General Anthropology Division
Oral Presentation Session
Patrick McConvell (Australian National University)
The Crow-Omaha problem—why some societies have generationally-skewed kin-terminologies—has long vexed kinship theory. Scheffler followed Lounsbury’s influential analysis (via reduction rules) of Crow and Omaha and applied it to skewing, notably for Australian systems of kin classification. He did not address diachronic aspects of the development of skewing, nor the linguistic evidence for this. Several functional explanations for Crow-Omaha skewing in different global regions notably link it to population increase and middle-range “levels of sociocultural integration” (so-called “tribes” and “chiefdoms”): nowhere do such systems correlate with “states,” nor usually with what in North America have been described as “bands.” Complexification does not seem to clearly fit the Australian Omaha cases, although population increase may, with group expansion and migration functional correlates of Omaha skewing. However, the Australian and many other cases often appear at or near language boundaries. In Native North America, Crow and Omaha skewing systems form areal distributions cross-cutting major language-family boundaries—in the Woodlands, Plains, Southwest, California, and Northwest Coast. Comparable regional, often trans-language distributions occur in eastern Amazonia, sub-Saharan Africa, South Asia, and among Pacific Islanders. East African evidence (Northern Kenya) also points to diffusion of Omaha skewing within regions across major language-family boundaries. Such patterns suggest historical or developmental exchange, linguistically, socially, or both. This paper addresses the terminological architecture of Crow-Omaha skewing in comparative perspective, focusing on shared systems across language boundaries, seeking to determine causes and consequences, linguistically and socioculturally, in major global regions where such systems occur.