Tag Archives: kinship

Culture of honor


The major civilizations of Eurasia found different ways to integrate (a) systems of kinship and descent, with roots stretching back into the deep history of Neolithic demic expansions, (b) states and state formation, especially along meta-ethnic frontiers, and (c) major world religions. In Classical Greece and Rome, devotion to patrilineal descent groups was edged out by wider loyalties to the city state. And in Late Antiquity and later, Christianity in Europe would also encourage the weakening of extended family ties. China took a different path, upholding state patriarchy and the rule of the clan, and eventually suppressing Buddhist monasteries.

In the case of the Islamic world, something about (a) kinship, marriage, and descent is reflected in this map, which shows percentages of consanguineal marriages (first and second cousins) around the world today.
Southern India has a tradition where men from group A can take wives from group B but not from their own group, and vice versa, which can result after a generation in cousin marriage, specifically cross-cousin marriage where the linking parents are of opposite sex. (Aboriginal Australia has similar marriage rules.) In the south Indian case even some uncle-niece marriages are allowed, specifically marriage of a man to his sister’s daughter, who is categorized as an in-law rather than a blood relation. The Islamic Middle East and Central Asia, a culture area formed in the course of the great Arab conquests of the seventh and eighth centuries, have another kind of cousin marriage, where marriages are kept within a patriline: i.e. it is common for a man to marry his father’s brother’s daughter. Such marriages are not directly encouraged by Muslim law. However Muslim rules of inheritance may indirectly encourage them. Under traditional Muslim law, each daughter gets one share of inheritance; each son gets two shares. This is a better deal for women than the one where sons get everything (as in traditional China, for example). But it means that a lineage can expect to lose a third of its property with each generation if it lets daughters marry out.

There is probably more going on, though, than just inheritance law: marriage within the patrilineage long predates the rise of Islam among Near Eastern pastoralists. It is probably connected with another characteristic of this culture area: an intense culture of honor, including a high premium on female purity (guaranteeing the integrity of the patrilineage). To allow a daughter or sister to be seduced by an outsider is deeply dishonorable. But even a legitimate marriage to an outsider carries some shame, putting the wife-giving family in an inferior relation to the wife-takers. Not letting daughters and sisters marry outside the patriline is one way for a lineage to advertise its honor.

One of the classic studies of the culture of honor in the Mediterranean is entitled The Fate of Shechem. The reference is to the story of Shechem and Dinah and her brothers in Genesis 34. Shechem, prince of a then-Canaanite city, seduces (or maybe rapes) Dinah. His father, the king, proposes to make things right with a classic marriage alliance: “Make marriages with us; give your daughters to us, and take our daughters for yourselves. You shall dwell with us; and the land shall be open to you; dwell and trade in it, and get property in it.” Dinah’s brothers, who are Jacob’s sons, pretend to agree to the bargain, but use a ruse to kill Shechem and his father and plunder their city. Jacob is outraged that he has acquired a whole new set of enemies, but his sons ask “Shall he make our sister a whore?” An unflinching determination to avoid a humiliating sexual dependency trumps the need for an exogamous marital alliance, as blood washes honor clean.

And here’s a website, by “hbdchick,” with extensive posts and references on kinship and major civilizations.


State patriarchy and the Ancient City

677-539 BCE

The period leading up to historical times saw the rise of patrilineal descent groups (and maybe some transitions from matrilineal descent) across Eurasia. Different civilizations found different ways of accommodating these groups. In China, patrilineal clans go as far back as we have any historical records, back to the Shang dynasty. Confucius (551-479 BCE) in some ways represented a break with this past. He thought a wise prince should select ministers based on their ability rather than their lineage. But China could never be governed by bureaucrats alone, and Chinese states found themselves depending on extended families and clans to help rule the country. The Confucian state exalted filial piety, obedience to one’s elders, and ancestor worship along with obedience to the Emperor. When an official told Confucius “In my country there is an upright man named Kung. When his father stole a sheep, Kung bore witness against him,” Confucius replied, “The upright men in my community are different from this. The father conceals the misconduct of the son. The son conceals the misconduct of the father. Uprightness is to be found in this.” The resulting social compact – Arthur Wolf, an anthropologist of China calls it “state patriarchy” – was extraordinarily resilient. In days to come we will see how it kept bouncing back from one disruption after another, like one of those heavy-bottomed dolls you just can’t keep knocked over.

