Thank you, Kambiz, for letting me introduce my new book to the Anthropology.net community.
The story behind The Genius of Kinship is an interesting one. In 1991, then a student of history at the St. Petersburg State University, I wrote a course paper on the traditional social organization of the Shoshone Indians as could be gleaned from ethnographies and trappers’ accounts. Why would a Russian student be interested in the Shoshone Indians is an entirely different story to be told on a different occasion. Let’s just say I was researching Shoshone Indians because they were not widely known in the Russian ethnological literature. My advisors apparently noticed my interest in pre-industrial social structures, and recommended that I explored Shoshone Indian kinship structure in greater detail next year. I poured over literature on kinship studies in Russian, French and English for a few months and then looked at Shoshone kinship again. I was struck by their logical consistency and by the fact that this elegant simplicity was not mentioned anywhere in the basic literature on kinship. Typical case studies came from Australia, Southeast Asia, Oceania, Sino-Tibetan languages, but not from North America.
I thought that was puzzling: kinship studies, as we all know, were founded in the mid-19th century by the American lawyer, Lewis Henry Morgan, on the basis on Iroquois and other North American Indian tribes/nations. The birth of kinship studies coincided with the birth of anthropology as a romantic quest for the origins of Western civilziation. But by the end of the 20th century American Indian kinship structures are nowhere that prominent. Possessed by a pioneer’s zeal, I ventured into kinship terminologies around the world and initially amassed a database of over a thousand kinship nomenclatures from many linguistic families. In 1997, I defended my research as a Ph.D. dissertation at the Peter the Great Museum of Anthropology and Ethnology in St.Petersburg, and in 2001 I published it as a book entitled The Phenomenon of Kinship. Without a particular premeditation, I followed in Morgan’s early footsteps when he wrote The Systems of Consanguinity and Affinity of the Human Family (1870) and conceived of kinship terminologies as a source of information about ancient human population dispersals. (Morgan as a famous social evolutionist emerged with the publication of Ancient Society in 1877 when he attempted to explain the diversity of human kinship structures as a matter of stages in the progressive maturation of humankind.) Over and over again, I caught myself thinking that American Indian kinship structures are unique and can provide a missing link for the evolution of Old World kinship structures.
When I came to the U.S. in 1997 as a Ph.D. student in Anthropology at Stanford, I faced another puzzling irony of history: it’s not just American Indian kinship structures that have been eclipsed from the anthropological agenda, American anthropologists were not doing kinship studies at all. As Sylvia Yanagisako said upon learning about my Russian research, “But nobody does this stuff here anymore.” Truth be told, she herself was part of a “revival” of kinship studies in the U.S. in the late 1980s but more along the lines of gender, with “kinship” being scowled at as a spurious Victorian invention. For some inexplicable reason, she was sceptical of kinship systems, structures, lineages, and especially terminologies. Speaking to other feminist professors at Stanford’s Department of Anthropology (later Department of Cultural and Social Anthropology) such as Jane Collier and Carol Delaney, I couldn’t figure out where all the good old kinship studies went. Where were Lowie, Kroeber, Radcliffe-Brown, Malinowski, Fortes, Levi-Strauss, Dole, Murdock, Tax, Scheffler, Lounsbury, Dumont, Allen, Barnes, Trautmann, Tyler, Kronenfeld, componential analysis, generative analysis, equivalence-rule analysis and other proud representatives of the anthropological tribe? Yanagisako, Delaney and Collier all referred me back to David Schneider who allegedly “proved” that “kinship” was a malignant excresecence on the body of the discipline manifesting all the imaginable vices from racism and colonialism to the masculine bias.
It didn’t make much sense: coming out of a former Soviet country with all its anti-racism and anti-colonialism and anti-capitalism-with-its-severe-exploitation-of-women-and-children, I still felt okay about kinship. Of course, it’s a tough field, not for everyone, but anthropology and kinship are inseparable. You can critisize, develop new theories, change paradigms, but still groom the central concept of the discipline. That’s how I felt.
