Ancient Society. Lewis H. Morgan 1877

Chapter II
Arts of Subsistence

The important fact that mankind commenced at the bottom of the scale and worked up, is revealed in an expressive manner by their successive arts of subsistence. Upon their skill in this direction, the whole question of human supremacy on the earth depended. Mankind are the only beings who may be said to have gained an absolute control over the production of food; which at the outset they did not possess above other animals. Without enlarging the basis of subsistence, mankind could not have propagated themselves into other areas not possessing the same kinds of food, and ultimately over the whole surface of the earth; and lastly, without obtaining an absolute control over both its variety and amount, they could not have multiplied into populous nations. It is accordingly probable that the great epochs of human progress have been identified, more or less directly, with the enlargement of the sources of subsistence.

We are able to distinguish five of these sources of human food, created by what may be called as many successive arts, one superadded to the other, and brought out at long separated intervals of time. The first two originated in the period of savagery, and the last three, in the period of barbarism. They are the following, stated in the order of their appearance:

I. Natural Subsistence upon Fruits and Roots on a Restricted Habitat.

This proposition carries us back to the strictly primitive period of mankind, when few in numbers, simple in subsistence, and occupying limited areas, they were just entering upon their new career. There is neither an art, nor an institution, that can be referred to this period; and but one invention, that of language, which can be connected with an epoch so remote. The kind of subsistence indicated assumes a tropical or subtropical climate. In such a climate, by common consent, the habitat of primitive man has been placed. In fruit and nut-bearing forests under a tropical sun, we are accustomed, and with reason, to regard our progenitors as having commenced their existence.

The races of animals preceded the race of mankind, in the order of time. We are warranted in supposing that they were in the plenitude of their strength and numbers when the human race first appeared. The classical poets pictured the tribes of mankind dwelling in groves, in caves and in forests, for the possession of which they disputed with wild beasts[1] while they sustained themselves with the spontaneous fruits of the earth. If mankind commenced their career without experience, without weapons, and surrounded with ferocious animals, it is not improbable that they were at least partially, tree-livers, as a means of protection and security.

The maintenance of life, through the constant acquisition of food, is the great burden imposed upon existence in all species of animals. As we descend in the scale of structural organization, subsistence becomes more and more simple at each stage, until the mystery finally vanishes. But, in the ascending scale, it becomes increasingly difficult until the highest structural form, that of man, is reached, when it attains the maximum. Intelligence from henceforth be- comes a more prominent factor. Animal food, in all probability, entered from a very early period into human consumption; but whether it, was actively sought when mankind were essentially frugivorous in practice, though omnivorous in structural organization, must remain a matter of conjecture. This mode of sustenance belongs to the strictly primitive period.

II. Fish Subsistence.

In fish must be recognized the first kind of artificial food, because it was not fully available without cooking. Fire was first utilized, not unlikely, for this purpose. Fish were universal in distribution, unlimited in supply, and the only kind of food at all times attainable. The cereals in the primitive period were still unknown, if in fact they existed, and the hunt for game was too precarious ever to have formed an exclusive means of human support. Upon this species of food mankind became independent of climate and of locality; and by following the shores of the seas and lakes, and the courses of the rivers could, while in the savage state, spread themselves over the greater portion of the earth’s surface. Of the fact of these migrations there is abundant evidence in the remains of flint and stone implements of the Status of Savagery found upon all the continents. In reliance upon fruits and spontaneous subsistence a removal from the original habitat would have been impossible.

Between the introduction of fish, followed by the wide migrations named, and the cultivation of farinaceous food, the interval of time was immense. It covers a large part of the period of savagery. But during this interval there was an important increase in the variety and amount of food. Such, for example, as the bread roots cooked in ground ovens, and in the permanent addition of game through improved weapons, and especially through the bow and arrow.[2] This remarkable invention, which came in after the spear war club, and gave the first deadly weapon for the hunt, appeared late in savagery. It has been used to mark the commencement of its Upper Status. It must have given a powerful upward influence to ancient society, standing in the same relation to the period of savagery, as the iron sword to the period of barbarism, and fire-arms to the period of civilization.

