Ancient Society

Ancient Society is a book written by Lewis H. Morgan published in 1877. In this book, Morgan developed his famous theory of the three stages of human progress, i.e., from Savagery through Barbarism to Civilization. Friedrich Engels based his Origin of the Family on this book.

The concept of progress

The dominant idea of Lewis' thought is that of progress. It is to be conceived as a career of social states arranged in a scale on which mankind has worked their 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. The scale nevertheless is universal, 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.

Progress is to be apprehended in Morgan partly through analogy. 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. A society has a life like that of an individual, which develops and grows.

The analogy, however, is given an anthropological twist and introduces the comparative method then coming into vogue in other fields. Lewis resorts to 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. 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. He does not mention Charles Darwin.

The lines of progress

The substitutions of ethna better than the previous follow several lines of progress.
No. Line Ethna
I Subsistence The arts of subsistence 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:
  • Gesture Language using natural symbols.
  • Monosyllabical language, the first phase of articulate language.
  • Syllabical Language.

IV The Family The forms of family are
  • 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

Morgan rejects the Age of Stone, of Bronze, of Iron as being insufficient characterizations of progress. They overlap and refer only to implements. 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 exact borders between periods. Scientific archaeology did not exist in Morgan's time; he therefore cannot use stratigraphy or scientific dating, but bases his arguments on linguistic and historical speculation.
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, 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.
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, pig, 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, 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.
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.
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.


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