Unit 1: Genetics & Evolution

Stages of Cultural Evolution: Lewis Henry Morgan

Lewis Henry Morgan (1818-1881)

Lewis Henry Morgan is an American anthropologist who was influential both as a cultural evolutionist and because of his research into kinship systems. Trained as a lawyer, he eventually studied the Iroquois Culture in New York State, and became interested in anthropology. In 1877, he wrote a book entitled Ancient Society, or Researches in the Lines of Human Progress from Savagery through Barbarism to Civilization. He divided the human past into three cultural stages, and subdivided and defined these stages as shown on the chart below.

Cultural Stage Divisions Traits Used by Morgan Archaeological "stages"
Civilization None Monotheism,monogamy, capitalism, industrialism, democracy, social classes, political state, patriarchy
Civilization (ca. 5000 years ago) Traits include intensive agriculture, social stratification, political state, full-time occupational specialists.
Barbarism Upper Barbarism Use of Iron
Neolithic (ca. 12,000 ya) Traits include dependency on domesticated plants and animals; ie. horticulture; ground stone tools; pottery. Eventually in certain areas a Bronze Age and/or Iron Age developed as Neolithic cultures added the use of metal.
Middle Barbarism Animal domestication, patrilineal clans; individual ownership, polygamy Same; Neolithic is not subdivided in archaeology
Lower Barbarism Plant domestication, pottery, matrilineal clans, communal ownership; clan exogamy Same; Neolithic is not subdivided in archaeology
Savagery Upper Savagery Bow and Arrow Paleolithic (ca. 2 million years ago to 12,000 ya) Traits include dependency on hunting and gathering, ie. foraging; flaked stone tools.The Paleolithic is divided into Lower, Middle and Upper, but not based on Morgan's traits
Middle Savagery Fire, fishing, hunting, sibling marriage prohibited
Lower Savagery Before fire; fruits and nuts; promiscuous bands, indiscriminate mating; communistic

Look closely at the traits Morgan lists for Civilization. Clearly they are the traits of the United States of the 1800's. Many modern Americans might not agree that patriarchy (a society were males have all the power both politically and within the family) is a trait possessed by the most progressive cultures. Cultural evolutionism clearly was ethnocentric, claiming that the traits possessed in this case by the United States were not only the best, but that all cultures would inevitably progress to be like us.

In addition, there is no validity to Morgan's list of traits. It does not represent the details of cultural development historically. Morgan of course was trying to find existing cultures who were in the different stages. Archaeology was still in its infancy, as was cultural anthropology, and available information was sparse. When he heard that certain Hawaiian alii could marry half-siblings in traditional Hawaiian culture, and that Hawai'i lacked pottery, Morgan classified Hawai'i as being in the stage of Lower Savagery (despite its sophisticated agriculture, class stratification, and political state).

Archaeologically, all that can be supported is to say that indeed humans started as foragers, in many areas eventually developed horticulture, and in some areas developed the political state. All cultures do change. Anthropologists do not claim this is progress, since the meaning of "progress" is dependent upon one's own cultural values.

Unfortunately, from an anthropological view, the cultural evolutionists triumphed. Most Americans believe that cultures' inevitably progress, to the extent that many believe that all change is progress. Most Americans believe that the United States is the most progressive culture, and that all cultures should and will "evolve" to be more like us. The world's cultures are still divided into three evolutionary stages: a "first" world, or developed countries; a "second" world of developing countries; and a "third" world of undeveloped countries. It is assumed that both the "third" and the "second" world will eventually "evolve" into developed, industrial, capitalistic, democratic cultures similar to those already in the "first" world. Meanwhile, the goal of developed countries should be to help less developed countries become more like us--whether they want to or not. This is the modern version of cultural evolutionism. So while cultural evolutionism is no longer an acceptable paradigm in anthropology, it is alive and well as part of the American world view.