Posts Tagged ‘Lewis Henry Morgan’

Visiting Lewis Henry Morgan: Birth, Marriage, Adoption and Death as the Calculus of Kinship

Monday, August 5th, 2013

MorganTomb-MountHopeCemetery-3At the end of July 2013, I drove through Rochester, NY, and visited the tomb of Lewis Henry Morgan (1818-1881), the “grandfather” of American anthropology (assuming Franz Boas is the “father”) and one of the founding students of human kinship systems and terminologies. President of the Friends of the Mount Hope Cemetery (so reminiscent of those 19th century societies of the “friends of American Indians” one of which Morgan initiated), Marilyn Nolte, kindly walked me to the mausoleum which Morgan originally erected as the last abode for his two daughters. I dedicated my book “The Genius of Kinship” (2007) to Morgan and the title contains a double-entendre that refers to the spirit of a dead relative, an innate talent and the patron of a science or art.  In the course of my historiographic research for the book, I unearthed a few intriguing facts about the intersections of science and the lifeworld in 19th century America. Morgan married his mother’s brother’s daughter, Mary Elizabeth Steele, thus reenacting one of the most iconic forms of human marriage in 20th century’s kinship studies. His friendship with an educated Iroquois, Ely Samuel Parker, led to his adoption by the Seneca Indians, which in turn resulted in Lewis and Ely becoming collaborators in the project of writing the first ethnography of an American Indian tribe, “The League of the Ho-de-no-sau-nee, or the Iroquois” (1851). Kin and affines at the same time, Lewis and Mary were happy together but their first son, Lemuel, was born with mental retardation. Under the influence of his personal circumstances, Morgan the scholar grew to become critical of the rule of cousin marriage as too close of a union to generate viable offspring. As for his daughters buried at Mount Hope, they died young and the scholar blamed their premature death on his own immersion in the emerging science of anthropology.  Morgan’s lifelong protectionism of American Indians deemed by mainstream America a “vanishing race,” his salvage ethnography of the Iroquois, his field trips and the monumental studies “The Systems of Consanguinity and Affinity of the Human Family” (1871) and “Ancient Society” (1877) absorbed a lot of Morgan’s energy which he believed could have protected his daughters. The grandiose project of comprehending the various facets of the “human family” resulted, Morgan began to fear, in the corresponding neglect for his this-worldly family. Long kept outside of the purview of kinship studies, with its pseudo-self-evident focus on birth, death as a cultural and ontological category is now increasingly believed to be part of the field of kinship studies (see, e.g., my post on Hamlet). My visit to the founder of kinship studies’ grave was a symbolic affirmation of this epistemological stance. Morgan’s life was an embodiment of everything that “human kinship” is about: birth, marriage, adoption and death.

Kinship Systems Shaped by Vertical Transmission, not Environment

Tuesday, April 24th, 2012

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.