From the precarious nature of all these sources of food, outside of the great fish areas, cannibalism became the dire resort of mankind. The ancient university of this practice is being gradually demonstrated.

III. Farinaceous Subsistence through Cultivation.

We now leave Savagery and enter the lower Status of barbarism. The cultivation of cereals and plants was unknown in the Western hemisphere except among the tribes who had emerged from savagery; and it seems to have been unknown in the Eastern hemisphere until after the tribes of Asia and Europe had passed through the Lower, and had drawn near to the close of the Middle Status of barbarism. It gives us the singular fact that the American aborigines in the Lower Status of barbarism were in possession of horticulture one entire ethnical period earlier than the inhabitants of the Eastern hemisphere. It was a consequence of the unequal endowments of the two hemispheres; the Eastern possessing all the animals adapted to domestication, save one, and a majority of the cereals; while the Western had only one cereal fit for cultivation, but that the best. It tended to prolong the older period of barbarism in the former, to shorten it in the latter; and with the advantage of condition in this period in favour of the American aborigines. But when the most advanced tribes in the Eastern hemisphere, at the commencement, of the Middle Period of barbarism, had domesticated animals which gave them meat and milk, their condition, without a knowledge of the cereals, was much superior to that of the American aborigines in the corresponding period, with maize and plants, but without domestic animals. The differentiation of the Semitic and Aryan families from the mass of barbarians seems to have commenced with the domestication of animals.

That the discovery and cultivation of the cereals by the Aryan family was subsequent to the domestication of animals is shown by the fact, that there are common terms for these animals in the several dialects of the Aryan language, and no common terms for the cereals or cultivated plants. Mommsen, after showing that the domestic animals have the same names in the Sanskrit, Greek, and Latin (which Max Muller afterwards extended to the remaining Aryan dialects[3]) thus proving that they were known and presumptively domesticated before the separation of these nations from each other, proceeds as follows: On the other hand, we have as yet no certain proofs of the existence of agriculture at this period. Language rather favours the negative view. Of the Latin-Greek names of grain none occur in the Sanskrit with the single exception of zea, which philologically represents the Sanskrit yavaz, but denotes in Indian, barley; in Greek, spelt. It must indeed lie granted that this diversity in the names of cultivated plants, which so strongly contrasts with the essential agreement in the appellations of domestic animals, does not absolutely preclude the supposition of a common original; agriculture. The cultivation of rice among the Indians, that of wheat and spelt among the Greeks, and that of rye and oats among the Germans and Celts, may all be traceable to a common system of original tillage[4]. This last conclusion is forced. Horticulture preceded field culture, as the garden (hortos) preceded the field (ager); and although the latter implies boundaries, the former signifies directly an enclosed space. Tillage, however, must have been older than the enclosed garden; the natural order being first, tillage of patches of open alluvial land, second of enclosed spaces or gardens and third, of the field by means of the plow drawn by animal power. Whether the cultivation of such plants as the pea, bean, turnip, parsnip, beet, squash and melon, one or more of them, preceded the cultivation of the cereals, we have at present no means of knowing. Some of these have common terms in Greek and Latin; but, I am assured by our eminent philologist, Prof. W. D. Whitney, that neither of them has a, common term in Greek or Latin and Sanskrit.

Horticulture seems to have originated more in the necessities of the domestic animals than in those of man- kind. In the Western hemisphere it, commenced with maize. This new era, although not synchronous in the two hemispheres, had immense influence upon the destiny of mankind. There are reasons for believing that it requires ages to establish the art of cultivation, and render farinaceous food a principal reliance. Since in America it led to localization and to village life, it tended, especially among the Village Indians, to take the place of fish and game. From the cereals and cultivated plants, moreover, mankind obtained their first impression of the possibility of an abundance of food.