By contrast, the classical city-states of Greece and Rome went through a series of social revolutions early in their history where both kings and patrilineages lost their exalted position. This argument was developed back in the nineteenth century by the French historian Numa Denis Fustel de Coulanges. In his book The Ancient City, Fustel showed how ancestor worship and clan loyalty gave way to civic institutions. For example in Athens the democratic reformer Cleisthenes (570-508) replaced old-style subdivisions of the populace based on descent with new subdivisions based on residence. For a time, the classical city-state commanded intense loyalty from its citizens, and displayed an exceptionally high level of military effectiveness.

China’s revolution against the old order of elders, extended family, and clan waited until the twentieth century, and took a horrific toll on the population. Even today some of the old ways persist. The putative patrilineal descendants of Confucius, more than two million strong, have recently been updating their genealogies.


Like the traditional poetry of other peoples, the traditional poetry of the Greeks celebrated the Heroic Age. This was the time when men were bigger and stronger, and they performed marvelous feats of prowess. Their weapons were made of bronze and not of iron, and they were ruled by kings. … The Heroic Age came to an end in two great wars – the Theban and the Trojan. … This was how the Mycenaean Greek civilization of the second millennium BC was remembered in historic Greece.

Margalit Finkelberg. Greeks and Pre-Greeks

Classical Greek poetry concerned with the Heroic Age includes a lot of genealogy, with an emphasis on descent in the male line, much like the begats in the Bible. Modern readers familiar with the Iliad and Odyssey find this stuff pretty boring, but it mattered a lot to the Greeks, who would try to link their existing patrilineal clans to the legendary family lines of the Heroic Age.

An emphasis on patrilineal descent is a general feature of early Indo-European society and its later offshoots, including the Greeks; the Indo-European expansion is one phase of the Patriarchal Age, leaving its imprint particularly on the distribution of Y chromosome variants. But given this patrilineal focus, there is something odd about the legends of the Heroic Age. In virtually none of the surviving legends do we find kingship passing from father to son, even when there is a son around. Instead, the normal pattern is that the king’s successor is the guy who marries his daughter – in other words his son-in-law, not his son. Meanwhile, the king’s son has to marry elsewhere. (Although the legends seem to present some cases of rotating succession, where multiple patrilineages took turns marrying into a matrilineage. In these cases, a king’s grandson might marry back into the kingdom, marrying his father’s sister’s daughter.) The implication is that the line of succession to the throne ran from mother to daughter, although it was the husbands of these women who actually exercised power: kingship by marriage. The most notable case of a son succeeding to his father’s throne is the exception that proves the rule: Oedipus got to be king of Thebes because he married Queen Jocasta, not because he was King Laius’ son. (Spoiler alert: see below*)

In Greeks and Pre-Greeks: Aegean Prehistory and Greek Heroic Tradition, Margalit Finkelberg argues that legends of the Heroic Age are memories of a time when the patrilineal traditions of the Greeks coexisted with earlier matrilineal traditions. More specifically, she argues that matrilineal Pre-Greek cultures were associated with the Anatolian language family, the first branch off the Indo-European tree, which also includes Hittite. On her account, Greece looks like ancestral Polynesia, a society flipped from matrilineal to patrilineal by invaders.

Finkelberg is not the first person to notice possible survivals of matrilineal descent from before the coming of the Indo-Europeans and other folk. Such survivals led some nineteenth century scholars to theorize that matrilineality – tracing descent and succession through the female line – was a stage of social evolution that all societies passed through. Some scholars also believed that matrilineal societies were matriarchal – ruled by women. Neither of these theories has held up very well. And yet …

… based on reconstructions of cultural phylogeny and/or ancestral vocabulary a number of the great demic expansions that covered the world seem to have started out matrilineal and/or matrilocal. The list (labelled by associated language families) includes:

So although matrilineal/matrilocal organization is not a stage that every society passes through, it is seems to be a phase in many demic expansions. This is actually not too surprising. One solid finding in the anthropology of kinship is that matrilocal societies, in which a man goes to live with his wife’s kin when he marries, tend to be internally peaceful, without a lot of feuding between neighboring villages in the same tribe. This makes sense, since the men are no more related to the men in their own village than they are to men in neighboring villages. At the same time, matrilocal societies are often quite war-like with respect folks outside the larger tribe (just ask the neighbors of the Iroquois or the Navajo). Since matrilocality and matrilineality (which tend to go together) are associated with internal peace and external aggression, this social organization is well-suited to life along an ethnic frontier. Matrilocality (which is strongly associated with matrilineality) is one way tribal societies generate the social solidarity that enables demic expansion.

