- In Memoriam, Ann Chowning, 1929–2016
Ann Chowning died in Auckland on February 25, 2016, aged 86.1 A superb ethnographer who did extensive fieldwork in four different Austronesian-speaking societies of western Melanesia, she also made important contributions to Oceanic linguistics and culture history, including substantial dictionaries of four languages and more than 20 papers, chiefly on comparative-historical topics. She also published on Mayan archaeology, prehistoric flint industries in New Britain, and folklore.
Chowning’s life and career as ethnographer, archaeologist, and teacher are well described in a biographical sketch (Huntsman with Chowning 2005) in her Festschrift, a volume aptly titled A polymath anthropologist: Essays in honour of Ann Chowning (Gross, Lyons, and Counts 2005). This memoir will focus on her linguistic work, while placing it in the context of her ethnographic research. Indeed, the two are hard to separate. The special value of Chowning’s works on linguistic topics lies in the fact that they are informed by her encyclopedic knowledge of the ethnography and the history of research on Melanesian societies. This broad and detailed knowledge was also evident in her contributions as a very active critic and reviewer. She was quick to spot flaws in certain claims made by comparative linguists who lacked such broad expertise. My file of correspondence with Ann over several decades is full of letters from her that politely and painstakingly corrected my errors or added to my data.
From 1960–65, Chowning was Assistant Professor (Chair 1961–65) in the Department of Anthropology at Barnard College, Columbia University. From 1965–70, she was Senior Research Fellow in Social Anthropology at the Australian National University in Canberra. In 1970 she joined the staff of the newly established University of Papua New Guinea in Port Moresby, as Associate Professor of Anthropology. In 1977 she moved to Victoria University of Wellington as Professor and Chair of the Department of Anthropology, a position she held until her retirement in 1995.
FROM LITTLE ROCK TO PHILADELPHIA
Martha Ann Chowning was born on April 18, 1929 in Little Rock, Arkansas, where she attended Little Rock High School, graduating in 1946. In 1954 she made the first of more than 20 field trips to Melanesia. One may wonder, what led a girl from the American South to become an anthropologist in Melanesia? It seems that in high school Ann read widely in the historical disciplines and became deeply interested in American, especially Mayan, archaeology. Her father, Frank Chowning, was a successful attorney. Her niece, Martha Chowning, recalls that “he was very much like Ann, curious about the world, a collector of fine and interesting [End Page 678] things, and a polymath in many ways. He was very interested in family genealogy (he traveled to England to do research) and was an enthusiastic amateur archaeologist who indoctrinated his children and grandchildren into hunting for Native American artifacts in the fields of Arkansas. Ann’s mother, Martha, had a great love of culture, and especially music. She was ambitious for Ann, and realized and nurtured her intelligence.”
After high school, Ann went north to a leading university for women, Bryn Mawr College, near Philadelphia (the first women’s university to offer a PhD). There she majored in Spanish but took as many courses in anthropology as she could. Archaeology was a particular passion, and during her undergraduate studies and in later years she took part in summer excavations in Indiana, Oklahoma, Yucatan, and Guatemala. After taking her ba (magna cum laude) in 1950, she enrolled in the anthropology graduate program in Barnard College, Columbia University. Her Master’s thesis was on raven myths in Northwest America and Northeast Asia.
FROM PHILADELPHIA TO MELANESIA: THE LAKALAI PROJECT
In 1952, Ann began a PhD in anthropology at the University of Pennsylvania. The program there reflected the traditional American view of anthropology as an enterprise encompassing four fields: cultural anthropology, archaeology, physical anthropology, and linguistics. This fitted well with Ann’s wide range of interests. One of Ann’s teachers was Ward Goodenough, a rising star in American anthropology who was also trained in descriptive and historical linguistics. Goodenough obtained funding for a project focusing on the Lakalai people of...