Among the tribes which still carry this natural communism, even in those where the caste of chiefs has been instituted, and tribal slavery has been introduced, the stage of collective industry, division of labour and organisation of considerable works by skilled labourers, to whom the very idea of payment for services is unknown, gives a totally different conception of what such savagery and barbarism from that which is commonly taught. Thus we assume that a cannibal is necessarily a bestial savage of disgusting type. Not at all. A cannibal chief may be, and often is, a person of exceptional politeness, having a keen sense of communist hospitality, with no ulterior view to the cooking and consuming of his guest. The members of the tribe engaged in any ordinal meal will, as a matter of propiety to themselves, offer the friendly passer-by a share of their food. Those, too, who are accepted as friends and pass the night in a native village are spontaneously offered female attentions, as a matter of course, which it may be as inconvenient to accept as it would be considered insulting to decline. Certainly the communist savage or barbarian, naked, queerly decorated, athropophalogous and, in certain matters, brutal and superstitious as he may be, often possesses a standard of courtesy, as well as of personal dignity, which may compare favorably not only with the proletariat of civilised cities but even the highly educated upper classes of our own country.
The details of the productian and industry of such communal tribes are exceedingly interesting and afford remarkable evidence, as in the case of Indian artificers who have attained a more advanced grade of social development, of what inherited skill and early apprenticeship may create. This may be traced among all tribes still existing in different parts of the world as well as in the remains of those that have passed away. Thus the elaborate system of irrigation carried out in mountainous regions with watered crops extending layer above layer up to a water being distributed to the successive plantations such as taro, or dry cereals such as maize, shows of knowledge of this method of enhancing cultivation fully equal in its way to anything that modern engineers could compass. For these savages or barbarians, with nothing better to aid them than hollowed logs, will irrigate a whole series of hill-sides, and thus make provision against any probable shortage of more easily acquired produce.
But their constructions are even more surprising than their agriculture. A great communal house which, with its complete roofing and decorations, may take a year or several years to construct is a work of art in every respect. The artisans and laborers who built it are entirely dependent in the lower stage of development upon flint tools for their work, and are of course destitute of the many mechanical contrivances which thousands of years of civilisation, growing out of their ingenuity, have provided for their successors. The great double canoe, which is a tribal posession, represents a still more remarkable triumph of craftsmanship. This fine vessel, with a deck-house and huge sail, is made out of planks sewn together with coco-nut fibre, but so carefully fitted and adjusted that the canoes make little water, even in a considerable sea-way, and with a large body of men on board. The deck also is so splendidly adzed with that the best European plane handled by a highly skilled ship’s carpenter cannot touch its perfectly level surface. Yet this astonishing specimen of results obtained by sheer human aptitude, used at every mechanical disadvantage, is constructed without the employment of any contractor, or any payment, as we understand it, to the artisans engaged for two entire years solely upon this single vessel, unless their labour should be required for some exceptional assistance in agriculture. During the whole of this time these skilled craftsmen are fed and, as necessary, clothed by the produce from the land, and the fishing in the sea and river, like other members of the tribe. They would be unable to conceive, in their natural state, and before the arrival of white men, of any form of renumeration for this great skill other than that of sharing with their fellow tribes-people the produce of their common toil.
In the most complete form of this gentile economy where all are socially equal, though female infants are sometimes exposed, children are regarded as the children of the tribe and the idea that any of them should go short of food or necessary attention so long as the means of well-being are at disposal, and the tribe itself subsists, would not occur to any of them. Not all the cruelty and brutality and superstition spoken destroys the fellowship and fraternity which permeates even their daily life. Nay, the very fetishism of semi-supernatural conceptions and the toleration of an idealized animalism inseparably connected with the common existence of blood relations in their group. In war as in peace the ties of blood and of kindred bind each to all and all to each. To avenge a relation by blood, if wrong be done to any, is the sacred duty of the whole closely knit fraternity, who, tracing their descent through the female line, of necessity make common the cause of vendetta.
When war is waged against another tribe the same desperate unanimity of hatred renders the struggle one of mutual annihilation or absorption. Mere conquest or domination is neither desirable nor possible on either side. Captives, if not adopted only, are tortured to death, or killed and eaten. Later only, as power of producing wealth increases, are they either absorbed into the victorious group or retained as tribal slaves. This is the first important step towards the break-up of the gentile social arrangements based on equaliy of condition for all. In general, the cruelty shown towards enemies contrasted with the good feeling encouraged and maintained within the limits of the tribe itself. (The exceptions to this rule prove nearly always to be the victims of religious ceremonies, sacrificed for what is supposed to be the good of the tribe.) Communism, while leading some numbers of people to live harmoniously with each other, did nothing to restrain the ferocity and ruthlessness of peoples outside the circle of their own blood-relationships in the gens and tribe.
