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

II. The Family

The Punaluan Family

If the first advance in organization consisted in the exclusion of parents and children from sexual intercourse with one another, the second was the exclusion of sister and brother. On account of the greater nearness in age, this second advance was infinitely more important, but also more difficult, than the first. It was effected gradually, beginning probably with the exclusion from sexual intercourse of own brothers and sisters (children of, the same mother) first in isolated cases and then by degrees as a general rule (even in this century exceptions were found in Hawaii), and ending with the prohibition of marriage even between collateral brothers and sisters, or, as we should say, between first, second, and third cousins. It affords, says Morgan, “a good illustration of the operation of the principle of natural selection.” There can be no question that the tribes among whom inbreeding was restricted by this advance were bound to develop more quickly and more fully than those among whom marriage between brothers and sisters remained the rule and the law. How powerfully the influence of this advance made itself felt is seen in the institution which arose directly out of it and went far beyond it -- the gens, which forms the basis of the social order of most, if not all, barbarian peoples of the earth and from which in Greece and Rome we step directly into civilization.

After a few generations at most, every original family was bound to split up. The practice of living together in a primitive communistic household, which prevailed without exception till late in the middle stage of barbarism, set a limit, varying with the conditions but fairly definite in each locality, to the maximum size of the family community. As soon as the conception arose that sexual intercourse between children of the same mother was wrong, it was bound to exert its influence when the old households split up and new ones were founded (though these did not necessarily coincide with the family group). One or more lines of sisters would form the nucleus of the one household and their own brothers the nucleus of the other. It must have been in some such manner as this that the form which Morgan calls the punaluan family originated out of the consanguine family. According to the Hawaiian custom, a number of sisters, own or collateral (first, second or more remote cousins) were the common wives of their common husbands, from among whom, however, their own brothers were excluded; these husbands now no longer called themselves brothers, for they were no longer necessarily brothers, but punalua – that is, intimate companion, or partner. Similarly, a line of own or collateral brothers had a number of women, not their sisters, as common wives, and these wives called one another punalua. This was the classic form of a type of family, in which later a number of variations was possible, but whose essential feature was: mutually common possession of husbands and wives within a definite family circle, from which, however, the brothers of the wives, first own and later also collateral, and conversely also the sisters of the husbands, were excluded.

This form of the family provides with the most complete exactness the degrees of consanguinity expressed in the American system. The children of my mother’s sisters are still her children, just as the children of my father’s brothers are also his children; and they are all my brothers and sisters. But the children of my mother’s brothers are now her nephews and nieces, the children of my father's sisters are his nephews and nieces, and they are all my male and female cousins. For while the husbands of my mother’s sisters are still her husbands, and the wives of my father&rquo;s brothers are still his wives (in right, if not always in fact), the social ban on sexual intercourse between brothers and sisters has now divided the children of brothers and sisters, who had hitherto been treated as own brothers and sisters, into two classes: those in the one class remain brothers and sisters as before (collateral, according to our system); those in the other class, the children of my mother’s brother in the one case and of my father’s sister in the other, cannot be brothers and sisters any longer, they can no longer have common parents, neither father nor mother nor both, and therefore now for the first time the class of nephews and nieces, male and female cousins becomes necessary, which in the earlier composition of the family would have been senseless. The American system of consanguinity, which appears purely nonsensical in any form of family based on any variety of monogamy, finds, down to the smallest details, its rational explanation and its natural foundation in the punaluan family. The punaluan family or a form similar to it must have been at the very least as widespread as this system of consanguinity.

Evidence of this form of family, whose existence has actually been proved in Hawaii, would probably have been received from all over Polynesia if the pious missionaries, like the Spanish monks of former days in America, had been able to see in such unchristian conditions anything more than a sheer “abomination.” [1]

Caesar’s report of the Britons, who were at that time in the middle stage of barbarism, “every ten or twelve have wives in common, especially brothers with brothers and parents with children,” is best explained as group marriage. Barbarian mothers do not have ten or twelve sons of their own old enough to keep wives in common, but the American system of consanguinity, which corresponds to the punaluan family, provides numerous brothers, because all a man’s cousins, near and distant, are his brothers. Caesar’s mention of “parents with children” may be due to misunderstanding on his part; it is not, however, absolutely impossible under this system that father and son or mother and daughter should be included in the same marriage group, though not father and daughter or mother and son. This or a similar form of group marriage also provides the simplest explanation of the accounts in Herodotus and other ancient writers about community of wives among savages and barbarian peoples. The same applies also to the reports of Watson and Kaye in their book, The People of India, about the Teehurs in Oudh (north of the Ganges): “Both sexes have but a nominal tie on each other, and they change connection without compunction; living together, almost indiscriminately, in many large families.”