But there are several limits to matrilocal solidarity. First, the introduction of stock herding tends to undermine matrilocality and matrilineality. (My late colleague Henry Harpending worked with a group, the Herero in southern Africa, who had taken up cattle herding, and were probably in the early stages of transition from matri- to patrilineal.) Also matrilocal/matrilineal societies rarely exceed a few tens of thousands of people. Beyond that size their internal unity tends to break down, and parents start insisting that married sons stick around to defend the homestead. So a lot of the later, better known population expansions, including Indo-European, Semitic, Turkic, and Han Chinese are heavily patrilineal. But even today, traces of earlier matrilineal social organization still survive in some places – in the matrilineal belt of Central Africa, and in some of South East Asia, where patrilineality, and mate guarding to secure the male line, mostly don’t reach the same intensity as in much of Asia.

* Oedipus didn’t know it, but Jocasta was his mom.




1556-1361 BCE

The Lapita culture (defined based on pottery) starts showing up on the islands of Melanesia around this time. The culture was almost certainly brought from outside, by mariners speaking an Austronesian language (Proto-Oceanic), who traced their roots back (immediately) to island Southeast Asia, and (earlier) to Taiwan. The nearer islands of Melanesia were already inhabited when the Lapitans arrived, by people similar to modern New Guineans, whose ancestors had been there for tens of thousands of years.

The Lapitans had advanced sailing skills, and also introduced some domesticated animals – pigs and chickens. But they don’t seem to have had a huge demographic edge over the earlier inhabitants, who had already developed agriculture on their own, and may have had more resistance to local diseases like malaria. The Lapitans mostly settled smaller, harder-to-reach islands, and established enclaves on larger islands. And one scholar calls the Austronesian expansion “an agricultural revolution that failed” because the pioneers abandoned the rice cultivation that their ancestors had been doing, although they quickly picked up local crops like taro and breadfruit. (In another part of the Austronesian world, island Southeast Asia, they gave up on agriculture altogether to become “fisher-foragers.”)

Curiously, Polynesians today get more than half of their patrilineally transmitted Y-chromosome DNA from Melanesia, while most of their matrilineally transmitted mitochondrial DNA, and even their bilaterally transmitted autosomal DNA, is from Taiwan/Southeast Asia.

There is good reason to think that ancestral Austronesians had a matrilineal social organization, with kin groups emphasizing descent through the female line. This might reflect a history in which men spent lots of time away from home, sailing, raiding, and trading, and chose to leave their households in charge of their sisters. In Micronesia, settled in a separate phase of the Austronesian expansion, matrilineal descent is the rule right up the present – a chief’s heir is his sister’s son, not his wife’s son. Matrilineal societies are often not very intense about policing female sexual behavior (compare the Middle East) and it seemed plausible that when the Lapita folk were passing through Melanesia, the women might have picked up some Melanesian Y chromosomes while their menfolk were off sailing.

But it now looks like the story is different. Ancient DNA from the very earliest Polynesian settlers in Tonga and Vanuatu shows no trace of Melanesian ancestry. Melanesian ancestry apparently came to Polynesia sometime after this initial settlement, perhaps as a result of conquest. And this fits with another aspect of Polynesian kinship: our best reconstructions suggest that Polynesians switched from matrilineal to patrilineal descent early in their history. The recent evidence suggests that a group of Melanesians, arriving later, perhaps as conquerors, may have been responsible for the shift, by setting themselves up as chiefs (in an already rank conscious society) and passing their privileged position on to their sons and their son’s sons – a story already familiar from other parts of the Old World.

(I learned a lot of what I know about kinship in Pacific island societies from my colleague at the University of Utah, the late Per Hage. Unfortunately most of what he wrote on the subject seems to be behind paywalls.)

The Patriarchal Age

1753-1557 BCE

The time of the Biblical Patriarchs. Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob, is sometimes called the Patriarchal Age. If there is a kernel of truth to the Biblical stories, the Patriarchal Age probably goes back to the early third millennium. But the concept applies more broadly. A recent title says it: “A recent bottleneck of Y chromosome diversity coincides with a global change in culture.” This figure shows it.
The left panel shows effective population sizes based on Y chromosome DNA, transmitted down the male line. The right panel shows effective population sizes based mitochondrial DNA, transmitted down the female line. The dramatic dip on the left panel, where effective population sizes go way down in the last ten thousand years, means that there was a period, from the initial spread of major language families to near the dawn of history, where just a few men were leaving lots of descendants in the male line. This must reflect a time when polygyny – some men taking multiple wives, others not reproducing at all – was common. But this pattern probably reflects more than just polygyny. It probably also reflects a continuing advantage, carried over many generations, for some male lines of descent. In other words, back in the day, not just did Lord Y (or whoever) have many wives and many sons, but his sons, his sons’ sons. his son’s son’s sons, and so on, had many offspring. This probably implies some kind of long-term social memory, such that that the “Sons of Y” or the “House of Y” had a privileged position for many generations.

