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New Light on a Classic Problem of Kinship Analysis

Thomas R. Trautmann

Publication Year: 2012

The “Crow-Omaha problem” has perplexed anthropologists since it was first described by Lewis Henry Morgan in 1871. During his worldwide survey of kinship systems, Morgan learned with astonishment that some Native American societies call some relatives of different generations by the same terms. Why? Intergenerational “skewing” in what came to be named “Crow” and “Omaha” systems has provoked a wealth of anthropological arguments, from Rivers to Radcliffe-Brown, from Lowie to Lévi-Strauss, and many more. Crow-Omaha systems, it turns out, are both uncommon and yet found distributed around the world. For anthropologists, cracking the Crow-Omaha problem is critical to understanding how social systems transform from one type into another, both historically in particular settings and evolutionarily in the broader sweep of human relations.

This volume examines the Crow-Omaha problem from a variety of perspectives—historical, linguistic, formalist, structuralist, culturalist, evolutionary, and phylogenetic. It focuses on the regions where Crow-Omaha systems occur: Native North America, Amazonia, West Africa, Northeast and East Africa, aboriginal Australia, northeast India, and the Tibeto-Burman area. The international roster of authors includes leading experts in their fields.

The book offers a state-of-the-art assessment of Crow-Omaha kinship and carries forward the work of the landmark volume Transformations of Kinship, published in 1998. Intended for students and scholars alike, it is composed of brief, accessible chapters that respect the complexity of the ideas while presenting them clearly. The work serves as both a new benchmark in the explanation of kinship systems and an introduction to kinship studies for a new generation of students.

Series Note: Formerly titled Amerind Studies in Archaeology, this series has recently been expanded and retitled Amerind Studies in Anthropology to incorporate a high quality and number of anthropology titles coming in to the series in addition to those in archaeology.

Published by: University of Arizona Press

Title Page, Copyright

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pp. ii-iv


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pp. v-vi

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pp. vii-x

This volume has grown out of a conviction that the time is ripe to make real progress on one of anthropology’s oldest and most obdurate of problems: that of Crow-Omaha. It is the result of an Amerind Foundation Advanced Seminar held early in 2010, bringing together fifteen ...

Kinship Notation

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p. xi-xi

Linguistic Note

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p. xiii-xiii

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1. A Classic Problem

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pp. 1-27

Anthropology began with kinship. To be sure, kinship is everywhere and did not need to be discovered like some hidden continent; but everywhere kinship is found it is specific, and what anthropology did was to recognize this variety and try to account ...

Crow-Omaha in Theory

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2. Crossness and Crow-Omaha

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pp. 31-50

Crow-Omaha kinship—by which I mean kinship terminologies containing skewing—invariably also contains crossness. But there are many terminologies that have crossness without skewing. Skewing is something that is added to (some) systems that have crossness; it is not something ...

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3. Tetradic Theory and Omaha Systems

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pp. 51-66

Tetradic theory has been presented previously in several contexts and from various points of view (Allen 2004, 2008); here I briefly summarize some of its main features. At its base lies the notion of tetradic society. This type of society is hypothetical and has never been attested ...

North America

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4. Omaha and “Omaha”

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pp. 69-82

The manifold ways that “Omaha” has been used to indicate a class of societies on several continents provide endless opportunities for misunderstanding. Institutions and practices in, say, Africa or South America may be totally divergent from the features described by the existing ...

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5. Crow-Omaha Kinship in North America: A Puebloan Perspective

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pp. 83-108

As the names imply, Crow and Omaha kinship systems were first described in Native North America, where they have also given rise to some major controversies (e.g., Barnes 1975, 1984; McKinley 1971a; Needham 1971). In what sense and to what degree widely dispersed ...

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6. Phylogenetic Analysis of Sociocultural Data: Identifying Transformation Vectors for Kinship Systems

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pp. 109-131

The use of trees as metaphor to describe the historical kinship of creatures has a long history in biology. Today, we tend to look to the “I think” illustration of Darwin (1859) and the explicit phylogenetic tree of Haeckel (1866) as origins, but implicit tree thinking extends back ...


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7. A Tetradic Starting Point for Skewing? Marriage as a Generational Contract: Reflections on Sister-Exchange in Africa

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pp. 135-152

Embarking on fieldwork decades ago, I was puzzled that African exchange marriage was so little discussed; it was intriguing to me, but I found little guidance in the anthropological kinship theories of the day. These were dominated on the one hand by pragmatic Africanist models ...

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8. Crow-(and Omaha-) TypeKinship Terminology: The Fanti Case

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pp. 153-172

As techniques used in the formal semantic analysis of kinship terminologies have become more complex and esoteric, there has been an increasing tendency for formalists to ignore the social facts that give rise to the kinship terms. Conversely, those anthropologists who are ...

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9. Deep-Time Historical Contexts of Crow and Omaha Systems Perspectives from Africa

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pp. 173-202

Crow systems of kin reckoning exist far back in time. Omaha systems are historically recent and not part of our ancient human cultural heritage. That, at least, is what the linguistic reconstruction of kin histories among the vastly spread ...

South America

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10. The Making and Unmaking of “Crow-Omaha” Kinship in Central Brazil(ian Ethnology)

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pp. 205-222

This contribution is intended as an overview of the ethnography of so-called Crow-Omaha kinship systems prevalent in central Brazil. The groups I discuss here are all Gê-speakers, the different languages of this family having spread along the savannas of the central Brazilian plateau ...

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11. Schemas of Kinship Relations and the Construction of Social Categories among the Mebêngôkrê Kayapó

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pp. 223-239

This chapter deals with kinship and social organization among the Kayapó, or as they call themselves, the Mebêngôkrê, a Gê-speaking people of central Brazil. I attempt to demonstrate how the social activities that produce families, domestic groups, kindreds, communal social groups, ...


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12. Omaha Skewing in Australia Overlays, Dynamism, and Change

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pp. 243-260

Omaha skewing is found in a number of regions of Australia. This is not widely known, as attention has focused on one system found in the Worrorran family of languages in the North Kimberley (Lucich 1968; Scheffler 1978:385–417). One reason the wider range and variation of ...

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13. “Horizontal” and “Vertical” Skewing Similar Objectives, Two Solutions?

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pp. 261-277

In 1975, Robert Tonkinson presented a paper at a seminar that remained largely unknown and that he unfortunately has never published. In this paper (for which he has provided me with his preparatory notes), he mentions the process called ngaranmaridi, explained by Aboriginal ...


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14. Crow-Omaha, in Thickness and in Thin

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pp. 281-297

Morgan’s astonishment in finding that among some peoples the son of an uncle is equally an uncle inaugurated a discussion that this book continues. Since Morgan, the discussion of the Crow-Omaha problem, understood in the simple sense of the problem of explaining skewing, ...


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pp. 299-302


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pp. 303-307


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pp. 309-334

Topics Index

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pp. 337-343

Peoples Index

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pp. 344-346

Persons Index

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pp. 347-348

E-ISBN-13: 9780816599318
Print-ISBN-13: 9780816507900

Page Count: 392
Publication Year: 2012