Morgan’s discovery, based upon his life-long investigation into the scheme of blood relationship among savages and barbarians in all parts of the world, that the gens as it existed among the North American Indians was the unit of the early forms of ancient society, entirely revolutionized the conception of sexual relations and domestic arrangements at all the stages of development up to the beginning of civilisation. Certain widespread relationships which still existed could only could only be reconciled with a form of marriage that had almost, or entirely, disappeared. This led him to the assumption that these relationships, founded on a complicated system of consanguinity, must have arisen out of the group marriage, which, in its partial survival, has been mistaken by many travellers for mere promiscuity. That a group of brothers should have as wives in common a group of sisters is a type of sexual relationship difficult to comprehend by us of to-day, with centuries upon of monogamy, accompanied by concubinage and various forms of prostitution, behind us. But the probability amounting almost to certainty of the existence of such a marriage connection can alone explain those relationships which, drawn from innumerable sources, Morgan first, and more recently than others, have been at such great pains to investigate and tabulate.
It so happens that I myself first came across these elaborate and systematic researches into savage and barbarian sex relations just fifty years ago. Morgan had not at that time formulated the theory which a few years later destroyed the permanent universality of the monogamous family, rendered him famous and greatly disturbed all who had not mastered his remarkable array of the facts. During my stay in Polynesia I chanced to meet the celebrated Wesleyan missionary, the Rev. Lorimer Fison, then in charge of a mission on the Rewa river, in the great island of Viti Levu. Fison in the course of conversation told me that the Smithsonian Institute of the United States, moved thereto “by a man named Morgan,” had sent round a series of questions as to the scheme of relationships existing and acknowledged among the tribes throughout Polynesia. The same questions, he understood, had been submitted to the missionaries and others who took an interest in the matter all over the world.
Fison, for his part, comprehending the importance of the inquiry, went most carefully into the subject and had been surprised to find that the theory of relationships throughout the archipelago in which he served was nearly identical with that of Indians with whom Morgan (himself a blood brother and of adopted kinship of the Seneca gens of the Iroquois tribe) had commenced his general analysis. Though astonished and interested in what Fison showed me, as well as in his remarks upon descent reckoned through the mother, which everywhere prevailed, I failed at this time to appreciate the value of the work that was being done; nor did Mr Lorimer Fison then grasp fully the object or the tendency of Morgan’s vast survey of human family relations, sexual arrangements and tabulation of relationships. Nevertheless after providing all available information for the Smithsonian Institute from Polynesia he followed this up, not long afterwards, (having been transferred in the meantime to Australia), by a series of detailed observations and records concerning the still earlier tribal and sexual arrangements as displayed among the nomadic hordes in that vast island continent. These with their primitive “classes” and their almost unlimited right of sexual intercourse between the males of one “class” and the females of another “class,” no matter how far split off by segmentation or divided by distance, went still further to confirm the thesis which the originator of the entire investigation had then begun to formulate at length.
Similar evidence poured in from every corner, which it is not necessary for the present to quote. Enough to say that Asia, Africa and Europe, as well as America, Australia, the great islands of the Indian Ocean and Malay Archipelago, the Sandwich Islands, New Zealand, and other groups of the Pacific Ocean all, in the main, afforded proof of the contentions based upon the original discovery and there the conclusions have been pushed too far; but a series of facts were established which gave an almost complete summary of the sexual relationship, though group marriage and the subsequent establishment of the gens itself, to a light and easily dissolved monogamous tie between men of various gentes and women of another gens.
Promiscuity, such as intercourse between brothers and sisters, or even parents and children, seems so shocking to modern observers that they readily put down these to the influence of the devil, or the uncontrolled subordinations to original sin.
The absence of all disgust or horror in regard to such matters denotes, however, not criminality, but lack of experience and ignorance. As mankind slowly awakened to the drawbacks to their progeny of such “incestuous,” though then perfectly moral, associations, our remote forbears made the restrictions upon these close consanguineous types of intercourse more and more stringent. The advantage of such limitation may be have become gradually apparent. Those tribes which, from any case, abandoned the old system discovered that they had better children as their successors than those who adhered to the previous unchecked promiscuity.
Conscious or unconscious natural selection, for the purpose of generating the fittest of the race, slowly worked its way upwards and outwards. Sexual intercourse between persons of close consanguinity ceased by degrees to be customary and then even allowable. Marriage between first cousins in blood through the mother would be considered, under the conditions thus developed, quite as incestuous as we should consider marriage between brother and sister. Thence arose the establishment of the gens, in which the whole of the members, male and female, are bound together by close blood relationship through the mother. From this point the evolution of sex may be traced, with comparative certitude and variation, through all the gradations of savagery and lower barbarism, up to the higher barbarism prior to the beginnings of civilisation.