Across the Main Quad at Stanford, another group of American anthropologists was setting up a different anthropology department called “Anthropological Sciences.” Jim Fox was teaching anthropological linguistics, Joanna Mountain population genetics, Merritt Ruhlen Greenberg’s multilateral comparison, Bill Durham general evolution. There was no kinship studies either, but at least Tom Trautmann once came in with a talk, Hill Gates asked me about the Russian kinship theorist, Mikhail Kryukov, and Joanna Mountain heard about African “segmentary lineages.” Needless to say, the Anthropological Sciences people were very much into out-of-Africa theory of human evolution. Correspondingly, they were supporters of Clovis-I in the Americas. I took classes with Joanna Mountain and worked in her genetics lab. She was a student of Luca Cavalli-Sforza. I also heard wonderful presentations from Richard Klein on African fossils, Peter Underhill on Y chromosome, Marcus Feldman and Lev Zhivotovsky (a Russian geneticist from Moscow) on autosomal markers, and Joe Greenberg on the peopling of the Americas. When Greenberg passed away in 2001, Christie Turner flew in from Arizona for the memorial conference, only to reiterate the “consensus” between his odontology and Greenberg’s linguistics as a rock-solid proof of a recent origin of American Indians. (By 2005, Matsumura and Hudson in “Dental Perspectives on the Population History in Souteast Asia” //
American Journal of Physical Anthropology 127 deconstructed Turner’s celebrated Sundadonty category as a result of relatively recent admixture, thus depriving his general theories of much of their power.) In 1997-1998, Tom Dillehay’s Monte Verde was coming into spotlight, and John Rick grudgingly accepted Dillehay’s dates, with a caveat that “Tom probably mixed up the strata” but now it’s too late to disprove his Monte Verde tome.
So, I was caught in a cross-fire: on the one hand, feminists and post-structuralists “proved” that kinship studies was the unfortunate invention of the confused Cro-Magnon male; on the other hand, archaeology and genetics from across the Quad “proved” that humans came from Africa some 50,000 BP and peopled the Americas no earlier than 11,500 BP (okay, 12,500 BP but Dillehay must have confused the layers). In 1986, Greenberg tried to endorse the latter view linguistically with his tripartite division of American Indian languages into Amerind, Na-Dene and Eskimo-Aleut. (This classification was eventually rejected by the actual specialists in American Indian languages, and with it went down the linguistic counterpart of the out-of-Africa model.) But there was a gap between molecular genetics and linguistics, namely demography, social structure, marriage practices, residence patterns and kinship terminologies. Only this sociocultural bit of evidence could imbue our human origins story with necessary realism. I thought kinship studies could definitely furnish this missing link, and whether human kinship is about “biology” or about “culture” was an utterly secondary matter. I was contemplating terms like “idenetics” and “gignetics” (from Greek gigno ‘to give birth’, a cognate of gen-) to dub this mature state of kinship studies in the 21st century.
Human origins and dispersals research in the 1980s-1990s was driven by “physical” disiplines, those being archaeology/paleontology and genetics. Sociocultural data, meaning linguistics, kinship systems, mythology, were lagging behind. As late as 1980, Robert Austerlitz published a paper in a highly-specialized linguistics periodical called Ural-Altaische Jahrbucher calling attention to the fact that American Indians harbor much more linguistic diversity than the Old World. In 1992, Johanna Nichols published Linguistic Diversity in Space in Time and concluded that our perspective on early human languages comes from America and Australia/Oceania and not from Africa and Europe. Sociocultural anthropology was supposed to contribute kinship studies to the growing interdisciplinary effort, but it forsook it for the sake of abstract ethical polemics. This is all the more bizarre and unfortunate, since anthropology had been working with worldwide databases of kinship terminologies and forms of social organization long before blood groups were discovered, never mind mtDNA sequenced. (In 1967, Murdock sampled 800 kinship terminologies for the patterns of sibling nomenclature that gave a pretty good overall resolution of what patterns are found on what continents.) And the futility of post-modernist moralizing was vividly manifested “across the Quad,” where any reflexivity was tantamount to heresy. Both versions of anthropology looked equally sterile to me.
