1. University of Virginia
  2. Arts & Sciences

Frederick H. Damon


Ph.D. Princeton University 1978

Brooks Hall, 206


Now in the winter of my professional life, 2019 trailing into 2020 year will be hectic with a new course to explore, an international conference to organize, several papers to finish, a presentation for the AAAs and major new research plans afoot. The summer just past verified the waters for expected research during 2020; I anticipate spending the whole year moving back and forth between my old home in Muyuw and new and old friends in China—specifically Quanzhou, Hangzhou and Beijing. This is a major change in plans—an inauspicious winter storm (The pandemic?)

In the summer of 2019 I visited Beijing, Hangzhou, Quanzhou, Hong Kong, Singapore, Port Moresby in Papua New Guinea, Sydney and Canberra in Australia and Auckland; I tested some of my ideas with lectures at universities in Beijing, Hangzhou, Xiamen, Singapore and Sydney. As a result of meetings in Auckland I’ve pushed along a piece of a puzzle that connects a Muyuw design to important patterns in Fiji, Samoa and Tonga, a pattern, moreover, that probably that connects Chinese ideas to all these places.

            Let me explain

            I returned to Muyuw during the northern summer of 2017 with three plans. One involved giving friends and PNG Institutions, in Port Moresby and Alotau, the Milne Bay Provincial capital, copies of my book, TREES, KNOTS AND OUTRIGGERS (2017,Berghahn Books). A second was to investigate a matter of Muyuw astronomy; through friends I had spent much of the previous two years learning about Chinese astronomy and was imagining correspondences between what I knew of Muyuw’s and the very complex case of China. These relations concerned the Chinese 二十八宿 (èr shí bā xiù), the 28 “mansions,” sets of constellations, organized in a square about the idealized circle that represent the Chinese “heaven,” Tiān, 天 (Aspects of Chinese cosmology entail a circle encompassing a square). I do not know where the translation “mansion” comes from but the word 宿 (xiù) more conventionally suggests a resting place. In late 2016 I attended Kun-hui Ku’s conference in Taiwan dealing with hierarchy in the Austronesian world, having prepared a paper with my friend, the EHESS scholar of China David Gibeault. A young friend, and now teacher of things Chinese, Dr. Luo Yang, a former student of the Peking University anthropologist Wang Mingming, gave Gibeault and me considerable help in this effort; and Luo Yang remains a major source and inspiration for my developing understanding of ‘China.’ In any case, Gibeault and I compared Chinese and Muyuw astronomical ideas as they related to respective social structures (principally but not exclusively marriage practices) and were astonished at where the comparison was taking us. The 2017 project was to explore what we hypothesized. Third, and finally, 2017 was to say goodbye to my life in Muyuw. I was anxious to finish my professional career in China, something I started preparing for with my initial return to Muyuw in 1991.

            By 2017 I had spent close to a year in China, mostly in the old and famous port city Quanzhou. When I departed Muyuw at the very end of June 2017, I presumed (once again) I would never go back, and I was disappointed at what I had learned. That disappointment began to transform on the flight from Port Moresby to Hong Kong where I was to teach a summer-school course at the Hong Kong University of Science and Technology (HKUST). So it was with a renewed fervor in Hong Kong that David Gibeault and I continued our comparison. One night in particular stood out, at a dinner with Harry Harding and Shirley Lin.  Harding (https://batten.virginia.edu/school/people/harry-harding) was recently retired Dean of UVa’s Batten School of Public Policy, but both he (https://politics.virginia.edu/harry-harding/) and Professor Lin (https://politics.virginia.edu/syaru-shirley-lin/) maintain teaching positions in UVa’s Politics Department, and, then, at HKUST. Although a distinguished student of Chinese political and international relations, Harding said of himself, that evening at least, that he should have been an anthropologist; he knew the significance of the fact that the Chinese emperor’s ceremonial dress, which Gibeault was investigating, symbolized the heavens. That got me to reflect on the dress of Kula Ring big men who are likened to the major stars.  Those stars define oscillations between sun and rain over the annual cycle. This is an aspect of a ‘political’ order. Both stars and big men are determiners, definers of social action across a significant portion of the Kula Ring’s northeastern quadrant. Moreover, the son of one of Muyuw’s most important big men told me during those June days that part of a big man’s regalia was a comb (sinat) stuck prominently in the person’s hair. In every picture I had of his father from the 1970s –then the rising big man, Dibolel ­—that comb thrust out of his hair.

