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Evolutionary processes in language and culture -

(Co)evolution in Kinship, Language and Biology

Kinship - the "basic facts of life" - concerns how human societies structure their family and social relationships. My research programme examines the coevolution of different aspects of cultural kinship norms such as marriage preferences and residence systems, and their embodiment in linguistic systems of kin terminologies.

Kinship Terminologies

An enduring puzzle in anthropology is the restricted pattern of variation in how different languages express kin relations. My novel approach to this question examines the evolution of kin terminologies within and between a number of language families and areas, covering different ecologies, subsistence patterns and lifeways: Austronesian, Indo-European, Bantu, Aslian, Dravidian, and the Kalahari Basin.

I am collecting linguistic, ethnographic, and ecological data and building comparative databases for a number of these groups, with a plan to make the databases of terminologies available online. These data can then be used in comparative phylogenetic and spatial analyses to test hypotheses about the dependencies between social organisation and kinship terminologies, i.e. language-culture coevolution.

Initial analyses on Austronesian and Bantu have shown how complex kin terminologies can evolve incrementally. In other work with Gertrud Boden we are exploring how kin terminologies can be used to arbitrate proposals about the relationships between different hunter-gatherer groups in the Kalahari Basin, with implications for our understanding of their population prehistory. At the level of cognition, we know very little about children’s understanding of kinship terminology, so I'm collaborating with Emma Cohen to pilot a field task to tackle this question with Brazilian Portuguese children.

Kinship Cultural Norms

Marriage, residence, and group membership have long been identified as the correlates of structural systems of kinship terminologies. However, these associations have never been examined in a framework that not only controls for shared history but allows us to interrogate the directional nature of evolutionary processes.

Sex-specific dispersal at marriage has an organising effect on both social structure and our subsequent genetic variation. Using ethnographic data and phylogenetic methods, we inferred matrilocal residence as ancestral in Austronesian-speaking societies, thus helping explain disparities in Pacific genetic variation (mtDNA vs NRY) that enrich our picture of the prehistoric people of the Pacific (Jordan et al 2009). Beyond Austronesian, I am comparing the dynamics of change in residence systems with those in Indo-European (Fortunato & Jordan 2011) and Aslian and Bantu languages. This is revealing ecology-driven and lineage-specific dynamics that push anthropological models beyond simple associations into a theory of process.

The transfers of wealth at marriage are but one of the ways in which parents can invest (sometimes preferentially) in sons and daughters. I am testing predictions from parental investment theory about the adaptive coevolution of social norms of marriage organisation and types of marriage payments. Existing data on Austronesian societies is insufficient and to this end I am compiling a new database on detailed aspects of marriage in Pacific societies. Taken together, these projects will deliver new insights, allowing me to quantify how much the apparent variation in cultural norms of kinship might be constrained by universal features of human experience.


Recent relevant publications

Jordan, F. to appear. Comparative phylogenetic methods and the study of pattern and process in kinship . In P. McConvell, & I. Keen (Eds.), Kinship systems: Change and reconstruction.

Jordan, F. (2011). A phylogenetic analysis of the evolution of Austronesian sibling terminologies. Human Biology83, 297-321. doi:10.3378/027.083.0209.

Fortunato, L., & Jordan, F. (2010). Your place or mine? A phylogenetic comparative analysis of marital residence in Indo-European and Austronesian societies.Philosophical Transactions of the Royal Society B: Biological Sciences365(1559), 3913 -3922

Jordan, F., & Dunn, M. (2010). Kin term diversity is the result of multilevel, historical processes [Comment on Doug Jones]. Behavioral and Brain Sciences33, 388.

Jordan, F., Gray, R., Greenhill, S., & Mace, R. (2009). Matrilocal residence is ancestral in Austronesian societies. Proceedings of the Royal Society of London Series B-Biological Sciences276(1664), 1957-1964

Recent presentations

Jordan, F. (2010). Coevolutionary processes in Austronesian kinship systems. Talk presented at 39th Meeting of the Society for Cross-Cultural Research [SSCR 2010]. Albuquerque, NM. 2010-02-17 - 2010-02-20. more >

Jordan, F. (2010). Kinship terminology and the evolution of semantic systems. Talk presented at Integrating Genetic and Cultural Approaches to Language [CEE 2010 Symposium]. London, UK. 2010-02-26 - 2010-02-26. more >

Last checked 2015-11-06 by Fiona Jordan

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