In the very great majority of cases the institution of the gens seems to have originated directly out of the punaluan family. It is true that the Australian classificatory system also provides an origin for it: the Australians have gentes, but not yet the punaluan family; instead, they have a cruder form of group marriage. In all forms of group family it is uncertain who is the father of a child; but it is certain who its mother is. Though she calls all the children of the whole family her children and has a mother’s duties towards them, she nevertheless knows her own children from the others. It is therefore clear that in so far as group marriage prevails, descent can only be proved on the mother’s side and that therefore only the female line is recognized. And this is in fact the case among all peoples in the period of savagery or in the lower stage of barbarism. It is the second great merit of Bachofen that he was the first to make this discovery. To denote this exclusive recognition of descent through the mother and the relations of inheritance which in time resulted from it, he uses the term “mother-right,” which for the sake of brevity I retain. The term is, however, ill-chosen, since at this stage of society there cannot yet be any talk of “right” in the legal sense.

If we now take one of the two standard groups of the punaluan family, namely a line of own and collateral sisters (that is, own sisters’ children in the first, second or third degree), together with their children and their own collateral brothers on the mother’s side (who, according to our assumption, are not their husbands), we have the exact circle of persons whom we later find as members of a gens, in the original form of that institution. They all have a common ancestral mother, by virtue of their descent from whom the female offspring in each generation are sisters. The husbands of these sisters, however, can no longer be their brothers and therefore cannot be descended from the same ancestral mother; consequently, they do not belong to the same consanguine group, the later gens. The children of these sisters, however, do belong to this group, because descent on the mother’s side alone counts, since it alone is certain. As soon as the ban had been established on sexual intercourse between all brothers and sisters, including the most remote collateral relatives on the mother’s side, this group transformed itself into a gens – that is, it constituted itself a firm circle of blood relations in the female line, between whom marriage was prohibited; and henceforward by other common institutions of a social and religious character it increasingly consolidated and differentiated itself from the other gentes of the same tribe. More of this later. When we see, then, that the development of the gens follows, not only necessarily, but also perfectly naturally from the punaluan family, we may reasonably infer that at one time this form of family almost certainly existed among all peoples among whom the presence of gentile institutions can be proved – that is, practically all barbarians and civilized peoples.

At the time Morgan wrote his book, our knowledge of group marriage was still very limited. A little information was available about the group marriages of the Australians, who were organized in classes, and Morgan had already, in 1871, published the reports he had received concerning the punaluan family in Hawaii. The punaluan family provided, on the one hand, the complete explanation of the system of consanguinity in force among the American Indians, which had been the starting point of all Morgan’s researches; on the other hand, the origin of the matriarchal gens could be derived directly from the punaluan family; further, the punaluan family represented a much higher stage of development than the Australian classificatory system. It is therefore comprehensible that Morgan should have regarded it as the necessary stage of development before pairing marriage and should believe it to have been general in earlier times. Since then we have become acquainted with a number of other forms of group marriage, and we now know that Morgan here went too far. However, in his punaluan family he had had the good fortune to strike the highest, the classic form of group marriage, from which the transition to a higher stage can be explained most simply.

For the most important additions to our knowledge of group marriage we are indebted to the English missionary, Lorimer Fison, who for years studied this form of the family in its classic home, Australia. He found the lowest stage of development among the Australian aborigines of Mount Gambier in South Australia. Here the whole tribe is divided into two great exogamous classes or moieties, Kroki and Kumite. Sexual intercourse within each of these moieties is strictly forbidden; on the other hand, every man in the one moiety is the husband by birth of every woman in the other moiety and she is by birth his wife. Not the individuals, but the entire groups are married, moiety with moiety. And observe that there is no exclusion on the ground of difference in age or particular degrees of affinity, except such as is entailed by the division of the tribe into two exogamous classes. A Kroki has every Kumite woman lawfully to wife; but, as his own daughter according to mother-right is also a Kumite, being the daughter of a Kumite woman, she is by birth the wife of every Kroki, including, therefore, her father. At any rate, there is no bar against this in the organization into moieties as we know it. Either, then, this organization arose at a time when, in spite of the obscure impulse towards the restriction of inbreeding, sexual intercourse between parents and children was still not felt to be particularly horrible – in which case the moiety system must have originated directly out of a state of sexual promiscuity; or else intercourse between parents and children was already forbidden by custom when the moieties arose, and in that case the present conditions point back to the consanguine family and are the first step beyond it. The latter is more probable. There are not, to my knowledge, any instances from Australia of sexual cohabitation between parents and children, and as a rule the later form of exogamy, the matriarchal gens, also tacitly presupposes the prohibition of this relationship as already in force when the gens came into being.

