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Open Access Publications from the University of California

The Descent of Morgan in Australia: Kinship Representation from the Australian Colonies

  • Author(s): McConvell, Patrick
  • Gardner, Helen
  • et al.

Morgan had two extraordinary disciples in Lorimer Fison and Alfred Howitt in Australia.  They were inspired by Morgan’s kinship schedule and were profoundly engaged in the method and theory of the collection of kinship data and its interpretation.  Fison began using the schedule in Fiji in 1869.  Soon after his first contact with Howitt, in 1873, they changed the method of collection of kinship terminologies.  This paper traces the shift from tabulated kinship lists to family trees and the use of sticks to represent relationships (nearly twenty years before Rivers’ celebrated ‘genealogical method’), as well as efforts to find new means of representing kinship through experimentation with ‘ graphic formulae’ inspired by chemical equations.  These innovations first occurred through the gathering of kinship data about the Kŭnai of Gippsland, Victoria, and crucially involved close collaboration between Howitt and his Kŭnai consultant Tulaba.  What was revealed in this process was an indigenous kinship system quite different from that found in other parts of colonial Australia known at the time.  Fison and Howitt explained this system as transitional between two stages in terms of Morgan’s evolutionary scheme, but at the same time challenged the assumption that the general scheme could be applied to Australia.  While the details of Morgan’s evolutionary stages have faded from view, the methods of collection, representation, transmission, comparison and interpretation of kinship data are still live issues in anthropology today.  The kind of kinship system discovered in Gippsland involved neutralisation of the cross-parallel distinctions, distinctions that are otherwise typical of Australia.  Such neutralisation can now be shown to occur elsewhere in Australia.  There does indeed seem to have been a transition from a Dravidianate system with cross-parallel distinctions to ‘overlays’ of cross-parallel neutralisation, and finally a complete loss in some generations of such distinctions in the terminology.  These discoveries open up possibilities of rebuilding a diachronic theory of kinship change and evolution, incorporating some of the insights of Fison and Howitt, though without their specific hypotheses, either of local developments in Gippsland or the grand scheme of Morgan.

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