Academic journal article Oceania

The Origin of Kinship in Oceania: Lewis Henry Morgan and Lorimer Fison

Academic journal article Oceania

The Origin of Kinship in Oceania: Lewis Henry Morgan and Lorimer Fison

Article excerpt

Lewis Henry Morgan's 590-page opus of tables and figures Systems of Consanguinity and Affinity, (1871) detailed 139 kinship systems from around the world (Tooker 1997:xii). It differed markedly from contemporary anthropological pastiches of explorer, missionary and settler anecdotes and narratives; for it was based on kinship schedules of over 280 terms, and required the close questioning of the informant for successful completion. Systems was held together by a fine thread of evolutionist conjecture in which Hawaii featured prominently as the base line of kinship. The following article examines the spread of kinship studies through Oceania (2) via Morgan's collaborator Lorimer Fison, and the importance of Pacific kinship systems to the development and challenging of Morgan's theory. A central question is whether the evolutionist theory of kinship progress along a single path, mapped onto existing populations and applicable to many of the burning questions of the period on relationships between human groups, was successfully challenged by the data and evidence that was collected from the periphery (Chambers and Gillespie 2000:223).

Lewis Henry Morgan's pioneer investigation into the socio-political structures of the Iroquois Indians in 1842 in order to replicate the system in his fraternal society, the Grand Order of the Iroquois, has entered the folklore of post-colonial American anthropology (Tooker 1983: 142, 1992: 359; Trautmann 1987: 40-43; van der Grijp 1997: 105). The American lawyer re-engaged with ethnology ten years later as new challenges to the doctrine of monogenesis--the single origin of humankind--emerged amongst American scientists who claimed multiple human origins and were bolstered by the cranial measurements of Samuel Morton and the work of Harvard biologist Louis Agassiz (Trautmann 1987: 27, 76-78). Throughout the 1850s and '60s, on both sides of the Atlantic and in settler societies across the world, debates raged over the distinctions between human populations and the theorising and measurement of human differences. Christian monogenists continued to insist on the single origin and essential similitude of all peoples but were increasingly challenged by scientific theories of multiple origins and immutable differences between human groups (Kenny: 2007). In Britain, members of both the Ethnological and the Anthropological Societies in England juggled physical and social evidence in their analysis of human diversity and a number embraced polygenesis, though the idea was heterodox in the wider community (Kenny 2007:382; Stocking 1968:75). Eventually both Evangelicals and polygenists were trumped by the new monogenism of the Darwinists who argued for the evolution of a single human species but at different rates that had led to longstanding and profound differences between 'races' measured physically according to the shape of the skull, the hue of the skin or the curl of the hair, or culturally through the progress of institutions, intellect or morality (Kenny 2007; Stocking 1968:56; 1987:148-50).

While Morgan initially believed in the fixity and permanence of species, he was eventually drawn to the temporal logic of Darwinian theory and, as with many other materialists of the period, transposed a simplified notion of biological adaptation onto human society, which he believed would be gradually perfected through time and along a single line. He described to his sceptical correspondent, Methodist missionary Lorimer Fison, his acceptance first of Darwin then the evolution of society based on the data provided by contemporary 'savages' and new evidence of human antiquity. (3)

   When Darwin's great work on the origin of species appeared I
   resisted his theory, and was inclined to adopt Agassiz's views of
   the permanence of species. For some years I stood in this position.
   After working up the results from consanguinity, I was compelled to
   change them, and to adopt the conclusion that "man commenced at the
   bottom of the scale" from which he worked himself up to his present
   status, that the record of this progress is still preserved to a
   remarkable extent in his inventions and discoveries which stand to
   each other in the ages of savagism, or barbarism and of
   civilization in a progressive series; and in his domestic and civil
   institutions which have been developed through the same periods. … 
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