Tag Archives: kinship

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.

Saddam’s kin

December 2003-August 2005

After the American-led invasion of Iraq, it took more than eight months before Saddam Hussein, the former dictator of the country, was captured, on December 13, 2003. Tracking down Saddam was less a matter of deploying cutting-edge super-technology, and more a matter of rediscovering basic social anthropology. Here is a news story on the topic.

The gist is that two junior American military intelligence analysts began with a long list of about 9,000 names. They gradually narrowed this down to a “Mongo List” of about 300 people, tightly interconnected by blood and marriage, who were involved in the resistance and connected with Saddam. Rounding up and interrogating central figures on the list ultimately led to Saddam himself. This approach was successful because Saddam’s immediate power base was his clan and kin.

In previous blogposts we have considered how different Eurasian civilizations developed different compromises between state power, established religion, and patrilineal clans. In the Middle East, clan-based politics have continued to be important right up to the present. In China, a millennia-old tradition of patriarchal clan authority was violently assaulted in the course of the Communist Revolution. In Europe, the move away from clan-based politics came much earlier. The decline of royal and aristocratic rule in nineteenth and twentieth century Europe and the rise of mass politics further weakened the rule of the clan (except insofar as the nation itself operated as a kind of imagined kin group). Hence the contrast between Saddam Hussein’s Iraq, and Western Europe’s premier Evil Dictatorship: compiling a “Mongo List” of 300 of Hitler’s closet relations by blood and marriage wouldn’t get you far in understanding Nazi rule.

Here’s a valuable book on The Rule of the Clan, and a different take on “clannishness” across cultures.

Half the sky

April 1946-February 1951

Chinese state patriarchy – the alliance of the Emperor and his bureaucrats with patrilineal extended families and clans and patriarchal authority, under the sign of Confucius – was extraordinarily resilient. Over the course of several thousand years, it bounced back again and again in the face of foreign invasions, and neutered potentially disturbing influences like Buddhism and Christianity. It was finally severely weakened, if not quite eliminated, in the twentieth century. Chinese intellectuals, including the student reformers of the May 4th movement, regarded the traditional Chinese family system as a source of backwardness, which would have to be overthrown for China to take its rightful place among the world’s powers. After the Chinese Communists took over in 1949, they promulgated a revolutionary new marriage law (1950), which stated, in part

The feudal marriage system, which is based on arbitrary and compulsory arrangements and the superiority of man over women and ignores the children’s interests, shall be abolished.

The New Democratic marriage system, which is based on the free choice of partners, on monogamy, on equal rights for both sexes, and on protection of the lawful interests of women and children shall be put into effect.

Bigamy, concubinage, child betrothal, interference with the re-marriages of widows, and the exaction of money or gifts in connection with marriages, shall be prohibited.

Marriage shall be based on the complete willingness of the two parties. Neither party shall use compulsion, and no third party shall be allowed to interfere.

(The law, however, allowed traditional rules of exogamy to stand. These required people to marry outside their clan.) A campaign began, launched in 1953, to enforce the new law. The Communist Party in China would prove willing to use extraordinary violence to attack old ways, including a kinship system that stood in the way of new forms of state power.

Big in Japan

Japan with its purely feudal organization of landed property and its developed petite culture gives a much purer picture of the European Middle Ages than all our history books.

Karl Marx. Capital

A subject peasantry; widespread use of the service tenement … instead of a salary …; the supremacy of a class of specialized warriors; ties of obedience and protection which bind man to man and … assume the distinctive form called vassalage; fragmentation of authority; and in the midst of all this, the survival of other forms of association, family and State … seem to be the fundamental features of European feudalism … [But] feudalism was not an event which happened once in the world. Like Europe – though with inevitable and deep-seated differences – Japan went through this phase.

Marc Bloch. Feudal Society

After centuries of relative isolation, Japan was forcibly opened to the modern world with Commodore Perry’s visits in 1853 and 1854.


Japan is an interesting case for those who think there are laws of human history – that history is more than just a collection of narratives – because of the similarities between European and Japanese social structure, in spite of wildly divergent high culture. Here are some theories (not necessarily incompatible) about the convergent social evolution of Europe and Japan.

Marxism. According to Marx, there is a limited number of “modes of production” – slavery, feudalism, capitalism, and so on – defined by how the ruling class squeezes a surplus out of the exploited. There are quasi-scholastic arguments among Marxists about how many modes there are, and what society belongs to what mode. Some Marxists define feudalism so broadly that it covers most complex societies before capitalism. Others however (and probably Marx himself) would apply a more limited definition that confines feudalism to Europe (maybe just Western Europe) and Japan. On this view, all feudal societies, even if they are not historically related, will show some generic similarities. Thus (so the story goes) it is no accident that Japan is the one non-Western society to make a relatively rapid and easy transition to capitalism. Even if you don’t buy the whole Marxist package, Perry Anderson’s two volumes, Passages from Antiquity to Feudalism and Lineages of the Absolutist State (from which I got the Marx quote above) are well worth reading.

Cliodynamics. According to some theories, state formation takes place along “meta-ethnic frontiers,” where very different cultures and ways of life abut. In Eastern Europe and most of Asia, the mother of all meta-ethnic frontiers is the one dividing settled farmers from pastoral nomads. The vast majority of really huge empires in history have formed on one side or other of this frontier, or straddling it. In Western Europe and Japan, however, history played out differently. There was less pressure to corral everyone into one monster state, or to overcome the fragmentation of authority by consolidating Church and State, or Emperor and Shogun. (Although consultation and consent between king and vassal didn’t develop in Japan as it did in Medieval Europe.)

