If you are reading this then there is a good chance that you are spinning your wheels right about now. I don’t have a complete answer for you either, but I can describe what I was doing and the players involved as I honed the issue down to a specific cause.
1) The issue had everything to do with a presence or absence of couple of lookup columns in my SiteColumns > Elements.xml file. —- BUT —-The actual description of the column makes no difference. Here is the original and a dumbed down version I tried as failures continued. (both deploy fine for me now) When I was getting the above error, I could remove both of these columns from my elements.xml file and get clean feature activations every time. Thus I focused in on them.
Description="The Category this Object belongs to"
2) As I redeployed, it seems that the columns from my last deploy were sticking in place. Keep in mind that I went through tons of iterations making changes to these columns, the lists they pull from and the lists they belong to. Ultimately, SharePoint was unable to undo something that I did (perhaps RelationshipDeleteBehavior="Restrict") and feature retraction broke – I just didn’t notice the failure in the output I guess..
So, how did I fix it? Well, since I’m on virtualized development server, I just jumped back to my clean slate and redeployed my projects.. No problem, no errors. I know that this solution won’t work for all of you, however, before you spin your wheels any more fiddling with <Field attributes, you might just try deploying to an alternate environment to see if “it works on their machine”.