As a true patriot of Stanford’s Anthropology, I escaped the split of the department into Cultural and Social Anthropology and Anthropological Sciences by migrating for two quarters to the University of Chicago. I listened to terrific Terry Turner on the Kayapo, the late Kostas Kazazis on Indo-European historical linguistics and Balkan dialectology, flamboyant Michael Silverstein on evidentiality, and cowboy-hatted Ray Fogelson (once Yanagisako’s professor at the University of Washington) on American Indian studies and psychological anthropology. I saw legendary Marshall Sahlins from behind and narrowly missed Eric Hamp and Paul Friedrich. And lo and behold, Tom Dillehay himself was there teaching “Andean Prehistory” for half-a-year from the University of Kentucky. For his class, I wrote a paper suggesting that a crucial piece is missing from our human origins research (namely, kinship systems and related linguistic typology), that the out-of-Africa theory is quick and premature, and that if we look closely at American archaeology we won’t be able to see the exact process by which an adventurous group of Siberian hunters colonized the Americas. Symptomatically enough, Cavalli-Sforza assumed a relatively recent entry into the Americas in order to substantiate his claims of an African origin of modern humans; genetically, American Indians and Africans are polar opposites, hence, if we know that America was peopled late, then we can be sure that Africa was the cradle. Looking at Pleistocene archaeology with a critical eye leads one to believe that the data can’t exactly justify using America as an inverted yardstick for Africa. Clovis tools are found everywhere in the Americas but not in Siberia; microblades are found everywhere in Siberia from 20,000 BP but in America they never penetrated south of the Vancouver Island.
Dillehay gave me an A-, and put me in touch with a fellow out of California by the name of Alvah (Pardner) Hicks who’s been trying for a good decade to convince people to look at America as a possible homeland of modern humans. Hicks was in the midst of the 1990s hoopla around the peopling of the America: he attended conferences, dated skulls in South America, corresponded with Tad Schurr, Dave Meltzer and Lou Binford, buttonholed Lyle Campbell and Emoke Szathmary and summarized a myriad of human origins-related scholarly articles for the Mother Tongue readership (kinda doing blogging before blogging became popular). He tried his best to at least make people consider the possibility that American Indians could have migrated into Siberia at the end of the Ice Age. (Franz Boas talked about it a hundred years ago after the Jesup expedition.) But scholars simply refused to listen to Hicks: he brought to the table wacky ideas and he didn’t have a Ph.D. Nevertheless, Dillehay put me in touch with Hicks probably because I had one extra Ph.D. to give away.
When I returned to Stanford in 1999, I rushed to the library to update my kinship terminological database. The Russian library resources are no match for the Stanford ones, and the several years I spent at Green library comparing kinship terminologies from America, Africa, Oceania, Australia and Eurasia were totally worth it. I dug into obscure Brazilian Ph.D. theses, old French dictionaries of rare Austroasiatic languages and Joe Greenberg’s own collection of African language studies. In the end, I assembled a database of some 2500 languages, diligently assembled a comprehensive bibliography and screened this sample for a bunch of typological markers, such as self-reciprocal terminology, “Crow-Omaha,” sibling nomenclature, formal morphology, etc. Some of these typological/polysemic markers were well-known in the literature, others I had to describe anew. When the ordeal was over, I realized that my initial findings were reinforced and bolstered. American Indian kinship terminologies are archaic, while African kinsip terminologies are transformed.
This is the central thesis of The Genius of Kinship. But it’s not the only one. I introduce the reader into the history of kinship studies within and outside of anthropology, compare the ideas about kinship held by Morgan, Darwin and Lyell and conclude (very much in a post-structuralist vein) that our 19th century ideas about human kinship influenced our ideas about human origins. We looked into archaeology and paleontology for answers to the questions of where we came from, while outright dismissing evidence from living human populations (language, kinship, folklore). We were interested in what was left behind in a garbage pit, not in what was passed down to the next generation. We sought our origins in Neandertals, while letting American Indians pass into oblivion. We bypassed American Indian linguistic diversity and grammatical uniqueness and declared them a “recent” population in virtue of the fact that no fossil hominids were ever found in the Americas.
