Lewis Henry Morgan and the Invention of Kinship

Lewis Henry Morgan and the Invention of Kinship

Lewis Henry Morgan and the Invention of Kinship

Lewis Henry Morgan and the Invention of Kinship


Lewis Henry Morgan of Rochester, New York, lawyer and pioneering anthropologist, was the leading American contributor of his generation to the social sciences. Among the classic works whose conjunction in the 1860s gave modern anthropology its shape, Morgan's massive and technical Systems of Consanguinity and Affinity of the Human Family was decisive. Thomas R. Trautmann offers a new interpretation of the genesis of "kinship" and of the role it played in late nineteenth-century intellectual history. This Bison Books edition features a new introduction and appendices by the author.


The aim of this book is to convince readers of three things I believe about Lewis Henry Morgan: that he was one of the most original thinkers among nineteenth-century American scholars; that he was not only an important anthropologist of the past but is a useful intellectual companion for present research—that Morgan is, in LéviStrauss's memorable phrase, “good to think”; and that certain aspects of received knowledge in anthropology are deeply shaped by Morgan whether we know it or not. These beliefs came to me while doing a study of the Dravidian systems of kinship in South India, the Morganic nature of which I became aware of as I wrote the book. Shortly after finishing it, I plunged into the Morgan Papers at the University of Rochester to learn about the construction of his masterwork, the Systems of consanguinity and affinity of the human family, published in 1871.

Morgan's status as an ancestor of disciplinary anthropology is secure and widely acknowledged. The discipline of anthropology, as I see it, came out of a “Big Bang,” the nature of which is discussed in chapters 9 and 10 of this book. Anthropology did not emerge suddenly out of a void, of course. But there was a catastrophic event that shook up existing organizational and intellectual structures and brought about a new conjuncture that gave shape, socially and intellectually, to a new unity that we call anthropology. This Big Bang was the sudden explosion, around 1860, of the short biblical chronology of human history, which dated the creation to a few thousand years ago—in 4004 BC, according to the Protestant English tradition established by Ussher.

The expansion of the time frame for human history was the last in

I am grateful to Robbins Burling and Gillian Feeley-Harnik for comments on
drafts of this introduction.

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