Ancient Society

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Ancient Society
Ancient Society (book).jpg
AuthorLewis H. Morgan
CountryUnited States

Ancient Society is an 1877 book by the American anthropologist Lewis H. Morgan. Building on the data about kinship and social organization presented in his 1871 Systems of Consanguinity and Affinity of the Human Family, Morgan develops his theory of the three stages of human progress, i.e., from Savagery through Barbarism to Civilization. Contemporary European social theorists such as Karl Marx and Friedrich Engels were influenced by Morgan's work on social structure and material culture, as shown by Engels' The Origin of the Family, Private Property, and the State (1884).

The concept of progress[edit]

The dominant idea of Morgan's thought is that of progress.[1] He conceived it as a career of social states arranged in a scale on which man has worked his way up from the bottom. Progress is historically true of the entire human family, but not uniformly. Different branches of the family have evidenced human advancement to different conditions. He thought the scale had universal application or substantially the same in kind, with deviations from uniformity ... produced by special causes. Morgan hopes therefore to discern the principal stages of human development.[2]

Morgan arrived at the idea of a society's progress in part through analogy to individual development. It is an ascent to human supremacy on the earth. The prime analogate is an individual working his way up in society; that is, Morgan, who was well read in classics, relies on the Roman cursus honorum, rising through the ranks, which became the basis of the English ideas of career and working your way up, to which he blends in the rationalist idea of a scala, or ladder, of life. The idea of growth or development is also borrowed from individuals. He proposed that a society has a life like that of an individual, which develops and grows.

He gives the analogy an anthropological twist and introduces the comparative method coming into vogue in other disciplines. Lewis names units called ethna, by which he means inventions, discoveries and domestic institutions. The ethna are compared and judged higher or lower on the scale, pair by pair. Morgan's ethna appear to comprise at least some of Edward Burnett Tylor's cultural objects.[citation needed] Morgan mentions Tylor a number of times in the book.

Morgan's standard of higher or lower is not clearly expressed. By higher he appears to mean whatever contributes better to control over the environment, victory over competitors, and spread of population.[citation needed] He does not mention Charles Darwin's theory of evolution, but Darwin referred to Morgan's work in his own.

The lines of progress[edit]

The substitutions of ethna better than the previous follow several lines of progress.

No. Line Ethna
I Subsistence The arts of subsistence[3] are
  • Natural Subsistence upon Fruits and Roots,
  • Fish Subsistence,
  • Farinaceous Subsistence through Cultivation,
  • Meat and Milk Subsistence,
  • Unlimited Subsistence through Field Agriculture
II Government
III Language The origin of language is:[4]
  • Gesture Language using natural symbols.
  • Monosyllabical language, the first phase of articulate language.[5]
  • Syllabical Language.
IV The Family The forms of family are[6]
  • Consanguine, ... the intermarriage of brothers and sisters.
  • Punaluan, a Hawaiian custom. ... the intermarriage of several brothers to each other's wives ... and of several sisters to each other's husbands... where "brother" meant all the males in one generation of an extended family and "sister" meant all the females, etc.
  • Syndyasmian. Monogamous marriage without exclusive cohabitation.
  • Patriarchal.... the marriage of one man to several wives.
  • Monogamian.... the marriage of one man with one woman, with an exclusive cohabitation.
V Religion
VI House Life and Architecture
VII Property

The ethnical periods[edit]

Morgan rejects the Ages of Stone, of Bronze, of Iron, the Three-Age System of pre-history, as being insufficient characterizations of progress. This theory had been explicated by J. J. A. Worsaae in his The Primeval Antiquities of Denmark, published in English in 1849. Worsaae had built his work on the foundation of evidence-based chronology by Christian Jürgensen Thomsen, whose Guideline to Scandinavian Antiquity (Ledetraad til Nordisk Oldkyndighed) (1836), was not published in English until 1848. The two works were highly influential to researchers in Great Britain and North America.[7]

Morgan believed the prehistoric stages as defined by the Danish were difficult to distinguish, as they overlapped and refer only to material types of implements or tools. In addition, Morgan thought they did not fit the evidence he was finding among Native American societies in North America, in which he had closely studied social structure as an indicator of stages of civilization.[8] Based on the lines of progress, he distinguishes ethnical periods, which each have a distinct culture and a particular mode of life and do not overlap in a region. He does admit to exceptions and a difficulty of determining precise borders between periods. Scientific archaeology was being developed at this time; Morgan did not have the techniques of stratigraphy or scientific dating available, but based his arguments on linguistic and historical speculation. (Thomsen and Worsaae are credited with the foundation of scientific archaeology, as they worked to have controlled excavations in which artifacts could be evaluated by which were found together: the beginning of stratigraphy. This evidence-based system was the start of chronological dating in archeology.)

