Morgan, Lewis Henry

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Morgan, Lewis Henry,

1818–81, American anthropologist, b. Aurora, N.Y., grad. Union College, Schenectady, 1840. Practicing as a lawyer, he became interested in the Native Americans of his locality, and in 1847 he was made an adopted member of the Seneca tribe. His League of the Ho-de-no-sau-nee or Iroquois (1851, repr. 1954) is unexcelled among early descriptive reports. Morgan was interested in social organization, and developed a theory correlating kinship terminologies with forms of marriage and rules of descent, holding that matriarchal patterns had originally prevailed over all other kinship patterns. His Systems of Consanguinity and Affinity of the Human Family (1870) presents this principle. Ancient Society (1877, repr. 1959), which classified the cultures of the world into progressive stages—savagery, barbarism, and civilization—attracted the attention of MarxMarx, Karl,
1818–83, German social philosopher, the chief theorist of modern socialism and communism. Early Life

Marx's father, a lawyer, converted from Judaism to Lutheranism in 1824.
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 and EngelsEngels, Friedrich
, 1820–95, German socialist; with Karl Marx, one of the founders of modern Communism (see communism). The son of a wealthy Rhenish textile manufacturer, Engels took (1842) a position in a factory near Manchester, England, in which his father had an
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, who interpreted its evolutionary doctrine as support for their materialistic theory of history. Morgan's work was accused of being overly speculative, and provoked a reaction against theories of cultural evolution within American anthropology that lasted well into 20th cent. Ethnographic and archaeological research has invalidated Morgan's specific evolutionary models, but his tireless research and his wide-ranging theoretical interests are credited with serving to advance the new field of anthropology. Morgan's Indian Journals were edited by Leslie A. White and published in 1959.


See biographies by B. J. Stern (1931, repr. 1967) and C. Resek (1960); study by T. R. Trautman (1987).

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The following article is from The Great Soviet Encyclopedia (1979). It might be outdated or ideologically biased.

Morgan, Lewis Henry


Born Nov. 21, 1818, in Aurora, N.Y.; died Dec. 17, 1881, in Rochester, N.Y. American ethnologist and archaeologist, historian of primitive society, and progressive public figure. Member of the National Academy of Sciences of the USA (1875).

An attorney by profession, Morgan practiced law and later engaged in commerce. He early became interested in the Iroquois. Morgan founded a society for the study and aid of the Indians (1840); he decried the despoilment, discrimination, and extermination of Indians in the USA. In 1847 he was adopted by the Seneca, an Iroquoian tribe, under the name “One Lying Across” (that is, across the boundary between the Indians and the Whites).

The League of the Iroquois (1851), Morgan’s first major work, remains to this day the most important study of the Iroquois. In later works, most notable of which was Ancient Society, or Researches in the Lines of Human Progress From Savagery Through Barbarism to Civilization (1877; Russian translation, 2nd ed., 1934), Morgan emerged primarily as a historian of primitive society who asserted the ideas of the unity of mankind and its progressive development. His view of the clan as the universally and historically basic unit of primitive society occupied a central position in his theories. Related to this were his theses of the development of property from collective to private forms and of the evolution of the family and marriage from group to individual forms.

Morgan also worked out a scientifically valid periodization of primitive history, subdividing it into periods of savagery and barbarism and each of these into three subperiods. The most prominent proponent of evolutionism in ethnology, Morgan was in fact able to move away from evolutionism and, in the words of F. Engels, “within the bounds of his own field independently rediscovered, in Marxist fashion, the materialist understanding of history” (K. Marx and F. Engels, Soch., 2nd ed., vol. 36, p. 97).

Morgan’s ideas are still the subject of a controversy between the progressive and reactionary trends in ethnology. The data of modern ethnology and archaeology indicate that a number of Morgan’s minor theses require greater clarification, but his theories about primitive society retain their significance and continue to be developed by Marxist science.


Doma i domashniaia zhiznamerikanskikh tuzemtsev. Leningrad, 1934. (Translated from English.)


Marx, K. “Konspekt knigi L’iuisa G. Morgana ’Drevnee obshchestvo.’” In Arkhiv Marksa i Engel’sa, vol. 9. Moscow, 1941.
Engels, F. Proiskhozhdenie sem’i, chastnoi sobstvennosti i gosudarstva. In K. Marx and F. Engels, Soch., 2nd ed., vol. 21.
Kosven, M. O. L. G. Morgan: Zhizn’ i uchenie, 2nd ed. Leningrad, 1935.
Semenov, Iu. I. “Uchenie Morgana, marksizm i sovremennaia etnografiia.” Sovetskaia etnografiia, 1964, no. 4.


The Great Soviet Encyclopedia, 3rd Edition (1970-1979). © 2010 The Gale Group, Inc. All rights reserved.

Morgan, Lewis Henry

(1818–81) cultural anthropologist, legislator; born near Aurora, N.Y. He graduated from Union College in 1840, became a railroad lawyer, and served in the New York state assembly (1861) and senate (1868), all the while conducting investigations of native North American Indians, beginning with the customs and institutions of the Iroquois. He published his early results in The League of the Iroquois (1851); he had become so popular among one clan that he was adopted into it in 1847. His Systems of Consanguinity and Affinity of the Human Family (1869) formed the basis of the modern anthropological study of kinship. Karl Marx hailed his Ancient Society (1877), a study of the origins and evolution of government and property, as confirming the Marxist materialist theory of history. He is also remembered for his authoritative work, The American Beaver and His Works (1868), in which he argued that animals possess powers of rational thought. A temperance advocate and a strong Presbyterian, he was said to fear that his ethnological work was subversive of religion.
The Cambridge Dictionary of American Biography, by John S. Bowman. Copyright © Cambridge University Press 1995. Reproduced with permission.
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