Frederick H. Damon


Ph.D. Princeton University 1978


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.

Muyuw, 1996 - with Amoen, "Sipum,"
hunter, woodsman and guide, deceased 2009.
Please see the beginning of my book:
Trees, Knots and Outriggers: Environmental Knowledge in the Northeast Kula Ring.


25% discount. Code DAM200 can be used when an order is placed online


This should be a very good year. At long last my book TREES, KNOTS AND OUTRIGGERS will appear. Three articles also arrive. Two are related and derive from dialogues with Louis Dumont’s oeuvre and Anthropology’s century-long discourse about sacrifice. Years of teaching my course on American culture also enters these two as I have sought to use the discipline’s models of sacrifice to understand forms that run through US culture, the rituals of The Second Great Awakening, scapegoating rites (lynchings) from the latter half of the 19th century in both the US South and North and the rise of the US as a major military power which, more or less, begins with naval armaments from the 1880s—what’s destruction got to do with it? The year perhaps ends with a not-quite chance encounter with the UCL archaeologist Julia Shaw ( in Cambridge in early January, 2016. In a little section on India in my Ecology and Society course I had been using her work on the origins of Buddhism in India. A trip to England suggested we meet. From our conversation she asked me to consider submitting something for an issue of World Archaeology she was editing devoted to Archaeology and Environmental Ethics. The offer came at a perfect time for it allowed me to look up from the details of my immediate ethnographic focus in the Kula Ring to think about the nature of social action across the Indo Pacific. To my delighted surprise several of the readers liked “Deep Historical Ecology: The Kula Ring as a Representative Moral System from the Indo-Pacific,” and following a very pleasant editing experience with Shaw it already appears (World Archaeology 48(4)).

The summer of 2016 started with a trip to Chengdu in Sichuan Province, PRC, where at West South Minority University (西南民族大学) I gave three lectures at the invitation of friends made through Wang Mingming, his students Tang Yun and Zhang Yuan.  The lectures were designed to reflect across the times, Anthropology’s times (drawing on the Centennial of Malinowski’s appearance in the Trobriand Islands); a particular juncture for the United States, which may be a matter of world culture —i.e. the phenomenon of Trump, which allowed me to revisit a paper I published in Taiwan; and my own primary projected research, whose interests span the Indo-Pacific over the last 6000 years. This was much enhanced by finding David Pankenier’s recent book ASTROLOGY AND COSMOLYG IN EARLY CHINA Conforming Earth to Heaven. It feeds some of the speculations in my book concerning a critical boat part, the crossbeam, the fact that the word for it (with many cognates into Polynesia) is also the word for Orion’s Belt, the name for which in Chinese—参—is also an important concept. So a new page, maybe book, to turn over.

Back at UVa I know I’m in the fall of my years—I started at UVa during the 1976-77 academic year. I have thoroughly enjoyed my teaching and research and value both for personal and professional reasons. Sprinkled among my primary teaching and research obligations I have participated in or organized a series of conferences, the two Kula Conferences (1978 at Cambridge University, 1982 at UVa) and most recently, with Carlos Mondragón from El Colegio de México and Wang Mingming from Beijing University, two workshops called ‘Ecology and Time Systems in Australasia and the Americas: New approaches to value systems and calendrical transformations across the Pacific Rim.’ These were held at UVa (2009) and Beijing University (2011) (See here for Programs).


My initial research in the Kula Ring of Papua New Guinea intended to use a structuralist version of exchange theory to describe Muyuw-Woodlark Island-as it existed in its regional setting. Indigenous understandings forced me to consider production, not exchange, as the organizing value among the people with whom I have lived, now four years of my life. Tensions between exchange and production views of society continue to animate my teaching and research. And I maintain an interest in the problem of how to understand and describe the regional systems in which all social life is embedded. If understanding the modern world-system remains one pole of that research and teaching, understanding the regions and regionalism centering on the Asias and Australia—the whole Indo-Pacific—is the other. It has a deeper and perhaps more useful history for projecting possibly viable futures than does the West. For the remainder of my professional life I expect to consider these issues in light of recent concerns with chaos theory. I thus hope to be engaged in dialogues with fractal mathematics, perhaps knot theory and problems of climate and culture.

As intended, eleven returns to PNG between 1991 and 2014 and new teaching interests have generated shifts in my original topical, theoretical and areal stances. Added to the exchange/production orientation are interdisciplinary research and teaching to explore how anthropogenic environments relate to better-known social structural and cosmological transformations in and beyond the Kula Ring. And I now view that area against the backdrop of the whole Indo-Pacific and its natural and human history going back to the mid-Holocene at least. Recent publications reflect the initial stages of this work now, perhaps, finished in TREES, KNOTS AND OUTRIGGERS: Reflections on Environmental Research in the Northeast Kula Ring. IN a sense the new World Archaeology piece, “Deep Historical Ecology” is the first publication that looks up from the details that have animated my last 25 years. 

I was in China during the summer of 2008 to initiate language learning and to explore new research locales proximate to the separation between what became East Asia on the one hand and the Austronesian world on the other. The location is Quanzhou in Fujian Province, southeastern China. It was in this general area that, supposedly, a combination of people, things and ideas crossed the Taiwan Straits to Taiwan some 6000 years ago. And from that began the Austronesian expansion. Quanzhou was also the last city Marco Polo visited when he left China and he proclaimed it the most cosmopolitan city in the world. The region has been and remains a point of entry and exit for people, ideas and things. I returned there for the first half of 2013 to further develop my interests, staying in Quanzhou’s moral center, the Kaiyuan Si, and making many new friends associated with the Quanzhou Maritime Museum. I returned again there in 2014, and 2015 before going to the Malinowski Centennial conference held in Alotau, Milne Bay Province, Papua New Guinea. Questions about social organization, including socio-ecological contexts, and collective forms of thinking will animate this research. On the plate at the moment are two interstitial projects: One contrasts Austronesian sailing craft I know from the Kula Ring with those that plied the waters of southeastern China from at least the Tang through the Qing Dynasties. My book shows how the outriggers of the eastern half of the Kula Ring are models for wind and water dynamics and how, as they come out of the ground they are formed by and tied to the stars. Delving deeply into Chinese cosmology, with the aid of my now many Chinese friends and colleagues, has convinced me, along with understanding the region’s historical ecology, that fengshui is no idle ontology. Without the conjoining crossbeam named like Orion’s Belt the Kula Ring’s outrigger canoes are unbalanced beams floating in the streams of wind and water. Chinese sailing craft invert the basic features of most Oceanic craft, but balance, 平衡, they most surely have.  Another inquiry into the use of flora references in Austronesian languages and cultures and in Chinese is underway now by means of a research assistant…

The future is a pleasure with new friends, new students and new ideas to explore.



OLDER CONTINUING COURSES: Transforming Everyday Life in America; Ecology & Society; Economic Anthropology. These three courses have been gems for me and for a good number of students. I look forward to teaching them and greeting a new bunch of students each time I start them over.

NEW COURSES IN DEVELOPMENT; Technology, Culture And Time (in which I consider recent work focusing on ‘materiality’ and the analysis of variation across different cultural regimes); and The Anthropology of Time and Space (from Kant to Anthropology, and Calendrical systems to Continental histories).

Selected Publications

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.

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

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.

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.