Australian Aborigines, subjects of our last two posts, often have high frequencies of polygyny, but mostly don’t keep track of genealogies over the long term. Men can tell you what kin terms they apply to other people, but they mostly don’t know their ancestry past a few generations. If I’m an Aborigine, it’s enough to know that my father called some other man “brother,” to know that that I call that man’s children my “siblings.” I don’t have to know the actual genealogy. But many Eurasian societies have been different. People can give you a line of begats stretching back many generations. For example, Kirghiz boys from a young age were expected to be able to tell you their “seven fathers”, i.e. their father, their father’s father, and so on, for seven generations. Having prominent ancestors inthe male line is a form of social capital. Even very large groups may claim descent from ancestors going way back. These stories – the tribes of Israel going back to the sons of Jacob, Greek patrilineages going back to the sons of Hellen (a guy, no relation to Helen of Troy), Indian Brahmins belonging to different ancestral gotras (patrilineal clans) going back to Vedic times – must have been heavily fictionalized. But maybe not completely.

Eurasian history is often told as the story the rise of states and empires. But it’s also the story of the rise of patrilineal descent groups (and the heavy policing of female sexuality to make sure of paternity in the male line). One thing we’ll see in posts to come is how the relationship between State and Clan played out differently in different civilizations.

It’s not just a good idea, it’s the Law

I’m an anthropologist, and I like inflicting kinship on people. Last post was Australian language history; here’s Australian kinship. (If you want even more, the AustKin database and websiteprovide access to kinship terminologies and social category systems from published and archival sources for over 607 Australian Aboriginal languages.)

Claude Lévi-Strauss called Australian Aborigines the “intellectual aristocrats” of the primitive world, having in mind their complex symbolic life and social organization. Australian Aboriginal systems of kinship and marriage are famously recondite. Generations of anthropology teachers have dragged students through these systems, as earlier generations of Latin teachers dragged their pupils through “amo, amas, amat.” Working out all the details can indeed be tricky. The natives themselves have been known to sketch diagrams, and argue about the correct answers.

Here are two general principles that help understand what’s going on. Both principles are found widely, but not universally, in Australia. Outside Australia, the first principle is widespread (but not familiar to most Westerners), the second is rare (but found a few other places, like western Amazonia).

1) Most Aborigines, when they label their kin, and divide them into marriageable and non-marriageable, follow a version of so-called Dravidian rules. (As the name suggests, these are common in southern India, but this isn’t strong evidence for an Australia-India historical connection, because Dravidian rules are found all over the place.) According to the rules, Father’s Brother = Father (i.e. Father’s Brother is called by the same term as Father), but Mother’s Brother gets a different term, which we could translate “uncle”. Mother’s Sister = Mother (i.e. Mother’s Sister is called by the same term as Mother), but Father’s Sister gets a different term, which we could translate “aunt”. With perfect consistency, these equations are carried over to their children. Father’s Brother’s Child = Father’s Child = Sibling, and Mother’s Sister’s Child = Mother’s Child = Sibling. (There may be further distinctions, like breaking down Sibling into Brother and Sister, but I ignore these here.) On the other hand, Mother’s Brother’s Child and Father’s Sister’s Child are not equated with siblings. Very commonly, these principles are used to determine who can marry whom. Parallel cousins (those classified as Sibling, related through parents who are same-sex siblings) are covered by the incest taboo, and off limits for marriage. Cross cousins (those not classified as Sibling, related through parents who are opposite-sex siblings) aren’t covered by the taboo, and may be preferred spouses.

2) Aborigines do something unusual with Dravidian rules in the children’s generation. Fathers and mothers generally classify their children differently. There are usually one or more terms covering Man’s Child and one or more different terms covering Woman’s Child. So a woman and her husband use different kin terms for their kids. We could call these kin types “fatherling” (the children to whom one is father) and “motherling” (the children to whom was is mother.) These terms are commonly extended to other kin. Ask a man who his fatherlings are and he will name his own children, then his brothers’ children (after all, they call him father). Ask a woman who her motherlings are and she will label her own children, then her sisters’ children (after all, they call her mother). But … this is the tricky bit … Ask a man who his motherlings are, and he will name his sister’s children (the children to whom he is Mother’s Brother). Ask a woman who her fatherlings are, and she will name her brother’s children (the children to whom she is Father’s Sister).

