Kinship Systems Shaped by Vertical Transmission, not Environment

One of the fundamental premises my book “The Genius of Kinship” is that human kinship systems and their linguistic expressions, kinship terminologies, are largely unacknowledged sources of insight into human prehistory and direct partners to historical linguistics and population genetics in the task of unraveling the enigma of modern human origins and dispersals. The following quote from an evolutionary anthropologist, Barry Hewlett, reinforces the same point:

“We are conducting further studies to evaluate the coevolution of genes, culture, and language in Africa and the Americas, and preliminary data suggest that kinship and family beliefs and practices tend to be conserved along with genes. In other words, aspects of kinship and family tend to be highly conserved, similar to genes, and their distribution across the landscape does not appear to be linked to adaptations to particular natural environments…The data imply that the current distribution of kinship and family patterns is due to demic diffusion and conservative cultural transmission. This is supported by a nonevolutionary study of kinship by Burton et al. (1996) where he uses a sophisticated analysis of kinship and family patterns to describe culture areas. His kinship culture areas fit very nicely with the world’s language and genetic distance trees (Jones 1999). He systematically generates two key dimensions of variability in family in kinship – a matricentric-patricentric continuum and a bilateral-unilineal continuum. For instance, Africa is strongly unilineal, but relatively egalitarian on the gender dimension, whereas the middle Old World (North Africa, the Middle East, South and Central Asia and most of China) is unilineal but patricentric. The distrubution of the various culture areas of kinship are linked to the movements and expansions of dominant peoples (e.g., demic diffusion and vertical transmission) throughout history (e.g., Bantu expansion)” (Hewlett, Barry S. “Neoevolutionary Perspectives on Human Kinship,” in New Directions in Anthropological Kinship, edited by Linda Stone. Lanham, 2001, p. 105).

It has taken evolutionary anthropologists 150 years to come around to the notion pioneered by the young Lewis H. Morgan that human kinship systems reflect what we might call these days “populational processes,” rather than abstract evolutionary stages. The Morgan of the “Systems of Consanguinity and Affinity of the Human Family” (1871) is very different from the Morgan of “Ancient Society” (1877) because of his new strong focus on those stages, rather than on geographically localized and demically conditioned types of kinship systems (the very name “Turano-Ganowanian” in the “Systems” was supposed to relate Tamil and Iroquois kinship systems into a tangible historical unity derived from the hypothesis of a migration of the ancestors of American Indians from Asia to the New World). While in those concrete specifics Morgan was wrong, the overall classification of kinship systems into “classificatory” and “descriptive” remains valid and finds parallels outside of kinship studies.

Tags: , , , , , , , ,

Leave a Reply