The acquisition of farinaceous food in America and of domestic animals in Asia and Europe, were the means of delivering the advanced tribes, thus provided, from the scourge of cannibalism, which as elsewhere stated, there are reasons for believing was practiced universally through- out the period of savagery upon captured enemies, and, in time of famine, upon friends and kindred. Cannibalism in war, practiced by war parties in the field, survived among the American aborigines, not only in the Lower, but also in the Middle Status of barbarism, as, for example, among the Iroquois and the Aztecs; but the general practice had disappeared. This forcibly illustrates the great, importance which is exercised by a permanent increase of food in ameliorating the condition of mankind.

IV. Meat and Milk Subsistence.

The absence of animals adapted to domestication in the Western hemisphere, excepting the llama[5], and the specific differences in the cereals of the two hemispheres exercised an important influence upon the relative advancement of their inhabitants. While this inequality of endowments was immaterial to mankind in the period of savagery, and not marked in its effects in the Lower Status of barbarism, it made an essential difference with that portion who had attained to the Middle Status. The domestication of animals provided a permanent meat and milk subsistence which tended to differentiate the tribes which possessed them from the mass of other barbarians. In the Western hemisphere, meat was restricted to the precarious supplies of game. This limitation upon an essential species of food was unfavourable to the Village Indians; and doubtless sufficiently explains the inferior size of the brain among them in comparison with that of Indians in the Lower Status of barbarism. In the Eastern hemisphere, the domestication of animals enabled the thrifty and industrious to secure for themselves a permanent supply of animal food, including milk[6]; the healthful and invigorating influence of which upon the race, and especially upon children, was undoubtedly remarkable. It is at least supposable that the Aryan and Semitic families owe their pre-eminent endowments to the great scale upon which, as tar back as our knowledge extends, they have identified themselves with the maintenance in numbers of the domestic animals. In fact, they incorporated them, flesh, milk, and muscle into their plan of life. No other family of mankind have done this to an equal extent, and the Aryan have done it to a greater extent, than the Semitic.

The domestication of animals gradually introduced a new mode of life, the pastoral, upon the plains of the Euphrates and of India, and upon the steppes of Asia; on the confines of one or the other of which the domestication of animals was probably first accomplished. To these areas, their oldest traditions and their histories alike refer them. They were thus drawn to regions which, so far from being the cradle lands of the human race, were areas they would not have occupied as savages, or as barbarians in the Lower Status of barbarism, to whom forest areas were natural homes. After becoming habituated to pastoral life, it must have been impossible for either of these families to re-enter the forest areas of Western Asia and of Europe with their flocks and herds without first learning to cultivate some of the cereals with which to subsist the latter at a distance from the grass plains. It seems extremely probable, therefore, as before stated, that the cultivation of the cereals originated in the necessities of the domestic animals, and in connection with these western migrations; and that the use of farinaceous food by these tribes was a consequence of the knowledge thus acquired.

In the Western hemisphere, the aborigines were enabled to advance generally into tae Lower Status of barbarism, and a portion of them into the Middle Status, without domestic animals, excepting the llama in Peru, and upon a single cereal, maize, with the adjuncts of the bean, squash, and tobacco, and in some areas, cacao, cotton and pepper. But maize, from its growth in the hill — which favoured direct cultivation — from its useableness both green and ripe and from its abundant yield and nutritive properties, was a richer endowment in aid of early human progress than all other cereals put together. It serves to explain the remarkable progress the. American aborigines had made without the domestic animals; the Peruvians having produced bronze, which stands next, and quite near, in the order of time, to the process of smelting iron ore.