This means that the classification of kin in the children’s generation is a mirror image of classification in the parents’ generation. And at some point some clever Aborigine noticed that under this system all relatives fall into just four super-classes – anthropologists call them sections – and everyone can agree on where to draw the boundaries between them. (This is not the case in more standard Dravidian systems, which, like most Western systems, don’t distinguish Man’s Child from Woman’s Child.) So you can go ahead and assign names to these sections, give them totemic animals, and so on. For any individual there will be

a) his or her own section (which also includes Siblings, and some grandkin: Fathers’ Fathers, Mothers’ Mothers, Fatherlings’ Fatherlings, and Motherlings’ Motherlings),

b) a section for his/her Fathers (and Fathers’ Sisters, and Fatherlings), a

c) a section for his/her Mothers (and Mothers’ Brothers, and Motherlings), and

d) a section for his/her potential Spouses (and Siblings-in-law, and some grandkin: Fathers’ Mothers, Mothers’ Fathers, Fatherlings’ Motherlings, and Motherlings’ Fatherlings)

There’s a lot of variation on basic themes across Australia (e.g. systems with eight subsections). It’s likely the labels came first, and the division into recognized sections came later. Not everybody does sections. And some groups have adopted the section system even thought they don’t have the corresponding terms.

If you just skimmed through the part above (that’s OK, it’s not on the exam) here’s an analogy. We (at least most readers of this blog) aren’t used to sorting out kin the way Aborigines do, but we’re used to the idea of voting for candidates supported by different political parties. And we’re also used to the idea that different voting rules have different consequences: a first-past-the-post rule favors a two party system; proportional representation favors many parties. To anyone not used to voting at all, this might seem very confusing, but it’s the stuff of politics in democratic societies. By the same token, odd quirks in the way people categorize kin can have important consequences. Human beings, even in technologically simple societies, are not just adapting to their natural environment, but also navigating a universe of social rules – what Aborigines call “the Law”.

My handaxe

1.31-1.23 million years ago

By today’s date, Acheulean tools are well developed in Africa, and found in India too. Sophisticated tools like the Acheulean hand axe probably tell us something not just about cognition in relation to tool making, but also about social cognition. You wouldn’t make a hand axe, use it, and abandon it. Nor would you go to all the trouble if the biggest, baddest guy in the group was immediately going to grab it from you. So there is probably some notion of artifacts-as-personal-possessions by the time Acheulean appears.

Possession is a social relationship, a relationship between two or more individuals with respect to the thing possessed. Robinson Crusoe didn’t “own” anything on his island before Friday came along.

Linguists have noted something interesting about the language of possession that maybe tells us something about the psychology of possession: Expressions for possession are often similar to expressions for spatial locations. Compare spatial expressions:

João went to Recife.
Chico stayed in Rio.
The gang kept Zezinho in Salvador.

and corresponding constructions for possessions:

The Crampden estate went to Reginald.
The Hampden estate stayed with Lionel.
Thag kept axe.

Of course the Crampden estate didn’t go anywhere in physical space, but it still traveled in the abstract social space of possession. In some cases just switching from inanimate to animate subject will switch the meaning from locative to possessive. The Russian preposition y means at/near when applied to a place (People are at Nevsky street) but possession when applied to a person (Hat is “at” Ivan = Ivan has hat.)

What may be going on here: people (and many other creatures) have some mental machinery for thinking about physical space. That machinery gets retooled/borrowed/exapted for thinking about more abstract relationships. So the cognitive psychology of space gets retooled for thinking about close and distant social relationships, or time ahead and behind. In other words, we may be seeing a common evolutionary phenomenon of organs evolved for one purpose being put to another purpose – reptile jaw bones evolve into mammalian inner ear bones, dinosaur forelimbs evolve into bird wings. You can find Steve Pinker making this argument in his book The Stuff of Thought. For a while most of the evidence of repurposing spatial cognition for more abstract relationships came from linguistics, but there’s now some corroboration from neurology.

And I’ve made the argument for the particular case of kinship: regularities in kin terminology across cultures tell us something about pan-human ideas of “kinship space.” (My kin and my body parts are arguably the most basic, intrinsic primitive sorts of possessions, since long before my handaxe.) This implies that the evolutionary psychology of kinship has not just an adaptive component (adaptations for calculating coefficients of relatedness and inbreeding), but also a phylogenetic component  (homologies with the cognitive psychology of space).


We’ll see other possible examples, involving e.g. the evolution of speech sounds, as we move along.