompanying manuscript on the subject. A number of thoughtful and worthwhile answers were received. A conference of six individuals was held in Chicago on December...

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11. Certain Culture Classification Problems in Middle Western Archaeology

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pp. 214-226

During the past two years, a group of students with fields of interest representing practically the entire Mississippi Valley has been considering (1) the need for culture classification in North American archaeology and (2) the advisability of adopting a certain culture-type classificatory or taxonomic method submitted to them through the channels of the Committee on State Archaeological Surveys of the National Research Council. ...

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12. Some Assumptions and Implications of the McKern Classification System

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pp. 227-232

Most of the misunderstandings concerning the McKern system of classification fall under three headings: First, the basis on which the cultures are classified; second, the general assumptions underlying the classification; and third, the interpretation of the system. Although the units refer to groups of sites having definite temporal and spatial distribution as well...

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13. Review of Rediscovering Illinois: Archaeological Explorations in and around Fulton County

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pp. 233-240

The patience of students in adjoining fields, awaiting a published report on the intensive investigations conducted in Illinois during the past twelve years, is finally rewarded in this carefully prepared work, which covers the results of research in Fulton County. Although the book deals specifically with a very limited area within the state, the reader will soon discover that...

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14. The McKern and Related Systems of Classification

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pp. 241-249

In 1932 W. C. McKern of the Milwaukee Public Museum proposed that aboriginal archaeological remains in the Midwestern United States be classified on the basis of significant cultural traits, or “determinants” (McKern 1932[7]). After sending out copies of a generalized plan [(Guthe 1932[8])] to many of the professional and amateur archaeologists in the United States, ...

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15. The Midwestern Taxonomic Method as an Aid to Archaeological Culture Study

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pp. 250-261

In delayed response to a certain demand for a published statement covering the archaeological taxonomic method introduced in the northern Mississippi Valley area a few years ago and now tentatively employed in this, the northern Plains, and the Northeastern areas, it seems advisable to briefly set forth in this journal the essential framework for this method, and to include a revision of previously outlined but unpublished...

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16. Application of the Midwestern Taxonomic Method

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pp. 262-266

A certain amount of confusion over the application of the Midwestern Taxonomic Method has arisen, largely due to the bad example set by certain early experimental applications, and to the somewhat unnecessarily technical language employed in published descriptions of the method and its use. Since much of the unnecessarily technical language employed in...

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17. Taxonomy and the Direct Historical Approach

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pp. 267-271

It seems apparent from Julian Steward’s (1942) latest statement on “The Direct Historical Approach to Archaeology” that he still conceives of a basic conflict, or at least an inherent competition, between the direct historical and midwestern taxonomic methods, in spite of his initial statement to the contrary. He manifests a conviction that the latter is being overemphasized at the expense of the former. If his fears are well founded...

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18. Regarding Midwestern Archaeological Taxonomy

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pp. 272-276

Of certain questions which have arisen regarding the midwestern archaeological taxonomic method (erroneously called the McKern method) there are two, originating on the ethnological side of the imaginary fence, which, although asked repeatedly [for example, Wissler (1938:299–303)], have received scant attention and have prompted no published answers. These questions might be stated as follows: (1) what is the basis for the arbitrary...

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19. An Inaccurate Description of Midwestern Taxonomy

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pp. 277-279

For reasons best known to him, McGregor [(1941:60–62)] has included in his recent book on Southwestern archaeology a brief statement regarding the midwestern taxonomic method, although this method is not used in the Southwest. The statement is in error on several fundamental points, and it seems important to publish a correction just to keep the record straight. ...

References Cited

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pp. 281-298


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pp. 299-302

E-ISBN-13: 9780817382032
Print-ISBN-13: 9780817312220

Publication Year: 2003

Research Areas


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Subject Headings

  • Archaeology -- Middle West -- Methodology.
  • McKern, W. C. (Will Carleton), 1892-.
  • Middle West -- Antiquities.
  • Archaeology -- United States -- History.
  • Indians of North America -- Middle West -- Antiquities -- Classification.
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