It is with the establishment and development of the gens, due to the steady limitation of the circle of permissible sexual intercourse, and introduction of the pairing family, that the unit of barbarous social life, customs and organisation attains its highest point. Loose at first, as it was, this pairing family in nowise interfered with the communistic arrangement of the household that had previously existed. As before, the parent-age of the child as derived from the certitude of birth from the mother, never from the still doubtful parentage of the father. Moreover, as marriage between members of the consanguineous gens was strictly forbidden, the wives were all, or nearly all, of the same gens, while the husbands were drawn from different gentes. Thus the control of the household and its general management, its cooking, decoration, small manufacture, etc., remained in the hands of the women. In the best period of barbarism not only were men socially and economically equal, except in so far as they rendered obedience to leaders in war, and controllers in peace, of their own choice, but women were accorded, or rather naturally possessed, the right to take part and vote in the gathering of the tribe. Their services and influence were publicly acknowledged.
In some respects their position was even preferable to that of the men, seeing that the communal household was under their management, children were recognised as theirs far more than the husbands, the descent being reckoned through them, not through the father, and inheritance of such small, strictly personal property as might belong to the man and woman going, at death of either party, to the wife and her gens, with entire exclusion of the blood relations of the husband the advantages of the women, their status was relatively higher individually and collectively than it has ever been since.
The gentile system was at first, in its theory and generally in practice, as complete a democracy, on a small scale, as the world has seen. Essentially a league of blood relationships, with brotherhood, sisterhood and mutual respect for all: the children being the cherished belongings of the whole maternal gens: rights and duties, duties and rights, blended in one common tribal and gentile loyalty to the collective advantage of all in peace and war: this combination of free and equal men and women had arrived at a state of mutual aid and mutual succour which might well have led to a permanent and beneficent association for all time. Even the elected war lords and peaceful administrators could be removed at the will of the gentile members. There were no police, no prostitutes, no property, no incitement to crimes of plunder, passion or jealously within the gens, and no theft. Such were dealt with by the gens and the tribe. Even murder was treated, not as a case for mere individual punishment, but as a matter of blood retribution, on account of the consanguinity of the person killed to all the rest of the injured any member of the gens he injured all its members; and as the killing of a member was the greatest injury that could be inflicted upon this closely knit fraternity, a blood-feud was started by the gens against the gens, or even by the tribe against the tribe of the offender, until the matter was settled, either by agreement between the gentes on one side or the other, or by the killing of the murderer by the members of the aggrieved gens – which of itself balanced the account.
Nevertheless the gens, with all its common property, community of living in the household, common relationship and consanguinity, common rights and duties, common friendships and enmities in the gens, the combination of gentes in the phratry and the further combination of the phratries in the tribe, never constituted a family, or a grouping of families, in the civilized sense. At the period of the fullest development of the gentes this pairing marriage was never the unit of the society in any part of its forms and ramifications. The society was built up and upon the gens and the gens alone. But the man and his mate, or rather the female mate and her man, could not belong to the same gens. Husband and wife, in the nearest approach to monogamy attained under the complete gentile system, belonged, of necessity, to different gentes. Half belonged to the gens of male, half to the gens of the female. The latter, since the child recognised as of the gens of the mother, and she was in nowise, economically or socially, dependent upon or under the control of the man, was the stronger half of the two. Communism and gentilism meant, in fact, social equality and freedom for the woman in her marriage relations with her paired man, and a similar freedom and equality for the man in relation to the woman. The maintenance of the tie was regulated by custom and general opinion, not by law, nor even by traditional observance. The severance of the connection, for a sufficient reason, was not encouraged, but was easily brought about. The modern monogamous family based on male superiority and private property was an utterly different arrangement.
Here there was a system of society arising from the gens to wider combinations which, as it now appears, constituted, like communism in ownership and distribution, the foundation of all the aggregations of human beings over the entire globe that had passed out of the mere nomadic stage.
On the continent of America mankind had not developed in civilisation from the gentile relationships and communal forms at the time of the discovery and conquest. In Europe and Asia civilisation has had the upper hand for many, many centuries. But in those continents, also, only the existence of the gens, in the shape thus analysed and expounded, can explain fully the relationships, settlements, tribal arrangements, democratic constitution, leadership in war, government and council in peace, together with the age-long permanence of the gentile bond and connection, even when its basis had changed and its common ownership had almost entirely disappeared.
Last updated on 27.7.2006