            Probably not coincidentally, the word for comb, sinat, is also the name for the constellation we call Scorpius—their resemblance is conspicuous since this style of comb has a long handle that fans out at one end exactly like the constellation fans out. Scorpius dominates the evening sky during the northern hemisphere summer and southern hemisphere winter. Scorpio’s opposite is Orion/Orion’s Belt, named Kiyad in Muyuw. It dominates the evening sky during the southern hemisphere summer and northern hemisphere winter. Like the word sinat, kiyad is a meaningful concept in Muyuw. The word is used for “cross-beams,” the spring-like structures that connect hulls to outrigger floats. Mediating the hull’s propensity to sink and the float’s upward lift, the piece is a critical structure (outlined as such in my book, 2017:298-301).  Although they are temporal opposites (they are never seen at the same time), these stars track roughly the same course across the sky. Their position in the Chinese 28 Mansion display would seem to depict their temporal complementarity, not their azimuths. Scorpius, configured by three characters, 尾, 心, 房[wĕi, xīn, fang,  “tail,” “heart” and “room.”] toward the northeast whereas Orion, 参[cān] finds its place toward the southwest. Subsequently David Gibeault has become intrigued by the relationship between these constellations. And although there does not seem to be any phonetic cognation between the Chinese ideas conveyed with these constellations, there may be some semantic overlap. Among the usages of the Chinese参[cān] are those that suggest ‘participation’ and ‘join’—exactly the kiyad function.

            Several days before I left Muyuw in 2017 my young host, Dennis, Dibolel’s son, told me that if especially dressed up the big man would tie a leaf—probably an orchid found only in sago swamps—onto the end of his comb. As he walked or the wind blew the leaf would dangle in the air. The leaf’s movement is likened to twinkling stars. Such twinkles are taken as signs of the star’s—and of a big man’s—power. Appropriately enough, that twinkling is most evident when stars rise and set, both points used for navigational purposes. Muyuw call a star’s rising and setting points keb, or kabin, a word that roughly translates to “place,” “resting place,” in some contexts “bed.” Although not a phonetic cognate of the Chinese宿/ xiù/‘mansion,’ it might be a semantic cognate.

            Following Dennis’ commentary I had the wisdom to ask to see the leaves but not enough sense to have Dennis explain to me either of the two designs that are supposed to be etched into the sun-dried leaves before they are displayed. However, I did not stop looking at those designs. The faintest of them, the lower one in the accompanying picture, probably corresponds to a likeness of a nautilus shell, perhaps the most frequent form Muyuw carve onto bodies, betel nut chewing implements and canoe prow and stern boards. I had no clue about the other design until the Tongan artist Visesio Siasau (Sio) visited the University of Virginia during the Spring, 2018, semester. When he joined a Pacific course I was teaching I asked him if he knew the other design. He identified it immediately as “Fata O Tu’i Tonga.” Other than referencing the Tongan “king”—Tu’i Tonga—in that context I could learn little more about the specification. And I did not make much headway on its Polynesian senses until I met with two Auckland University Anthropologists, Phyllis Herda and Billie Lythberg, this past July, 2019.  From Herda and Lythberg I learned that the design likely invokes lashing on important roof timbers in chiefly houses, such roofs probably modeling the heavens, from where the chief descends—this can only be the beginning of that story… But the encounter with “Sio” led me to try an email letter to Dennis via another Muyuw friend who works for a mining company on Muyuw. Dennis’s response was virtually immediate: the design is an utun, a “star.” How is that design a star?And, given some Polynesian practices, how might those encompassed figures relate to the often rectangular-shaped megalithic ruins that have doted the northern side of the Kula Ring for upwards of the last 1500 years?

            By the time Dennis’ etching and design name turned into a vital relation, another piece of the puzzle, or maybe another puzzle, was coming into focus. A major new source for me on Chinese culture has been David Pankenier’s 2013 book ASTROLOGY AND COSMOLOGY IN EARLY CHINA Conforming Earth to Heaven. His book gives evidence that beginning at least 4000 years ago the Chinese conception of heaven provided models for Chinese political and social order. Pankenier also shows how the Milky Way, one rendering of which is “Silver River,” is conceived to be a river in the sky moving from east to west and thus complementing, as it reverses, the flows of Chinese rivers, many of which flow from west to east. The emperor’s dress, including a band running from top to bottom representing the Milky Way, illustrates those orders in considerable detail (Some of that is visible here: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Ancient_Chinese_clothing). Through my interaction with David Gibeault and Luo Yang (and my and their channeling Marcel Granet) I understood how the reciprocating flows are fundamental spatial orientations for China. This concerns the all-important role of water for China’s agricultural systems. Flowing water is basic for both the making and irrigating of rice paddies and their associated products—and China’s temples. (There are of course similarities between these relations and those Lansing has charted for Bali, whose Chinese connections are too infrequently discussed.) Gibeault notes how the positioning of an originating couple –enjoining brother/sister and husband/wife relations—on either side of the west-to-east flowing river leads to the north-south orientation of virtually every Chinese temple, including the axis of Beijing’s The Forbidden City. 

