Lewis Henry Morgan

The American anthropologist Lewis Henry Morgan (1818-1881) wrote one of the first ethnographies, invented the study of kinship terminology, and made an early attempt to grapple with the idea of universal principles of cultural evolution.

Lewis Henry Morgan was born on Nov. 21, 1818, near Aurora, N.Y. He graduated from Union College in Schenectady in 1840. He then returned to Aurora, where he read law. In 1844 he opened a law office in Rochester.

Morgan became interested in the Iroquois of western New York State and undertook a field study of the Iroquois Confederation, especially the Seneca tribe. His League of the Ho-dé-no-sau-nee, or Iroquois (1851) is considered one of the earliest objective ethnographic works.

In the 1850s Morgan concentrated on his law practice. He invested in railroad and mining ventures and accumulated a small fortune. After attending a meeting of the American Association for the Advancement of Science in 1856, he resolved to pursue his anthropological interests scientifically.

Morgan noticed that the Seneca designate their consanguineous kin in a manner different from that of civilized peoples. They merge collateral relatives, such as uncles, cousins, and nephews, into the direct line, classifying those relatives as fathers, brothers, and sons. While the kinship terminologies of civilized peoples recognize a distinction between kin in one's direct line of descent, Seneca kinship terminology does not recognize that distinction.

In 1858, on a business trip to Michigan, Morgan discovered that the Ojibwa have a "classificatory" system like that of the Seneca. He suspected that this system was characteristic of Indians. He believed that if he could find evidence for the system in Asia the Asiatic origin of the American Indians would be proved. He sent a questionnaire to likely informants. Finding evidence for the classificatory system in India, he circulated an expanded questionnaire. Morgan went on four field trips (1859-1862) to the West, traveling up the Missouri River as far as western Montana, to gather information on kinship terminology and other aspects of culture.

In Morgan's monumental Systems of Consanguinity and Affinity of the Human Family (1871) he presented kinship terminologies, showing the widespread occurrence of the classificatory system in both the New and Old Worlds. This work was the first in the important field of kinship terminology, and it represents his most lasting contribution.

Morgan believed that the classificatory system represented a survival from a time of promiscuity when it was impossible to tell fathers from uncles, brothers from cousins, and sons from nephews. Society subsequently developed marriage rules, but the older terminology persisted. Later, according to Morgan, with the rise of civilization and private property, a distinction was made between one's own family line and one's collateral relatives for purposes of establishing inheritence. The "descriptive" system of kinship terminology developed out of the classificatory system. Today anthropologists do not believe that there was a promiscuous stage in the development of the family, at least not in recent human history. Also, Morgan's scheme is a simplification of what is actually a complicated matter.

His interest in the development, or evolution, of social institutions culminated in Morgan's most famous work, Ancient Society (1877). He recognized three stages in the cultural evolution of man: savagery, barbarism, and civilization. Savagery and barbarism are divided into lower, middle, and upper stages. These stages are defined in terms of means of subsistance or technological inventions. Thus, savagery was preagricultural, barbarism was marked by pottery and agriculture, and civilization arose with the invention of writing.

Morgan also traced the growth of ideas of government, the family, and property. Stages in the development of these ideas are associated with stages of savagery, barbarism, and civilization. He saw the evolution of human culture as essentially a single development from the most primitive stage to civilization. Karl Marx and Friedrich Engels viewed Morgan's Ancient Society as complementing their own work, and the book is regarded by Marxists as a classic.

Morgan was elected president of the American Association for the Advancement of Science in 1879, the first anthropologist so honored. He died on Dec. 17, 1881, in Rochester.

Further Reading on Lewis Henry Morgan

An excellent biography of Morgan is Carl Resek, Lewis Henry Morgan: American Scholar (1960). See also Bernhard Joseph Stern, Lewis Henry Morgan: Social Evolutionist (1931).

Morgan's work has undergone several reevaluations. Franz Boas and his students devalued Morgan's Ancient Society in their opposition to the idea of cultural evolution. A resurgence of interest in the concept of cultural evolution, begun by Leslie White, has tended to restore Morgan's reputation. Thus the historical writings on him by anthropologists are often mutually contradictory and polemical. For example, Robert Lowie, a student of Boas, paints an unfavorable picture of Morgan in a chapter of The History of Ethnological Theory (1937), while a chapter by White in An Introduction to the History of Sociology (1948), edited by Harry Elmer Barnes, attributes to Morgan achievements that were not his.

Meyer Fortes describes Morgan's lasting contributions to social anthropology in the first part of Kinship and the Social Order: The Legacy of Lewis Henry Morgan (1969). See also the chapter on Morgan and kinship by Frederick Russell Eggon in Essays in the Science of Culture in Honor of Leslie A. White, edited by Gertrude Evelyn Dole and Robert L. Carneiro (1960).