Cultural kinship as a computational system: from bottom-up to top-down forms of social organization



A key change in the evolution of our species from a common ancestor with the chimpanzees was the shift to a field of social interaction no longer dependent upon face-to-face interaction for the maintenance of social coherency. Our hunter-gatherers ancestors made a radical shift to social relations based on a culturally constructed system of kinship relations. Unlike biological kinship that reflects the facts of biological reproduction, cultural kinship is a constructed, computational system that enables symbolic computation of kinship relations that are expressed through the kin terms of a kinship terminology. The system of kin terms is analogous to arithmetic as a computational system for computing quantities with symbols instantiated by the counting numbers. The internal logic of a kinship terminology ensures consistency both in kinship relation computations and translation of kin term computations to the perspective of each person who culturally shares the same kinship terminology. The constraint of internal and external consistency does not lead to a single kinship terminology computational system, hence there are a variety of kinship terminology systems across human societies. In this paper I outline a theory for the generative structure of kinship terminology systems and briefly discuss the implications this for explaining structural differences between kinship terminologies and how structure relates to social organization.


Cultural evolution Kinship Social organization Primate social systems Hunter-gatherer social systems Cultural computational systems 


  1. Aiello LC, Wheeler PE (1995) The expensive-tissue hypothesis: the brain and digestive system in human and primate evolution. Curr Anthropol 36:199–221 CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  2. Bennardo G, Read D (2007) Cognition, algebra, and culture in the Tongan kinship terminology. J Cogn Cult 7:49–88 CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  3. Burridge KOL (1959/60) Siblings in Tangu. Oceania 30:127–154 Google Scholar
  4. Chapais B (2008) Primeval kinship: how pair-bonding gave birth to human societies. Harvard University Press, Cambridge Google Scholar
  5. D’Andrade R (2003) Why not cheer? J Cogn Cult 4:310–314 CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  6. Dasser V (1988) Mapping social concepts in monkeys. In: Byrne RW, Whiten A (eds) Machiavellian intelligence: social expertise and the evolution of intellect in monkeys, apes, and humans. Oxford University Press, New York, pp 85–93 Google Scholar
  7. Durkheim E (1933) [1893] The division of labour in society. The Free Press, New York Google Scholar
  8. Gamble C (2007) Origins and revolutions: human identity in earliest prehistory. Cambridge University Press, Cambridge CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  9. Kelly RL (1995) The foraging spectrum: diversity in hunter-gatherer lifeways. Smithsonian Institution Press, Washington Google Scholar
  10. Kronenfeld D (1975) Kroeber v. Radcliffe-Brown on kinship behaviour: the Fanti test case. Man 10:257–284 CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  11. Lambert B (1981) Equivalence, authority and complementarity in Butaritari-Makin sibling relationships (northern Gilbert Islands). In: Marshall M (ed) Siblingship in Oceania. University of Michigan, Ann Arbor, pp 149–200 Google Scholar
  12. Leaf M (2006) Experimental analysis of kinship. Ethnology 45:305–330 CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  13. Leaf M, Read D (2012) The conceptual foundation of human society and thought: anthropology on a new plane. Lexington Books, Lanham Google Scholar
  14. Lindenbaum S (1964) Kuru sorcery: disease and danger in the New Guinea Highlands. Mayfield Publishing Co, Palo Alto Google Scholar
  15. Radcliffe-Brown A (1913) Three tribes of western Australia. J R Anthr Inst 43:143–194 Google Scholar
  16. Read D (1984) An algebraic account of the American kinship terminology. Curr Anthropol 25:417–449 CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  17. Read D (2007) Kinship theory: a paradigm shift. Ethnology 46(4):329–364 Google Scholar
  18. Read D (2010) The generative logic of Dravidian language terminologies. Math Anthropol Cult Theory 3 Google Scholar
  19. Read D (2012) How culture makes us human: primate social evolution and the formation of human societies. Left Coast Press, Walnut Creek Google Scholar
  20. Read D (2013) Reconstructing the proto-polynesian terminology: kinship terminologies as evolving logical structures. In: McConvell P, Keen I (eds) Kinship systems: change and reconstruction. University of Utah Press, Salt Lake City. In press Google Scholar
  21. Read D, Behrens C (1990) KAES: an expert system for the algebraic analysis of kinship terminologies. J Quant Anthropol 2:353–393 Google Scholar
  22. Read D, van der Leeuw S (Forthcoming) The extension of social relations in time and space during the Palaeolithic. In: Wenban-Smith FF, Coward F (eds) Title to be determined. Cambridge University Press, Cambridge Google Scholar
  23. Reay M (1975–76) When a group of men takes a husband. Anthropol Forum 4:77–96 CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  24. Scheffler HW, Lounsbury F (1971) A study in structural semantics: the Siriono kinship system. Prentice-Hall, Englewood Cliffs Google Scholar
  25. Schneider D (1968) American kinship: a cultural account. Prentice Hall, Englewood Cliffs Google Scholar

Copyright information

© Springer Science+Business Media, LLC 2012

Authors and Affiliations

  1. 1.Department of AnthropologyUCLALos AngelesUSA

Personalised recommendations