The Genius of Kinship is not meant to be an advocacy for an out-of-America theory of human origins and dispersals. This is a gigantic task. Rather, it’s a revival of kinship studies in anthropology in conjunction with the recent advances in linguistics, psychology, sociology and historiography, a nitty-gritty typological analysis of a large sample of kin terminologies and its application to the prehistory of such accepted language families as Na-Dene, Austronesian and others. One of the results of this revival is a suspicion that the 150 years of finagling with anthropological knowledge (are Indians savages? shall we continue with kinship or shall we switch to gender? only archaeology can furnish reliable data, let’s look at Neandertals, languages are too difficult to comprehend, while we need something tangible to look at, etc.) has resulted in a confused picture of human origins and dispersals in which fundamental assumptions remain unproven, while every new piece of evidence is either swept under the carpet or instantly reinterpreted to fit the consensus.
For instance, the original mtDNA paper, namely “Radiation of Human Mitochondrial DNA Types Analyzed by Restriction Endonuclease Cleavage Pattern” published by Johnson, Doug Wallace and Cavalli-Sforza in the Journal of Molecular Evolution 19 (1983) clearly showed that American Indians have the highest frequency of the ancestral human mtDNA “morph combination” (That was a restriction-site analysis, but still it provided a foundation for all subsequent research, the only difference being that at some point the tree was flipped around and the Africans were declared the oldest population.) The tree topology in this early paper bears close resemblance to the map of human blood types, with American Indians being preponderantly type O. Now, match Johnson et al. (1983) with Ward et al.’s (1992) intriguing paper on extensive mtDNA diversity among the Nuu-Chah-Nullth exceeding that of African !Kung, and ponder as to why American Indians are widely considered to be a young population. In order to explain away an inconvenient fact, Ward et al. had to resort to an argument that American Indians brought this diversity with them from Siberia. Now that pre-Clovis coprolites attest to the antiquity of mtDNA A and B lineages in North America (see Gilbert et al. Science 320 , 2008), even The Onion is smart enough to ridicule Ward et al.’s logic when it writes: “How can we be sure that some ancient nerd didn’t just carry an already thousand-year-old petrified turd with him when he crossed over the land bridge from Asia?”
Or, take Edward Vajda’s recent discovery of a linguistic connection between an isolated Siberian language, Ket, and Na-Dene in North America. The system of verbal prefixes is better preserved in Na-Dene than in Ket, the Ket sibling terminology is radically transformed from its Na-Dene prototype (The Genius of Kinship, p. 325). Or, the fact that the Kets’ neighbors, the Selkups and the Evenkis have a subtype of the purely American Indian mtDNA haplotype A2 (Tamm et al. Beringian Standstill and the Spread of Native American Founders. PLoS One, September 2007, no. 9). Isn’t it a genetic illustration of Boas’s and Hicks’s “back-migration”? While we find traces of American Indian genes in Siberia, the reverse isn’t true: we haven’t found such a close variant of a Siberian gene in the Americas. Or, if one reads Russian and opens up Vladimir Napolskikh’s dissertation on the Earth-Diver myths in America and Siberia, a simple scheme shows that all the archaic variants of this widely-spread motif are in North America, while all the derived ones are in Siberia.
There’s a puzzling contradiction in our data (if this data is looked at through unbiased interdisciplinary lenses), namely that “physical” disciplines such as archaeology/paleontology find lots of support for out-of-Africa, while “ideational” disciplines such as linguistics and kinship studies have Africa as a secondary spread zone and not a homeland. Which data should we trust? Can we ever hoe to build a robust theory on the basis of archaeology’s always-fragmentary-and-accidental evidence? Or, as Eldridge ad Gould famously claimed, such a theory can only be built on the basis of data coming from living biota? How do we now that the currently popular out-of-Africa interpretation of mtDNA and Y chromosome data is not simply a theoretically possible scenario and and the adaptation of a new system of information to suit the existing archaeological/paleontological consensus but a true description of unique population events? All our population genetic maps show the world at 1492, when Africa was probably genetically most diverse, but by 2008 America is arguably the most diverse continent: what scenario of human evolution would we develop hundreds of years from now provided that we wouldn’t know upfront that America was peopled from Europe, Asia and Africa after 1492? We dismissed America as a “New World” and its inhabitants as an Asian offshoot back in the 16th century, which is long before any scientific evidence has been accumulated, but can we reject the possibility that our modern archaeological, genetic, linguistic and ethnological data is consistent with two opposite “single-origin” scenarios? If so, can we rationally adjudicate between the two scenarios without demolishing one as “wacky” and then using the rubble to lionize the other?