Frederick Engels
Origins of the Family, Private Property, and the State

Appendix. A Recently Discovered Case of Group Marriage

From Die Neue Zeit
Vol. XI, No. I, pp. 373-75

Since it has recently become fashionable among certain rationalistic ethnographers to deny the existence of group marriage, the following report is of interest; I translate it from the Russkiye Vyedomosti, Moscow, October 14, 1892 (Old Style). Not only group marriage, i.e., the right of mutual sexual intercourse between a number of men and a number of women, is expressly affirmed to be in full force, but a form of group marriage which closely follows the punaluan marriage of the Hawaiians, the most developed and classic phase of group marriage. While the typical punaluan family consists of a number of brothers (own and collateral), who are married to a number of own and collateral sisters, we here find on the island of Sakhalin that a man is married to all the wives of his brothers and to all the sisters of his wife, which means, seen from the woman's side, that his wife may freely practice sexual intercourse with the brothers of her husband and the husbands of her sisters. It therefore differs from the typical form of punaluan marriage only in the fact that the brothers of the husband and the husbands of the sisters are not necessarily the same persons.

It should further be observed that this report again confirms what I said in The Origin of the Family, 4th edition, pp. 28-29: that group marriage does not look at all like what our brother-obsessed philistine imagines; that the partners in group marriage do not lead in public the same kind of lascivious life as he practices in secret, but that this form of marriage, at least in the instances still known to occur today, differs in practice from a loose pairing marriage or from polygamy only in the fact that custom permits sexual intercourse in a number of cases where otherwise it would be severely punished. That the actual exercise of these rights is gradually dying out only proves that this form of marriage is itself destined to die out, which is further confirmed by its infrequency.

The whole description, moreover, is interesting because it again demonstrates the similarity, even the identity in their main characteristics, of the social institutions of primitive peoples at approximately the same stage of development. Most of what the report states about these Mongoloids on the island of Sakhalin also holds for the Dravidian tribes of India, the South Sea Islanders at the time of their discovery, and the American Indians. The report runs:

"At the session of October 10 (Old Style; October 22, New Style) of the Anthropological Section of the Society of the Friends of Natural Science, N. A. Yanchuk read an interesting communication from Mr. Sternberg on the Gilyaks, a little-studied tribe on the island of Sakhalin, who are at the cultural level of savagery. The Gilyaks are acquainted neither with agriculture nor with pottery; they procure their food chiefly by hunting and fishing; they warm water in wooden vessels by throwing in heated stones, etc. Of particular interest are their institutions relating to the family and to the gens. The Gilyak addresses as father, not only his own natural father, but also all the brothers of his father; all the wives of these brothers, as well as all the sisters of his mother, he addresses as his mothers; the children of all these 'fathers' and 'mothers' he addresses as his brothers and sisters. This system of address also exists, as is well known, among the Iroquois and other Indian tribes of North America, as also among some tribes of India. But whereas in these cases it has long since ceased to correspond to the actual conditions, among the Gilyaks it serves to designate a state still valid today. To this day every Gilyak has the rights of a husband in regard to the wives of his brothers and to the sisters of his wife; at any rate, the exercise of these rights is not regarded as impermissible. These survivals of group marriage on the basis of the gens are reminiscent of the well-known punaluan marriage, which still existed in the Sandwich Islands in the first half of this century. Family and gens relations of this type form the basis of the whole gentile order and social constitution of the Gilyaks.

"The gens of a Gilyak consists of all-nearer and more remote, real and nominal-brothers of his father, of their fathers and mothers of the children of his brothers, and of his own children.

One can readily understand that a gens so constituted may comprise an enormous number of people. Life within the gens proceeds according to the following principles. Marriage within the gens is unconditionally prohibited. When a Gilyak dies, his wife passes by decision of the gens to one of his brothers, own or nominal. The gens provides for the maintenance of all of its members who are unable to work. 'We have no poor,' said a Gilyak to the writer. 'Whoever is in need, is fed by the khal [gens].' The members of the gens are further united by common sacrificial ceremonies and festivals, a common burial place, etc.

"The gens guarantees the life and security of its members against attacks by non-gentiles; the means of repression used is blood-revenge, though under Russian rule the practice has very much declined. Women are completely excepted from gentile blood-revenge. In some very rare cases the gens adopts members of other gentes. It is a general rule that the property of a deceased member may not pass out of the gens; in this respect the famous provision of the Twelve Tables holds literally among the Gilyaks: si suos heredes non habet, gentiles familiam habento -- if he has no heirs of his own, the members of the gens shall inherit. No important event takes place in the life of a Gilyak without participation by the gens. Not very long ago, about one or two generations, the oldest gentile member was the head of the community, the starosta of the gens; today the functions of the chief elder of the gens are restricted almost solely to presiding over religious ceremonies. The gentes are often dispersed among widely distant places, but even when separated the members of a gens still remember one another and continue to give one another hospitality, and to provide mutual assistance and protection, etc. Except under the most extreme necessity, the Gilyak never leaves the fellow-members of his gens or the graves of his gens. Gentile society has impressed a very definite stamp on the whole mental life of the Gilyaks, on their character, their customs and institutions. The habit of common discussion and decision on all matters, the necessity of continually taking an active part in all questions affecting the members of the gens, the solidarity of blood-revenge, the fact of being compelled and accustomed to live together with ten or more like himself in great tents (yurtas), and to be, in short, always with other people-all this has given the Gilyak a sociable and open character. The Gilyak is extraordinarily hospitable; he loves to entertain guests and to come himself as a guest. This admirable habit of hospitality is especially prominent in times of distress. In a bad year, when a Gilyak has nothing for himself or for his dogs to eat, he does not stretch out his hand for alms, but confidently seeks hospitality, and is fed, often for a considerable time.

"Among the Gilyaks of Sakhalin crimes from motives of personal gain practically never occur. The Gilyak keeps his valuables in a storehouse, which is never locked. He has such a keen sense of shame that if he is convicted of a disgraceful act, he immediately goes into the forest and hangs himself. Murder is very rare, and is hardly ever committed except in anger, never from intentions of gain. In his dealings with other people, the Gilyak shows himself honest, reliable, and conscientious.

"Despite their long subjection to the Manchurians, now become Chinese, and despite the corrupting influence of the settlement of the Amur district, the Gilyaks still preserve in their moral character many of the virtues of a primitive tribe. But the fate awaiting their social order cannot be averted. One or two more generations, and the Gilyaks on the mainland will have been completely Russianized, and together with the benefits of culture they will also acquire its defects. The Gilyaks on the island of Sakhalin, being more or less remote from the centers of Russian settlement, have some prospect of preserving their way of life unspoiled rather longer. But among them, too, the influence of their Russian neighbors is beginning to make itself felt. The Gilyaks come into the villages to trade, they go to Nikolaievsk to look for work; and every Gilyak who returns from such work to his home brings with him the same atmosphere which the Russian worker takes back from the town into his village. And at the same time, working in the town, with its chances and changes of fortune, destroys more and more that primitive equality which is such a prominent feature of the artlessly simple economic life of these peoples.

"Mr. Sternberg's article, which also contains information about their religious views and customs and their legal institutions, will appear unabridged in the Etnografitcheskoye Obozrenic (Ethnographical Review).