Ann Chowning (1929–2016)

Ann Chowning was a highly regarded ethnographer particularly well known for her linguistic work, which featured extensive field work in four different Austronesian speaking societies in western Melanesia. She spent most of her adult life in Australia.

Martha Ann Chowning was born in Little Rock (Pulaski County) on April 18, 1929, to Martha Chowning and Frank Chowning, who was a well-respected Little Rock attorney and an internationally renowned expert on orchids. Chowning attended Little Rock Central High School, graduating in 1946. Pursuing her undergraduate degree from Bryn Mawr College outside of Philadelphia, Pennsylvania, she majored in Spanish. However, she also took a large number of anthropology courses, and after her 1950 graduation with a degree in Spanish, she enrolled in graduate school at Barnard College at Columbia University in New York City. In 1952, after earning her master’s degree in anthropology, having written her thesis on raven myths in northwestern America and northeastern Asia, she began a PhD program at the University of Pennsylvania in Philadelphia. She completed her dissertation and received her degree in 1957.

In 1954, as part of her research, Chowning made the first of what would ultimately be more than twenty trips to Melanesia, endeavors that would make her a world-renowned authority on the Lakalai people, who were the subject of her dissertation. She would later become fluent in the Lakalai language, and in conjunction with professor Ward Goodenough, she compiled a one-way (Lakalai–English) dictionary.

Following completion of her dissertation, based on her 1954–1956 fieldwork with the Lakalai people of West New Britain Province, Papua New Guinea, Chowning began to craft an impressive academic career as an anthropologist. From 1960 to 1965, she was an assistant professor at Columbia University’s Barnard College, and from 1965 to 1970, she was senior research fellow in social anthropology at the Australian National University in Canberra. She then became an associate professor of anthropology at the newly established University of Papua New Guinea in Port Moresby.

In 1977, she moved to Victoria University of Wellington, where she was a professor and chair of the Department of Anthropology, a role she filled until her retirement in 1995. Over the course of almost four decades, Chowning carried out long-term fieldwork in four distinct Papua New Guinea societies. The groups on which she focused, and whose economic and religious organization, beliefs, practices and relations she studied, included the Lakalai of West New Britain Province, the Molima of Milne Bay Province on Fergusson Island, the Sengseng of West New Britain Province, and the Kove of West New Britain Province. In particular, Chowning studied the Austronesian languages and their comparative aspects, as well as folklore and religion, and patterns of insanity. These wide-ranging efforts resulted in important contributions to Oceanic linguistics and the history of its culture. Too, the sum of her work included substantial dictionaries of four languages, and she authored more than twenty papers, mostly on comparative-historical topics. Publication subjects included Mayan archaeology, folklore, and prehistoric flint industries in New Britain.

Following her retirement from Victoria University, she moved to Auckland. The new home offered warmer weather as well as a larger group of professional peers who shared her wide-ranging research interests. In Auckland, she became an honorary research fellow in the University of Auckland’s Anthropology Department, a position that allowed her to regularly attend seminars in cultural anthropology, archaeology and linguistics. In addition, she served for a time as co-editor of the Journal of Polynesian Society.

Chowning died on February 25, 2016, in Auckland.

For additional information:
Chowning (Ann) Papers. Special Collections and Archives, University of California at San Diego. Finding aid online at Online Archive of California (OAC), (accessed October 25, 2022).

Gross, Claudia, Harriet D. Lyons, and Dorothy A. Counts. A Polymath Anthropologist: Essays in Honour of Ann Chowning. Auckland, NZ: University of Auckland, 2005.

Levine, Hal, and Jim Urry. “Martha Ann Chowning (1929–2016)—The University of Auckland.” (accessed October 25, 2022).

“Memorial Service for Prof. Ann Chowning, Association of Social Anthropologists of Aotearoa/New Zealand (ASAA/NZ).” (accessed October 25, 2022).

Pawley, Andrew. “In Memoriam, Ann Chowning, 1929–2016.” Oceanic Linguistics 55 (December 2016): 678–685.

William H. Pruden III
Ravenscroft School


    I knew Ann Chowning from my many years working for the Graham R. Halls in Little Rock, Arkansas. Dr. Chowning was a kind, considerate human being. It was an honor knowing her and sharing her travels and her intellectual knowledge.

    Dr. Deshay David Ford Oxnard, California