A brief history of ‘marriage,’ part 15

From matrilineal clan to patriarchy, polygyny in transitional societies

The transition to sedentary life and agricultural production was a process carried out in different ways and at different times in different parts of the planet’s inhabited areas. Up to this point, we’ve been drawing on anthropological reports dealing with contemporary foragers and hunters and the generalizations made about them by anthropologists and archeologists. Our objective has been to generalize from anthropological data to hypothesize what social/sexual relations must have been like during the many millennia before people achieved the domestication of animals and cultivation of plants.

While it is still something of a leap from the patterns of life of transitional groups existent during the last few hundred years back to the originators of agriculture 10 or 12 millennia ago, it’s less of a leap than that which anthropological theorists make in hypothesizing the hominin life patterns of hundreds of thousands of years ago. Therefore, our confidence is strengthened that we can glean from more or less contemporary reports some idea of the processes at work during the transition from the matrilineal clan to patriarchal families whose sustenance was obtained more from farming than from foraging or hunting.

Anthropologists David Schneider and Kathleen Gough co-edited a collection of essays with the title “Matrilineal Kinship” in 1961. The societies they chose for study, however, are more accurately classed as transitional forms, retaining some of the social features of matrilineal foraging and hunting societies but well on their way to patriarchal dominance based on the adoption of food production techniques characteristic of the agricultural revolution.

Schneider writes in the book’s Preface: “The selection of societies [for the section of the book he edited and contributed to] did provide a wide diversity of types of matrilineal system. Drawing them from four continents minimized the possibility that any constant features discovered might result from diffusion rather than from matrilineal descent. The traditional Navaho and Plateau Tonga societies were examples of loosely structured, acephalous [leaderless] tribes. … Both rely not only on cultivation but also on herding — unusual for matrilineal peoples. Truk and Trobriand are examples of more tightly structured matrilineal systems with relatively settled cultivation, organized into chiefdoms. The Ashanti were a large, matrilineally organized state, while the Kerala castes were differentiated occupational and social strata within still larger states.” (Berkeley and Los Angeles: University of California Press, 1961, p. xv)

Even this single paragraph from the Preface contains strong evidence of some of the paths taken in the transition to patriarchy that followed from the adoption of agricultural production.

The social significance of herding — and imperialism!

We think it odd that Schneider characterizes the Navajo and Tonga as “leaderless.” In the chapter dealing with the Navajo, we learn that women in this society play a dominant role in the raising of sheep, an important source of material surplus. This, in turn, suggests significant economic and political power on their part, which would later be constrained and distorted, of course, by the imposition of reservation life. In 1862, the U.S. Congress authorized the creation of Fort Sumner as a strategic outpost for the forced movement of 9,000 Apaches and Navajos into a 40-square-mile reservation.

Judging from the coverage in “Matrilineal Kinship” of the Plateau Tonga of Zambia, it is Tonga men who control the raising of cattle, with resultant significant economic inequality. Like the Navajo, the Tonga suffered from imperialist domination. Under British colonial rule, a system was installed at the beginning of the 20th century taxing Tonga men, effectively forcing on Tonga society a cash-based economic system. It is perhaps the imperialist subjugation of the Navajo and the Plateau Tonga that suggests to Schneider that they are “leaderless.”

Returning to Schneider’s preliminary assessment that we quoted above, we note that none of the societies dealt with base themselves on foraging and hunting. A reasonable conclusion is that what exists of matrilineality in these societies represents not much more than a vestige of the social/sexual equality found in the matrilineal clans of foragers and hunters. How, then, are the nontransient social/sexual relations between women and men in these societies affected by economies capable of producing significant surplus and no longer governed by communality and sharing?

Polygyny among the Navajo and Tonga

Coverage of Navajo marriage in “Matrilineal Kinship” includes an extended discussion of polygyny. A late 19th-century report indicates that at that time, more than 50 percent of married men had two or more wives. Marriage was exogamous — partners had to be from outside the suitor’s clan — and the preference, according to the report, was for two sisters or classificatory sisters — nonblood relations of the same clan and same age range — to marry the same man. A mid-20th century report suggested that “the large, polygynous family is helpful for livestock operations.” (p. 120)

Another common pattern was for interclan marriages between two brothers and two sisters or between a brother and sister and a sister and a brother. This pattern would, perhaps, have facilitated interclan alliances even more than single marriages would. Levirate marriages, where the brother of a dead man would replace the dead man as his widow’s new husband, and sororate marriages, where the sister of a dead woman would replace the dead woman as her widower’s new wife, were also reported among the Navajo at the beginning of the 20th century.

Significant economic inequality among the Navajo is indicated by the range of bride prices. Some casual marriages were effected with no bride price, but wealthy families might release their daughters only upon payment of from one to fifteen horses. This is a far cry from the foraging and hunting customs involving a modest food exchange between the clans of the husband and wife, or a labor commitment on the part of the new husband to the wife’s clan.

Polygynous marriages are also a factor among the Plateau Tonga, according to the report in “Matrilineal Kinship,” with 24 percent of married men having more than one wife. One of the important motives for polygyny among the Tonga is “to have the labor of a number of wives and their children to work the man’s own field.” (p. 61) For the woman, an interesting contradiction arises.

On the one hand, she achieves a certain amount of economic independence: “Each wife is entitled from the time of marriage to her own hut. When her separate household is established, she becomes entitled to her own kitchen, her own field, and her own granary. She can be required to work only in her own field and in the separate field of her husband. Neither she nor her children need work in the field of her co-wife.” (p. 62) But on the other hand, with this new “freedom” the female solidarity and communal sharing characteristic of the foraging and hunting matrilineal clan has been lost.

And ominously, “The introduction of ploughing has reinforced the husband’s rights over fields and crops. Because the plough and oxen used in the fields are usually his, he claims that he is entitled to all the proceeds over and above that needed for food without regard to whose field produced the crop. If he has also provided the seed, his certainty that he is absolute master of the crop is increased.” (p. 71)

In the next installment in this series, we’ll continue our investigation of ­marriage in societies on the road to patriarchy.

McCubbin is the author of “The Roots of Lesbian and Gay Oppression: A Marxist View,” New York: World View Forum, 3rd ed., 1993. To order, send $10 to World View Forum, 147 W. 24th St., 2nd Floor, N.Y., NY 10011 with name and address, or order from Amazon.com.