The system of two moieties is found, not only at Mount Gambier in South Australia, but also on the Darling River further to the east and in Queensland in the northeast; it is therefore widely distributed. It excludes marriages only between brothers and sisters, between the children of brothers and between the children of sisters on the mother's side, because these belong to the same moiety; the children of sisters and brothers, however, may marry. A further step towards the prevention of inbreeding was taken by the Kamilaroi on the Darling River in New South Wales; the two original moieties are split up into four, and again each of these four sections is married en bloc to another. The first two sections are husbands and wives of one another by birth; according to whether the mother belonged to the first or second section, the children go into the third or fourth; the children of these last two sections, which are also married to one another, come again into the first and second sections. Thus one generation always belongs to the first and second sections, the next to the third and fourth, and the generation after that to the first and second again. Under this system, first cousins (on the mother’s side) cannot be man and wife, but second cousins can. This peculiarly complicated arrangement is made still more intricate by having matriarchal gentes grafted onto it (at any rate later), but we cannot go into the details of this now. What is significant is how the urge towards the prevention of inbreeding asserts itself again and again, feeling its way, however, quite instinctively, without clear consciousness of its aim.

Group marriage which in these instances from Australia is still marriage of sections, mass marriage of an entire section of men, often scattered over the whole continent, with an equally widely distributed section of women – this group marriage, seen close at hand, does not look quite so terrible as the philistines, whose minds cannot get beyond brothels, imagine it to be. On the contrary, for years its existence was not even suspected and has now quite recently been questioned again. All that the superficial observer sees in group marriage is a loose form of monogamous marriage, here and there polygyny, and occasional infidelities. It takes years, as it took Fison and Howlett, to discover beneath these marriage customs, which in their actual practice should seem almost familiar to the average European, their controlling law: the law by which the Australian aborigine, wandering hundreds of miles from his home among people whose language he does not understand, nevertheless often finds in every camp and every tribe women who give themselves to him without resistance and without resentment; the law by which the man with several wives gives one up for the night to his guest. Where the European sees immorality and lawlessness, strict law rules in reality. The women belong to the marriage group of the stranger, and therefore they are his wives by birth; that same law of custom which gives the two to one another forbids under penalty of outlawry all intercourse outside the marriage groups that belong together. Even when wives are captured, as frequently occurs in many places, the law of the exogamous classes is still carefully observed.

Marriage by capture, it may be remarked, already shows signs of the transition to monogamous marriage, at least in the form of pairing marriage. When the young man has captured or abducted a girl, with the help of his friends, she is enjoyed by all of them in turn, but afterwards she is regarded as the wife of the young man who instigated her capture. If, on the other hand, the captured woman runs away from her husband and is caught by another man, she becomes his wife and the first husband loses his rights. Thus while group marriage continues to exist as the general form, side by side with group marriage and within it exclusive relationships begin to form, pairings for a longer or shorter period, also polygyny; thus group marriage is dying out here, too, and the only question is which will disappear first under European influence: group marriage or the Australian aborigines who practice it. Marriage between entire sections, as it prevails in Australia, is in any case a very low and primitive form of group marriage, whereas the punaluan family, so far as we know, represents its highest stage of development. The former appears to be the form corresponding to the social level of vagrant savages, while the latter already presupposes relatively permanent settlements of communistic communities and leads immediately to the successive higher phase of development. But we shall certainly find more than one intermediate stage between these two forms; here lies a newly discovered field of research which is still almost completely unexplored.


[1] There can no longer be any doubt that the traces which Bachofen thought he had found of unrestricted sexual intercourse, or what he calls “spontaneous generation in the slime,” go back to group marriage. “If Bachofen considers these punaluan marriages ‘lawless,’ a man of that period would consider most of the present-day marriages between near and remote cousins on the father’s or mother's side to be incestuous, as being marriages between blood brothers and sisters.” (Marx.)

Chapter Two (Part I) | Chapter II (Part III)