Lewis Henry Morgan (November 21, 1818 – December 17, 1881) was an American ethnologist, anthropologist and writer. However, his professional life was in the field of law. As an amateur scholar, he is best known for his work on cultural evolution and Native Americans.
Born in rural Rochester, Morgan studied law at Union College in 1840 and began practicing in his home town of Aurora, New York as well as Rochester. Morgan was a prominent man who received many accolades during his lifetime. He served in the New York State Assembly and Senate, was elected president of the American Association for the Advancement of Science in 1879, and was a member of the National Academy of Sciences. He died in 1881.
Work in ethnology
Morgan became interested in the Native Americans of his region and helped form a club (Grand Order of the Iroquois) to promote the interests of the local group, the Iroquois. He was formally incorporated into their society as an adopted member of the Iroquois tribe with the name Tayadaowuhkuh, meaning bridging the gap (between the Iroquois and the whites).
With the help of his Seneca tribe friend Ely S. Parker of the Tonawanda Creek Reservation, he studied the culture of the Iroquois and produced the book, The League of the Ho-de-no-sau-nee or Iroquois (1851). This volume became one of the earliest examples of ethnography, and these initial researches led him to consider more general questions of human social organization. In keeping with the general interest in social evolution common to his times, he began publishing books such as his seminal Systems of Consanguinity and Affinity (1871) and Houses and House-lives of the American Aborigines (1881). His goal was to explain the wide variety of kinship systems in indigenous societies as different stages in human evolution and social development.
Developments in the field of anthropology mean that Morgan's legacy is far from simple. Like Herbert Spencer and Edward Burnett Tylor, Morgan was a proponent of social evolution. He proposed a unilinear scheme of evolution from primitive to modern, through which he believed societies progressed. His evolutionary views of the three major stages of social evolution, savagery, barbarism, and civilization, were proposed in Ancient Society. They are divided by technological inventions, like fire, bow, pottery in savage era, domestication of animals, agriculture, metalworking in barbarian era and alphabet and writing in civilization era. Thus Morgan introduced a link between the social progress and technological progress. Morgan viewed the technological progress as a force behind the social progress, and any social change — in social institutions, organisations or ideologies have their beginning in the change of technology. His theory became an important milestone in the development of social Darwinism.
Karl Marx and Friedrich Engels relied on his accounts of the evolution of indigenous peoples to fill in their own account of the development of capitalist society. As a result many come to his writings from a leftist or Marxist point of view. Within the discipline of anthropology authors such as Leslie White championed Morgan's legacy while Franz Boas attacked it. Today Morgan's evolutionary position is widely discredited and unilinear theories of evolution are not highly regarded. However, many anthropologists recognize that he was one of the first people to systematically study kinship systems and there is a prestigious annual lecture memorializing Morgan given each year at the Anthropology Department of the University of Rochester.
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