Saturday, November 7, 2009

236. The Baseline Scenarios -- part 12: Kinship

Kinship has traditionally been one of the major preoccupations of anthropology, and for good reason, as it reflects some of the most fundamental aspects of human relationship in a manner that appears, at least on the surface, to be systematic, consistent and logical, thus particularly amenable to scientific study. Unfortunately, the promise that kinship studies would tell us something important about cultural history has been largely unfulfilled. Various kinship "types" appear to be scattered almost randomly among a great many different regions, with seemingly very little in the way of meaningful pattern.

A bold effort to make sense out of the complex web of kinship terminologies has recently been made by German Dziebel, who very generously sent me a copy of his remarkable book, The Genius of Kinship. Dziebel's database of kinship terminologies, along with several links to various aspects of his work can be found on his blog, Kinship Studies, and a very interesting summary of his ideas on this topic can be found on the blog, I don't pretend to understand kinship well enough to evaluate all Dziebel's ideas, but I must confess that the most original aspect of his work, the theory, based on his kinship research, that homo sapiens first arose in the Americas rather than Africa, is for me both confusing and unconvincing. I nevertheless recommend his book since German clearly has a comprehensive knowledge of kinship, writes in a very engaging manner, and has many interesting and original things to say.

In view of the complexity of kinship terminology, coupled with my own ignorance of all but the most basic aspects of kinship, plus German's presence on this blog as an alert and often highly critical commentator (whose presence is nevertheless welcome), I hesitate to even raise the issue here. However, judging from the literature generally, there are some very interesting aspects of Pygmy and Bushmen attitudes toward kinship that could serve as useful clues to the kinship traditions, if any, of HBC.

Here is what Barry Hewlett has to say about kinship among the four pygmy groups he's compared, Aka, Baka, Mbuti and Efe:
These four groups are remarkably similar; all have Hawaiian kin terms, patrilineal descent and patrilocal post-marital residence. These characteristics resemble the patterns of most farmers with whom foragers associate so it is unclear whether the patterns existed before relations were established with farmers or whether foragers adopted these patterns from farmers and modified them in their own ways. However, beyond the surface patterns the difference between foragers and farmers are striking. Foragers' versions of Hawaiian kinship terminologies are more classificatory or generalized than are farmers; adult foragers ideology about patrilineages is not strong and utilization of patrilineages is more flexible (e.g, mother's relatives are important often recognized with a specific term) and less precise than that of farmers . . . ; post-marital residence is more flexible among foragers than farmers as foragers frequently visit in-laws and distant relatives for long periods. (Cultural Diversity Among African Pygmies -- my emphasis).
Here is what Colin Turnbull has to say about kinship among the Mbuti:
It would of course, be ridiculous to deny that there is any system of kinship, but it is certain that the kinship system does not have the same importance as a focal point of social control as it may in other African societies. To my mind this is undeniably linked to the ad hoc nature of the society, with its almost complete lack of concern for the past, as for the future.
From later in the same section:
Together with this lack of emphasis on the biological aspects of kinship, and the accompanying generational system of terminology goes a lack of formal restrictions on behavior between different kin categories, and a marked unwillingness to clearly define kin relationships between individuals (Wayward Servants, pp. 109, 112 -- my emphasis).
Compare with what Mathias Guenther has to say about Bushmen kinship:
A number of social institutions are flexible sui generis, a result of . . . the 'organizational lability' of society. Neo-locality and highly classificatory (indeed universalistic) kinship systems are both social patterns that obscure genealogical detail . . . Absence of status differentiation and vaguely defined leadership and ritual specialization, unstable, tenuous marriages in early to mid-adulthood, and loose and informal child-rearing practices . . . allow for a wide margin of individual action as none is an institution or practice based on cut-and-dried jural rules but, instead, all are tentative and open-ended (in Cultural Diversity Among Twentieth Century Foragers, p. 78 -- my emphasis).
Moreover, from The Evolution of Culture, 1999, by Dunbar, Knight and Power:
Hunting and gathering societies are usually based on a universal system of kinship classification (Barnard, 1978). In other words, they classify all members of society as 'relatives,' some being 'husbands' or 'wives,' some being 'parents' or 'children' . . .(my emphasis).
Or this, from a leading authority on Bushmen culture, Alan Barnard:
In studying Khoisan kinship, I have found that the rigid application of traditional models drawn from other parts of the world or from anthropological, rather than indigenous, discourse, obscures interesting features. An approach which takes into account similar features across society boundaries can reveal underlying structures which add much more to our understanding of kinship than the surface structures which are the subject of conventional methods of formal analysis (Hunters and Herders of Southern Africa, p. 6 -- my emphasis).
While it's possible to categorize pygmies and bushmen within formally defined, traditional kinship models that are, in fact, different from one another (i.e., "Hawaiian" among the pygmies and "Eskimo" among Bushmen), the "underlying structures" they have in common may be of greater significance, at least for our purposes. For our purposes, the very real differences in kinship terminology, naming and marriage customs, etc. among these groups can be put aside, at least for now, in favor of the underlying commonalities, because it's what they all have in common that is most likely to stem from HBC. And what they all appear to have in common is not so much a single, "underlying" or "surface" kinship system, as very little system at all.

What we get from the authorities quoted above is a picture of societies best described as "ad hoc" and "unconcerned with the past," with a "flexible" attitude toward kinship, marital customs, residence, etc., and an "unwillingness to clearly define kin relationships"; societies in which individual actions are not "jural" but "tentative and open ended." All the above suggests that HBC may have had either a very flexible and loosely defined kinship system, akin to the "universal" system described above -- or no kinship system at all.

No comments: