|Did you ever think of how odd the word “cousin” really is? Unlike our other English terms for relatives–father, mother, sister, brother, son, daughter, niece, nephew, aunt, uncle–it does not even identify the sex of the relative referred to. This is simply one peculiarity of what anthropologists call our kinship terminology. In fact, languages differ quite a bit in how their kinship terminology classifies relatives. (Our system turns out to be a variant of the pattern anthropologists designate as “Eskimo” terminology.) The surprising facts that a few basic patterns occur over and over, and that each pattern has a logical structure of its own, were among the discoveries of Lewis Henry Morgan, a prosperous attorney who lived in 19th-century Rochester, New York. As a young man Morgan had taken great interest in the Iroquois Indians of New York, and in 1851 he published a book about them highly respected even today. His anthropological interests reached full flower, however, in his 1877 book, Ancient Society. To organize the growing body of knowledge about human cultures of the past and present, Morgan carefully defined three main cultural stages: savagery, barbarism, and civilization. Savagery and barbarism he divided into substages of lower, middle, and upper, for a total of seven stages. These terms sound ethnocentric, or culturally biased, to us today. But in Morgan’s time, and certainly in his usage, they were technical terms and did not have all the pejorative connotations they later acquired. It is not sufficiently appreciated that Morgan, especially for his time and place, had a very tolerant, sympathetic attitude toward cultural differences. The Preface to his Iroquois book reads, in part,
Born to an unpropitious fate, the inheritors of many wrongs, they have been unable, of themselves, to escape from the complicated difficulties which accelerate their decline. To aggravate these adverse influences, the public estimation of the Indian, resting, as it does, upon an imperfect knowledge of his character, and tinctured, as it ever has been, with the coloring of prejudice, is universally unjust. [Morgan 1901:ix-x]
Morgan’s seven stages, partly for reasons of convenience and clarity, were defined mainly with reference to elements of technology. Barbarism, for example, was distinguished from savagery by the presence of pottery. This had some strange consequences. Peoples of Polynesia, for example, despite living in large chiefdoms consisting of several permanent villages, were classified as “savages” along with small, nomadic bands of foragers simply because they happened to lack pottery. Yet the criticism later heaped on Morgan for this and other failings was not quite fair; he himself had looked forward to a time when fuller evidence would allow more satisfactory classifications than his own. Recognizing the imitations of both his own scheme and the Stone-Age/Bronze-Age/Iron-Age scheme introduced by Danish archaeologists, he wrote:
It is probable that the successive arts of subsistence which arose at long intervals will ultimately, from the great influence they must have exercised upon the condition of mankind, afford the most satisfactory bases for these divisions. But investigation has not been carried far enough in this direction to yield the necessary information. [Morgan 1985:9]
This was an accurate prediction. Anthropologists now agree that it is not pottery that is the main thing, for example, but the transition from foraging for food to growing it–a major case of “successive arts of subsistence.” The archaeological appearance of pottery around the world correlates fairly well with this transition, probably because pottery is too heavy and fragile to have been of much use before people began settling into villages and growing food some ten thousand years ago; so even in emphasizing pottery, which got him into such trouble over the Polynesians, Morgan had not been too wide of the mark.