Anthropology of kinship. Across a band of territories running from the Middle East through India to China, states developed in conjunction with patrilineal descent groups. In northern Eurasia, and its western and eastern periphery, such groups were not as strongly developed. I wrote a paper once tracing the “deep history” of this and other macro-geographic contrasts in kinship systems. (I should caution that parts of the prehistory need updating.) Feudal society in Western Europe and Japan depended on non-kin-based personal ties. This may have facilitated the later development of non-kin-based institutions like the public corporation and the nation-state. Certainly many Chinese were aware of the difference in social cohesion between their country and Japan. As Sun Yat Sen would remark, “The Chinese people have only family and clan solidarity; they do not have national spirit…they are just a heap of loose sand. But the Japanese are sticky rice.”

Inbreeding depression


“Let others wage war. Thou, happy Austria, marry” (a description of Habsburg marriage policy)

Human inbreeding has both a genetic side (which favors outbreeding, at least within the species) and a political side which may favor a balance between outmarriage (to make new alliances), and in-marriage (to conserve old alliances, and keep land and honor within the family). The Habsburgs played the political game adroitly, putting together an enormous empire, partly by war, but partly by astute dynastic marriages. The Habsburg domains were so unwieldy that after the death of Charles V in 1558, they were divided between two branches of the family. Both sections were huge. The map below doesn’t even show the Habsburg possessions outside Europe, in Spanish America and the Far East.


By 1700, however, genetics caught up with the Habsburgs. The Spanish Habsburg line ended with Charles II, who was grossly disabled, physically and mentally. He was also impotent, and left no heirs. A recent calculation shows that, as a result of generation of in-marriage, Charles II had a coefficient of inbreeding of .254. For comparison, a child of full sibling incest will have a coefficient of inbreeding of .25!

Here’s a recent journal article, and discussions by Ed Yong and Razib Khan.

Tales of the South Pacific

Around 1200

1) The Patriarchal Age in Polynesia

This is out of chronological order, but it’s a story about Polynesian origins that came out very recently that I couldn’t resist.

Around 3600 years ago there was an encounter between peoples who had tens of thousands of years of separate evolution behind them. Melanesia was settled around 40,000-30,000 years ago, and Melanesians developed their own agricultural tradition. Then around 1600 BCE, seafarers arrived whose origins lay ultimately in Taiwan. They brought the distinctive Lapita pottery tradition with them. The newcomers occupied smaller islands and interstices in Melanesia. Ultimately their descendants would go on to colonize Polynesia.

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 raises the possibility 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.)

2) Polynesians in America

Before the great Western voyages of exploration, the Austronesian expansion settled new lands all the way from Madagascar to Polynesia. And Polynesian sailors probably got even further east than Polynesia. Scholars have long been aware of archaeological evidence for contact between Polynesia and America. For example, the Chumash Indians who lived around the Channel Islands in Southern California built distinctive sewn-plank canoes unlike anything in the rest of Pacific North America, but very much like Polynesian vessels. And it’s hard to explain how sweet potatoes could have gotten from the New World to the Pacific islands without human contact – floating in salt water isn’t very likely. A recent scholarly review of a wide range of evidence for contact – linguistic, technological, biological – is here.

Ultimately DNA may provide definitive answers. A report from several years ago that some New World chickens are genetically close to Polynesian chickens now seems questionable. On the other hand, there’s also a recent report indicating American Indian ancestry among Easter Islanders predating Columbus.

3) The Statues That Walked.

Easter Island was settled around 1200, based on the most recent carbon-14 dates. There are two very different accounts of the subsequent history of the island. Jared Diamond offers a cautionary tale of ecological overshoot and collapse. After the initial settlement, the island’s population boomed. Without Dr. Seuss’s Lorax to advise them, the islanders cut down all their palm trees.


With no more wood for sledges or rollers, the famous moai statues could no longer be moved from their quarries. And with no more wood for boats, fishing and inter-island trade became impossible. The loss of forests also led to soil erosion. A famine-stricken population rebelled against the hierarchical social order, and wound up resorting to cannibalism in the midst of a population crash. “Easter’s isolation makes it the clearest example of a society that destroyed itself by overexploiting its own resources.”

But Terry Hunt and Carl Lipo, anthropologists who have worked on the island, differ on almost every part of this account.


They suggest that the deforestation of the island resulted from the introduction of rats, accompanying the first colonists. Rats, with no natural enemies to limit them, ate tree seeds. This wouldn’t have had noticeable effects at first, but eventually led to the forests not replacing themselves. Hunt and Lipo also dispute the claim that pre-contact Easter Island experienced a population crash; they argue that the crash came later, with European contact and the introduction of diseases to which the population had no resistance. They also see little evidence of over-exploitation of the environment. Locals were doing the best they could to make a living under marginal conditions. And as to how the moais got from one place to another, well … the islanders said they walked.

This video shows they could be right.

And some back-and-forth between Diamon and Lipo and Hunt is here.

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, along meta-ethnic frontiers and elsewhere, 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 take wives from group B and vice versa, which can result after a generation in cousin marriage. (Aboriginal Australia has similar marriage rules.) 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 the city, seduces (or maybe rapes) Dinah. His father, the king, proposes to make things right: “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 upset that he has acquired a whole new set of enemies, but his sons ask “Shall he make our sister a whore?” A remorseless sense of honor, a determination to avoid a humiliating sexual dependency, trumps the need for a marital alliance.