Lewis Henry Morgan was an influential 19th-century ethnologist who dedicated most of his career to kinship studies. He documented an extensive amount of valuable written and physical material on the Iroquoian culture. Morgan was born on November 21, 1818. He grew up in a farmhouse close to Aurora, New York, and enrolled at the Cayuga Academy. Afterward, he attended Union College, where he graduated in 1840. Morgan studied law, and in 1842 he was admitted to the bar. Because of conditions caused by a depression at that time, Morgan joined a group of individuals who called themselves the Grand Order of the Iroquois. Their main purpose was to help create a society that would treat the Iroquois with more compassion and consideration.
In 1849-1850, Morgan collected information and cultural artifacts from the Seneca Iroquois of Tonawanda. He also obtained articles from the Six Nations reserve on the Grand River in southeastern Ontario. These included traditional ceremonial items, clothing and adornment, containers, transportation tools, war and hunting tools, cooking tools and foodstuff, a house model, containers, cradles and cradle-boards, and other miscellaneous items. The Parker family significantly helped to recreate and explain the culture and use of the material objects. As a result, Morgan was able to produce extensive reports on the livelihood of the Seneca people. He gathered approximately 500 objects within the culture that were given to the Historical and Antiquarian Collection of the New York State Cabinet of Natural History.
Throughout his anthropological career, Morgan was best known for three of his books: League of the Iroquois (1851), Systems of Consanguinity and Affinity of the Human Family (1871), and Ancient Society (1877). Morgan researched the lives of the Iroquois on the Seneca more intensely within these books. He studied the social and organizational methods within their culture and focused on their customs and beliefs. This documentation of the Iroquois is believed to have been one of the first concrete scientific descriptions of the Iroquois culture.
Morgan’s second book, Systems of Sanguinity and Affinity of the Human Family, concentrated on the origins of the American Indians. In 1865, Morgan discovered that American Indians of different language families used similar kinship terminology. He found that even though these tribes were of different and unique cultural backgrounds, they referred to members of their families in the same way. The father’s brother would be called father, and the mother’s sister would be called mother. The children of either parent’s brother or sister would be referred to as brothers or sisters.
Even though Morgan had discovered these similarities, he undertook to find out whether these practices were consistent among all American Indians. From there, he wanted to determine whether this kinship terminology correlated with that of the system in Asia. His theory developed into the belief that the American Indians were actually of Asian origin. Morgan began his research. Over the course of 4 years, he traveled throughout the United States and Canada, where he documented information. He distributed questionnaires to collect data within the United States, India, Africa, and surrounding islands. The results showed him that the Tamil people of southern India used the same kinship terminology as the American Indians. Morgan considered this as proof that the American Indians were in fact of Asiatic origin.
Morgan continued to suggest that there was an explanation as to why families within these communities combined their titles of kinship such as calling a mother’s sister “mother” and calling a father’s brother “father.” In Ancient Society (1964), he concluded that there must have been an “ancient existence of a consanguine family in which brothers and sisters intermarried in a group . . . and beyond this, in the remotest antiquity of mankind, lay promiscuous intercourse where no customs of marriage existed at all.” Although Morgan’s theory proved to be inaccurate, he was acknowledged for his extensive data collection and inquiry. This information was used for his book, Systems of Consanguinity and Affinity of the Human Family. Morgan gathered a very significant amount of information regarding his travels and experiences within these cultures unlike any other anthropologist from that time.
With origin on his mind, Morgan began to focus on biological and cultural evolution. Ancient Society was written to explain the process that cultures went through to evolve into civilized societies. He suggested that a society went through three main stages during its biological and cultural evolution. A culture began at the very bottom of existence as humans in savagery, then moved toward barbarism, and ultimately reached civilization.
Within savagery and barbarism, Morgan created three levels; lower status, middle status, and upper status. Morgan’s theory rested on the assumption that through inventions, discoveries, and the growth of ideas, cultures evolved and progressed to the next stratum of human existence. Within the stratum of savagery, people relied on wild plants to survive. There was no working the land or animal domestication. Barbarism was defined by the initial use of agriculture. Civilization involved the use of the written word and the desire for property. In further detail, Morgan suggested that from barbarism, humankind was able to control subsistence use, and this allowed the continuation of the human species. From the cultivation of plants and cereals and the domestication of animals, societies created an abundance of permanent subsistence and therefore reached civilization. Morgan continued to distinguish between primitive and civilized societies when he stated, in Ancient Society, that primitive society was “founded upon ties of kinship, and modern, or civil, society is organized upon the basis of property relations and territorial distinctions.”
Morgan died in 1881. Some of his work had since been proven to be false and seen as Eurocentric, but he is still considered as an important anthropologist from his time. Through his timeless research, data collection, analysis, and work with the Iroquois, he is seen as one of the founding fathers of anthropology.
- Ben-Zvi, Y. (2003). National appropriations and cultural evolution: The spatial and temporal U.S. of Lewis Henry Morgan’s Native America. Canadian Review of American Studies, 33, 211-229.
- Morgan, L. H. (1962). League of the Iroquois. Secaucus, NJ: Citadel Press.
- Morgan, L. H. (1964). Ancient society. Cambridge, MA: Belknap Press of Harvard University Press.
- Tooker, E. (1994). Lewis H. Morgan on Iroquois material culture. Tucson: University of Arizona Press.