Peter Whiteley's Research

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Existing methods in historical linguistics have produced conflicting results about the evolution of languages and language families. Such methods often depend on intuition and arguments from authority. With AMNH colleague Dr. Ward C. Wheeler (Curator, Invertebrate Zoology), we are reconstructing historical relationships among Uto-Aztecan languages, using methods developed in evolutionary biology applied directly to empirical linguistic data. With the phylogenetic software POY, we systematically compare words as sequences of sounds (phonemes) for cognates of the 100 words established as most resistant to change cross-culturally (the "Swadesh-list"). POY allows the identification of both vertical (tree) and horizontal (network) transmission processes. Wherever available, we also add grammatical (morphological and syntactic) data. Our paper Historical Linguistics as a Sequence Optimization Problem: the Evolution and Biogeography of Uto-Aztecan Languages appeared in Cladistics (Early View 5-13-2014).

Supplementary Information:



Exemplary lineal equations in Crow-Omaha kin terminologies. In a Crow system, ego - male (?) or female (o) - calls females colored red by a single kinterm. Conversely, in an Omaha system, ego calls males colored blue by a single kinterm.

Building a new analytical database from existing ethnographic data sources this project is designed to rigorously compare global instances of Crow-Omaha type kinship systems, and their related variants. Another collaboration with Dr. Wheeler, this project uses phylogenetic modeling to develop hypotheses about the emergence and evolution of kinship systems globally. As equational structures of linguistic terms denoting reciprocal statuses and interaction rules, kinship systems are rigorously specifiable as formal types, governing marriage rules, and thus social and biological reproduction. Kinship systems may thus provide a key into the understanding of human social evolution. Crow-Omaha systems, which "skew" relatives across generations (so that the same term may be used, for example, to denote an "aunt," a "grandmother," and a "cross-cousin") have proven particularly problematic for analytical explanation. As the type-case of "semi-complex" alliance structures, in Lévi-Strauss’s terms, Crow-Omaha are postulated as interstitial between "elementary" and "complex" systems, offering an important window upon larger patterns of social-system transformation. Our aim is to explain the origin and evolution of these pivotal systems.

This research is supported by the National Science Foundation Anthropology Program (Explaining Crow-Omaha Kinship Structures with Anthro-informatics-PI: Peter M. Whiteley-BCS-0925978; co-PI:W.C. Wheeler). An international group of scholars was convened for an Advanced Seminar, "Transformative Kinship: Engaging the Crow-Omaha Transition," supported by the National Science Foundation (Workshop on Transitions in Human Social Organization-PI: Peter M. Whiteley-BCS-0938505) and The Amerind Foundation.

Seminar proceedings have been published as Crow-Omaha: New Light on a Classic Problem of Kinship Analysis (Thomas R. Trautmann and Peter M. Whiteley, eds., University of Arizona Press, 2012).


Dr. Peter Whiteley with Bernadette Hill, Heron Clan Mother, Cayuga Nation.

The Cayuga Diaspora

Based on fieldwork and archival research, this project examines Cayuga participation in the Revolutionary War and its late 18th and 19th century aftermath for Cayuga society and human geography. The Cayuga split into factions under extreme political and social pressure in the 1780's and 1790's. This research is designed to disclose as much as possible about the social and historical processes at work, and their effects on persistent but changing Cayuga identities.


Hopi Social Structure

A "Crow" system, Hopi social structure has informed numerous comparative studies in anthropology, and provides a window onto Ancestral Pueblo archaeology of pre-Columbian times. An extensive analysis of demography and social characteristics over more than century, appears in The Orayvi Split: a Hopi Transformation (Anthropological papers of the American Museum of Natural History, no. 87).

Hopi Ethnogeography

Dr. Peter Whiteley with Lee Wayne Lomayestewa
(Hopi, Bear Clan)

"Recording Toponyms to Document the Endangered Hopi Language" is a collaborative project with AMNH Research Associate, Dr. T.J. Ferguson (University of Arizona), and the Hopi Tribe's Office of Cultural Preservation. We are examining Hopi concepts of place and traditional cultural practices in relation to the landscape. Based on interviews with Hopi elders, a database has been produced for use by the scholarly community and by the Hopi Tribe, with the goal to develop new understandings of Native American conceptions of the environment. The project is supported by the National Science Foundation's Documenting Endangered Languages program (BCS-0966588-PI: Peter M. Whiteley; BCS-0965949-PI: T.J. Ferguson). A paper reporting the research (Hedquist, Koyiyumptewa, Whiteley, Hill, Kuwanwisiwma, and Ferguson: Recording Toponyms to Document the Endangered Hopi Language) is published in the American Anthropologist, June 2014.

Pueblo Social Systems

Building on the Crow-Omaha research, this comparative analysis looks at kinship systems and ritualities among the different Pueblo peoples. Several papers have been presented, including "Tewa Crossness and Hopi Skewing: Implications for Pueblo Social Evolution" in a symposium of sixteen Puebloan scholars March, 2014; plans to advance that collective inquiry are currently under development. A paper, "Chacoan Kinship," investigating kinship systems at Chaco Canyon is in press (in Current Issues in the Archaeology of Chaco Canyon, A.D. 850-1150, edited by Stephen Plog and Caroline Heitman). Another aspect of this project, looking at sociocultural transmission processes, is an inquiry into Pueblo personal names ("Pueblo-tiwa Names: Hybrid Transmission in the Sprachbund") with David Snow; accepted for publication (May 2014) by Journal of the Southwest.