V. Unlimited Subsistence through Field Agriculture.

The domestic animals supplementing human muscle with animal power, contributed a new factor of the highest value. In course of time, the production of iron gave the plough with an iron point, and a better spade and axe. Out of these, and the previous horticulture, came field agriculture; and with it, for the first time, unlimited subsistence. The plough drawn by animal power may be regarded as inaugurating a new art. Now, for the first time, came the thought of reducing the forest, and bringing wide fields under cultivation.[7] Moreover, dense populations in limited areas now became possible. Prior to field agriculture it is not probable that half a million people were developed and held together under one government in any part of the earth. If exceptions occurred, they must have resulted from pastoral life on the plains, or from horticulture improved by irrigation, under peculiar and exceptional conditions.

In the course of these pages it will become necessary to speak of the family as it, existed in different ethnical periods; its form in one period being sometimes entirely different from its form in another. In Part III these several forms of the family will be treated specially. But as they will be frequently mentioned in the next ensuing Part, they should at least be defined in advance for the information of the reader. They are the following:

I. The Consanguine Family.

It was founded upon the intermarriage of brothers and sisters in a group. Evidence still remains in the oldest of existing systems of Consanguinity, the Malayan, tending to show that this, the first form of the family, was anciently as universal as this system of consanguinity which it created

II. The Punaluan Family.

Its name is derived from the Hawaiian relationship of Punalua. It was founded upon the intermarriage of several brothers to each other’s wives in a group; and of several sisters to each other’s husbands in a group. But the term brother, as here used, included the first, second, third, and even more remote male cousins, all of whom were considered brothers to each other, as we consider own brothers; and the term sister included the first, second, third, and even more remote female cousins, all of whom were sisters to each other, the same as own sisters. This form of the family supervened upon the consanguine. It created the Turanian and Ganowanian systems of consanguinity. Both this and the previous form belong to the period of savagery.

III. The Syndyasmian Family.

The term is from syndyazo, to pair, syndyasmos, a joining two together. It was founded upon the pairing of a male with a female under the form of marriage, but without an exclusive cohabitation. It was the germ of the Monogamian Family. Divorce or separation was at the option of both husband and wife. This form of the family failed to create a system of consanguinity.

IV. The Patriarchal Family.

It was founded upon the marriage of one man to several wives. The term is here used in a restricted sense to define the special family of the Hebrew pastoral tribes, the chiefs and principal men of which practised polygamy. It exercised but little influence upon human affairs for want of universality.

V. The Monogamian Family

It was founded upon the marriage of one man with one woman, with an exclusive cohabitation; the latter constituting the essential of the institution. It is pre-eminently the family of civilized society, and was therefore essentially modern. This form of the family also created an independent system of consanguinity.

Evidence will elsewhere be produced tending to show both the existence and the general prevalence of these several forms of the family at different stages of human progress.


1."Lucr. De Re. Nat.,” lib. v, 951.

2. As a combination of forces it is so abstruse that it not unlikely owed its origin to accident. The elasticity and toughness of certain kinds of wood, the tension of a cord of sinew or vegetable fibre by means of a bent bow and finally their combination to propel an arrow by human muscle, are not very obvious suggestions to the mind of a savage. As elsewhere noticed, the bow and arrow are unknown to the Polynesians in general, and to the Australians. From this fact alone it is shown that mankind were well advanced in the savage state when the bow and arrow made their first appearance.

3. Chips from a German Workshop, Comp. Table, ii, p. 42.

4. “History of Rome,” Scribner’s ed., 1871, I, p. 38.

5. The early Spanish writers speak of a ‘dumb dog’ found domesticated in the West India Islands, and also in Mexico and Central America. (See figures of the Aztec dog in pl. iii, vol. I, of Clavigero’s “History of Mexico”). I have seen no identification of the animal. They also speak of poultry as well as turkeys on the continent. The aborigines had domesticated the turkey, and the Nahuatlac tribes some species of wild fowl.

6. We learn from the Iliad that the Greeks milked their sheep, as well as their cows and goats. See “Iliad,” iv, 433.

7. “Lucr. De Re. Nat.,” v, 1369.