Dr. Peter Whiteley (Anthropology) and Dr. Ward Wheeler (Invertebrate Zoology/Scientific Computing) of the American Museum of Natural History, New York, will adapt software designed for phylogenetic research (the study of evolutionary relatedness among various groups of biological organisms), to develop and apply an innovative anthro-informatics approach to cross-cultural data on human kinship and social systems. Using data drawn from published ethnographies and ethnographic databases, the researchers will use the software to compare social, cultural, and ecological features associated with a historically critical system of reckoning kinship and family relations worldwide. Kinship systems once organized all social systems, prior to the emergence of the state, and, therefore, explaining kinship systems is key to understanding patterns of human social evolution.

The software to be used (POY4) allows for testing likelihoods of feature transmission horizontally through space (i.e., via diffusion of learned behavior) as well as vertically through time (via simple inheritance). This is important because human behavior is learned between cultures as well as passed down within single cultures. The focal kinship systems, which appear to be evolutionarily transitional, are known collectively as Crow-Omaha systems by specialists. The hypotheses to be tested include whether they have distinctive associations with other features of social organization, whether they evolve from other known systems, and whether certain economic and ecological conditions favor their rise and spread.

The research will enable scientists to better explain the associations of particular kinship systems and other behavioral phenomena, resulting in significant implications for the understanding human social organization over time and space. Funding this research also supports graduate student education.

Project Report

This three-year project has focused on the identification and systematic comparison of all known instances worldwide of societies with "Crow-Omaha" kinship systems. These systems, which "skew" kin-terms intergenerationally, have confounded anthropological explanation (the so-called "Crow-Omaha problem") for more than a century. By comparison of all known cases, the project has identified some critical common features among a wide array of different cultures where they are found. The project, directed by PI Peter Whiteley (Anthropology Division, American Museum of Natural History), and co-PI Ward Wheeler (Invertebrate Zoology Division, AMNH) employed two graduate research assistants for two years each (Theodore Powers and Nathan Woods, both City University of New York Doctoral Program in Anthropology), and 14 interns for varying periods from New York area universities. Research assistants and interns include several from minority backgrounds, including African American, Native American, Asian American, and Hispanic. From research in the ethnographic record, the project identified 273 societies worldwide with Crow or Omaha kinship, principally in Native North America, Native South America, Africa, Asia, and Oceania. We have concentrated on 171 of these cases. For each case, an average of six surrounding societies was identified, and bibliographic materials gathered (thus for ca. 800 societies). Comparison has deployed several databases, most notably our own enhancement of the Revised Ethnographic Atlas, featuring 118 sociocultural characters with multiple different states. We have completed total datasets (i.e., including all surrounding societies) for North America and East Africa, and partial datasets (i.e., for all regional Crow-Omaha cases) for West Africa, South America, and Oceania. Analysis with POY has generated phylogenetic trees of societies within regions, showing consistent clustering of Crow-Omaha systems, notwithstanding that only one of 118 variables is diagnostic of kinship per se. To date, we have concluded that Crow-Omaha systems typically correlate with one or more of the following factors: emergent forms of sociopolitical complexity; relatively higher population density within regions; richer environments; sedentism (based on agriculture or intensive foraging); and major biogeographic and/or language-family boundaries. The principal publication to date is Crow-Omaha: New Light on a Classic Problem of Kinship Analysis (University of Arizona Press, 2012), edited by Whiteley and Thomas Trautmann, featuring four articles by project participants. We are continuing to develop additional papers.

National Science Foundation (NSF)
Division of Behavioral and Cognitive Sciences (BCS)
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Jeffrey Mantz
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American Museum Natural History
New York
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