            From my earliest publications about Muyuw I had made clear that its central orienting axis, the direction that fixed the shape of houses, villages and gardens, was the opposition between sunrise and sunset, that is, east to west. It creates sets of ideas that encompass the social order, modeling origin understandings, life cycles and marriage relations. The latter come about by a north south path which bisects the initiating east-west path: together they model the culture’s clan system, and for Muyuw that system specifies alliance relations through time. I did not know what provided the “principle” for the north-south path. The two paths create gardens which must have at least four sections (most have six or more, i.e. they have at least two north-south paths). I had known that the Milky Way was named after east-west lines that subdivide every major garden section. These units become major working spaces and, once taro or yams are mature, the unit for brother-to sister exchanges which anchor marriage relations. But I was so focused on the encompassing nature of the clan-marriage model that I tended to devalue the smaller units—until one afternoon in June of 2017.

                  It was then that one of my long-time friends and teachers, Ogis Aisi, and his wife Seisib, told me that the “real” orienting principle for gardens –and hence everything else—was not the sunrise-sunset axis, but the axis of the Milky Way. And it turns out it is its axis in the early evening sky of June; the north-south path takes its bearing from the shift and appearance of the Milky Way t another time, probably the equinoxes. Then its orientation is northeast-southwest. All the people with whom I spoke about these new ideas were aware that there was only an approximate relation between the north-south path and the northeast-southwest Milky Way axis…

            I have spent my research life since 1991 attempting to fill in just one more pattern. And learning that as that pattern begins to come into focus it reveals another distant vista. And this time the vista extends to the East Asian beginnings of the Austronesian expansion. For if on the one hand I have a new way of uncovering a principal mechanism for social ordering for a portion of the Kula Ring, on the other it has a bearing on the complex ways the Austronesian cultures descend from and have transformed their original East Asian moorings.

            Playing with those puzzles will tie up my final acts of new research in the Pacific. Or so I think now.


OLDER CONTINUING COURSES: Transforming Everyday Life in America (Trump’s election gave this course a new life!); Ecology & Society; Economic Anthropology. These three courses have been gems for me and for a good number of students. They facilitate the exploration major themes in the discipline as well as important issues in our society. It is good to see so many people taking environmental issues seriously, but I’m proud I started doing that, including the heat over global warming, with friends from UVa’s Environmental Sciences department when my Ecology and Society course got under way in the early 1990s. In any case, I look forward to a few more rounds of these, my UVa treasures.

NEW COURSES IN DEVELOPMENT; Other responsibilities have prevented the development of Technology, Culture And Time (in which I consider recent work focusing on ‘materiality’ and the analysis of variation across different cultural regimes); and it has been several years since The Anthropology of Time and Space (from Kant to Anthropology, and Calendrical systems to Continental histories) floated. But this year I’m trying to plug a hole Susan McKinnon’s retirement created by teaching RECONFIGURING KINSHIP STUDIES. This will be a bit of the traditional and a bit of the renewed attempt to resuscitate what was once the center of the discipline. It has already been a blast renewing my acquaintance with The Elementary Structures of Kinship—the historical dimension that has taken over anthropology since the 1970s adds to a massive theme not evident in the 1950s and 60s when anthropology still struggled with the anti-historicism of functionalism and presumption of a narrow view of synchronic versus diachronic analysis in the on-coming structuralist wave. The last half of the course will center on close analyzes to the Trobriand (and my own) data, Charlie Piot’s work on the West African Kabre (Piot may visit our class one evening) and a final section on China. The course was conceived in a dialogue with James J. Fox, the ANU Austronesianist who is assembling his own massive study on Austronesian kinship terminologies and who is the editor for a new volume in ANU’s Austronesian series to which I’ve contributed a paper.



Structuralism, Marxism, world system theory, chaos theory; ethnobotony, historical ecology, ethnoastronomy; social structure, kinship, exchange and hierarchy; Melanesia, East and South Asia, US culture in the contemporary world-system.