Period Subperiod Ethna
Natural Subsistence,
at least 60,000 years.
Lower First distinction of man from the other animals. Fruits and Roots, tropical or subtropical habitats, at least partial tree-dwelling, gesture language, intelligence, Consanguine Family.
Middle Fish Subsistence, Use of Fire, spread of man worldwide along shorelines,[9] monosyllabic language, Punaluan Family.
Upper Weapons: bow and arrow, club, spear; addition of game to diet, cannibalism, syllabical language, Syndyasmian Family, organization into gentes, phratries and tribes, worship of the elements.
Cultivation, Domestication,
35,000 years.[10]
Lower Horticulture: maize, bean, squash, tobacco; art of pottery, tribal confederacy, finger weaving, blow-gun, village stockade, tribal games, element worship, Great Spirit, formation of Aryan and Semitic families.
Middle Domestication of animals among the Semitic and Aryan families: goat, sheep, horse, ass, cow, dog; milk, making bronze, irrigation, great joint tenement houses in the nature of fortresses.
Upper Cultivation of cereals and plants by the Aryans,[11] smelting iron ore, poetry, mythology, walled cities, wheeled vehicles, metallic armor and weapons (bronze and iron), the forge, potter's wheel, grain mill, loom weaving, forging, monogamian family, individual property, municipal life, popular assembly.[12]
Field Agriculture,
5000 years.
Ancient Plow with an iron point, iron implements, animal power, unlimited subsistence, phonetic alphabet, writing, Arabic numerals, the military art, the city, commerce, coinage, the state, founded upon territory and upon property, the bridge, arch, crane, water-wheel, sewer.
Mediaeval Gothic architecture, feudal aristocracy with hereditary titles of rank, hierarchy under the headship of a pope.[13]
Modern Telegraph, coal gas, spinning-jenny, power loom, steam engine, telescope, printing, canal lock, compass, gunpowder, photography, modern science, religious freedom, public schools, representative democracy, classes, different types of law.


  1. ^ This article places words and phrases quoted from Morgan in Italics, rather than quotes, for the reader's visual convenience.
  2. ^ Chapter 1, initial
  3. ^ Chapter 2.
  4. ^ Morgan has little to say of language and does not consider it an important part of his classification, but what little there is can be found in Chapter 3.
  5. ^ Morgan admits to a deficit in knowledge of language development, which he does not think important. His brief scheme is in fact speculative only. Many Sino-Tibetan languages and Tai–Kadai languages, which may appear to non-speakers be "monosyllabic", use tone to distinguish morphemes, One syllable in different tones has different meanings. No language today is considered more primitive than any other; early stages of language are totally unknown and must have disappeared in remote prehistory. Gestural language still is considered the original form of symbolic communication.
  6. ^ Chapter 2, end.
  7. ^ Conn 2004, pp. 137–139
  8. ^ Since Morgan, the European three-age system has prevailed in anthropology and archeology, but the age characteristics have been enlarged to include many of the additional factors which Morgan described. Morgan's Savagery and Barbarism are roughly equivalent to Braidwood's food gathering and food production.
  9. ^ Morgan adduces this spread from the presence of stone tools along the shorelines, but appeared not to realize there were huntsmen.
  10. ^ 20,000 for Lower; 15,000 for Middle and Upper together.
  11. ^ Morgan uses Aryan to mean Indo-European daughter-language speakers, including Greek, Latin, English, etc. Vere Gordon Childe was perhaps the last of the moderns to use the term in that sense. By Semites, Morgan meant about what scholars mean today. Although Morgan seems to view the Aryans primarily and the Semites secondarily as the innovators of civilization, he does not attribute a "master race" to them.
  12. ^ For this list Morgan intended the Homeric poems as a guide. The existence of the Late Bronze Age was then little suspected; Morgan means therefore what today is called the early Iron Age. His term of Ancient civilization related to classical Greece and Rome.
  13. ^ Morgan has little to say about the mediaeval period. It can be found in Chapter 3.

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