Selected Publications

2019    The Reprise of Malinowski. Review Essay on Ways of Baloma: Rethinking Magic and Kinship           from the Trobriands, by Mark S. Mosko,. Chicago, Hau Books. Anthropological Forum https://doi.org/10.1080/00664677.2019.1648238

2017. TREES, KNOTS AND OUTRIGGERS:  Environmental Knowledge in the Eastern Kula Ring.  Berghahn Books.

2016    “THE GOOD, THE BAD AND THE DEAD: The place of destruction in the organization of social life, which means hierarchy.”  Social Analysis, Volume 60(4): 58–75. doi.org/10.3167/sa.2016.600404.

2016    “The problem of ‘Ultimate Values:’ Charting a Future in Dumont’s Footsteps.” In Puissance et impuissance de la valeur:  L'anthropologie comparative de Louis Dumont ed. Cécile Barraud, André Iteanu Et Ismaël Moya.  CNRS Editions. Pp. 219-235.

2016 - "Deep historical ecology: the Kula ring as a representative moral system from the Indo-Pacific" World Archaeology, 2016. doi.org/10.1080/00438243.2016.1220326

2015 - Kula Ring, Anthropology of. In: James D. Wright (editor-in-chief),  International Encyclopedia of the Social & Behavioral Sciences, 2nd edition, Vol 13. Oxford: Elsevier. pp. 139–143.

2012 - ‘Labour Processes’ Across the Indo-Pacific: Towards a Comparative Analysis of Civilisational Necessities. The Asia Pacific Journal of Anthropology 13(2): 163-191. https://doi.org/10.1080/14442213.2012.656695

2009 – “Afterword: Afterword: On Dumont’s relentless comparativism.” In Hierarchy: Persistence and Transformation in Social Formations. Knut Rio and Olaf H. Smedal, eds. Pp. 349-359. Berghahn Books.

2008 - On the Ideas of a Boat: From Forest Patches To Cybernetic Structures. The Outrigger Sailing Craft Of The Eastern Kula Ring, Papua New Guinea. In: Clifford Sather & Timo Kaartinen (eds.) Beyond the Horizon. Essays on Myth, History, Travel and Society. Studia Fennica Anthropologica 2. Helsinki: Finnish Literature Society. Pp. 123-144.  

2007 - A Stranger's View of Bihar-Rethinking Religion and Production: More than a Poetry of Properties. In Speaking of Peasants: Essays on Indian History and Politics in Honor of Walter Hauser. William Pinch, ed. New Deli: Manohar Publishers. Pp.249-276 New Deli: Manohar Publishers.

2005 - 'PITY' and 'ECSTASY,' The Problem of Order and Differentiated Difference Across Kula Societies. In On the Order of Chaos: Social Anthropology and the Science of Chaos. Mark Mosko, ed. Pp. 79-107. London and New York: Berghahn Books.

2003 - What Good are Elections? An Anthropological Analysis of American Elections. Taiwan Journal of Anthropology. 1(2):38-82.

2002 - Kula Valuables: The Problem of Value and the Production of Names. L'Homme April-June 162:107-136.

1990 - From Muyuw to the Trobriands: Transformations Along the Northern Side of the Kula Ring. Tucson: University of Arizona Press.

1989 - Death Rituals and Life in the Societies of the Kula. (With Roy Wagner). Dekalb: Northern Illinois University Press.

1983 - Muyuw Kinship and the Metamorphosis of Gender Labour. Man 18 (2):305-326.

1980 - The Kula and Generalized Exchange: Considering Some Unconsidered Aspects of the Elementary Structures of Kinship. Man 15(2):267-93.

Department Faculty

Sonia Alconini
David A. Harrison III Professor of American Archaeology
Ira Bashkow
Goldsmith Family NEH Distinguished Teaching Professor, 2018-2021: Associate Professor
Frederick H. Damon
Eve Danziger
Professor and Director of the Interdepartmental Program in Linguistics
Lise Dobrin
Associate Professor
Gertrude Fraser
Associate Professor
Richard Handler
Professor & Director of Global Development Studies Program
James Igoe
Professor & Chair
Kasey Jernigan
Assistant Professor of Anthropology and American Studies
Adria LaViolette
Professor, Director of Undergraduate Studies
Daniel Lefkowitz
Associate Professor
George Mentore
Associate Professor
Rachel Most
Associate Dean for Undergraduate Academic Programs & Professor
Fraser D. Neiman
China Scherz
Associate Professor, Director of Graduate Studies
Mark Sicoli
Assistant Professor, Director of Graduate Admissions
Margaret Smith
Director & Curator, The Kluge-Ruhe Aboriginal Art Collection
Sylvia Tidey
Assistant Professor
Patricia Wattenmaker
Associate Professor
Kath Weston
Jarrett Zigon
William & Linda Porterfield Chair in Biomedical Ethics and Professor of Anthropology