Ancient Society. Lewis H. Morgan 1877

Chapter IV
The Syndyasmian and the Patriarchal Families

When the American aborigines were discovered, that portion of them who were in the Lower Status of barbarism, had attained to the syndyasmian or pairing family. The large groups in the marriage relation, which must have existed in the previous period, had disappeared; and in their places were married pairs, forming clearly marked, though but partially individualized families. In this family, may be recognized the germ of the monogamian, but it was below the latter in several essential particulars.

The Syndyasmian family was special and peculiar. Several of them were usually found in one house, forming a communal household, in which the principle of communism in living was practiced. The fact of the conjunction of several such families in a common household is of itself an admission that the family was too feeble an organization to face alone the hardships of life. Nevertheless it was founded upon marriage between. single pairs, and possessed some of the characteristics of the monogamian family. The woman was now something more than the principal wife of her husband; she was his companion, the preparer of his food, and the mother of children whom he now began with some assurance to regard as his own. The birth of children, of whom they jointly cared, tended to cement the union and render it permanent. But the marriage institution was as peculiar as the family. Men did not seek wives as they are sought in civilized society, from affection, for the passion of love; which required a higher development than they had attained, was unknown among them. Marriage, therefore, was not founded upon sentiment but upon convenience and necessity. It was left to the mothers, in effect, to arrange the marriages of their children, and they were negotiated generally without the knowledge of the parties to be married, and without asking their previous consent. It sometimes happened that entire strangers were thus brought into the marriage relation. At the proper time they were notified when the simple nuptial ceremony would be performed. Such were the usages of the Iroquois and many other Indian tribes. Acquiescence in these maternal contracts was a duty which the parties seldom refused. Prior to the marriage, presents to the gentile relatives of the bride, nearest in degree, partaking of the nature of purchasing gifts, became a feature in these matrimonial transactions. The relation, however, continued during the pleasure of the parties, and no longer. It is for this reason that it is properly distinguished as the pairing family. The husband could put away his wife at pleasure and take another with- out offence, and the woman enjoyed the equal right of leaving her husband and accepting another, in which the usages of her tribe and gens were not infringed. But a public sentiment gradually formed and grew into strength against such separations. When alienation arose between a married pair, and their separation became imminent, the gentile kindred of each attempted a reconciliation of the parties, in which they were often successful; but if they were unable to remove the difficulty their separation was approved. The wife then left the home of her husband, taking with her their children, who were regarded as exclusively her own, and her personal effects, upon which her husband had no claim: or where the wife’s kindred predominated in the communal household, which was usually the case, the husband left the home of his wife.[1] Thus the continuance of the marriage relation remained at the option of the parties.

There was another feature of the relation which shows that the American aborigines in the Lower Status of barbarism had not attained the moral development implied by monogamy. Among the Iroquois, who were barbarians of high mental grade, and among the usually advanced Indian tribes generally, chastity had come to be required of the wife under sever penalties which the husband might inflict; but he did not admit the reciprocal obligation. The one cannot be permanently realized without the other. Moreover, polygamy was universally recognized as the right of the males, although the practice was limited from inability to support the indulgence. There were other usages, that need not be mentioned, tending still further to show that they were below a conception of monogamy, as that great institution is probably defined. Exceptional excesses very likely existed. It will be found equally true, as I believe, distinguished the Syndyasmian from the monogamian family, although liable to numerous exceptions, was he absence of an exclusive cohabitation. The old conjugal system, a record of which is still preserved in their system of consanguinity, undoubtedly remained, but under reduced and restricted forms.

Among the Village Indians in the Middle State of barbarism the facts were not essentially different, so far as they can be said to be known. A comparison of the usages of the American aborigines, with respect to marriage and divorce, shows an existing similarity sufficiently strong to imply original identity of usages. A few only can be noticed. Clavigero remarks that among the Aztecs “the parents were the persons who settled all marriages, and none were ever executed without, their consent."[2] “A priest tied a point of the huepilli, or gown of the bride, with the tilmatli, or mantle of the bridegroom, and in this ceremony the matrimonial conduct chiefly consisted."[3] Herrera, after speaking of the same ceremony, observes that “all that the bride brought was kept in memory, that in case they should be unmarried again, as was usual among them, the goods might be parted; the man taking the daughters, and the wife the sons, with liberty to marry again."[4]

It will be noticed that the Aztec Indian did not seek his wife personally any more than the Iroquois. Among both it was less an individual than a public or gentile affair, and therefore still remained under parental control exclusively. There was very little social intercourse between unmarried persons of the two sexes in Indian life; and as attachments were not contracted, none were traversed by these marriages, in which personal wishes were unconsidered, and in fact unimportant. It appears further, that the personal effects of the wife were kept distinct among the Aztecs as among the Iroquois, that in case of separation, which was a common occurrence as this writer states, she might retain them in accordance with general Indian usage. Finally, while among the Iroquois in the case of divorce the wife took all the children, the Aztec husband was entitled to the daughters, and the wife to the sons, a modification of the ancient usage which implies a prior time when the Iroquois Indian rule existed among the ancestors of the Aztecs.

Speaking of the people of Yucatan generally Herrera, further remarks that “formerly they were wont to marry at twenty years of age, and afterwards came to twelve or fourteen, and having no affection for their wives were divorced for every trifle."[5] The Mayas of Yucatan were superior to the Aztecs in culture and development; but where marriages were regulated on the principle of necessity, and not through personal choice, it is not surprising that the relation was unstable, and that separation was at the option of either party. Moreover, polygamy was a recognized right of the males among the Village Indians, and seems to have been more generally practiced than among the less advanced tribes. These glimpses at institutions purely Indian as well as barbarian reveal in a forcible manner the actual condition of the aborigines in relative advancement. In a matter so personal as the marriage relation, the wishes or preferences of the parties were not consulted.

No better evidence is needed of the barbarism of the people. We are next to notice some of the influences which developed this family from the punaluan, In the latter there was more or less of pairing from the necessities of the social state, each man having a principal wife among a number of wives, and each woman a principal husband among a number of husbands; so that the tendency in the punaluan family, from the first, was in the direction of the Syndyasmian.

The organization into gentes was the principal instrumentality that accomplished this result; but through long and gradual processes. Firstly. It did not at once break up intermarriage in the group, which it found established by custom; but the prohibition of intermarriage in the gens excluded own brothers and sisters, and also the children of own sisters, since all of these were of the same gens. Own brothers could still share their wives in common, and own sisters their husbands; consequently the gens did not interfere directly with punaluan marriage, except to narrow its range. But it withheld permanently from that relation all the descendants in the female line of each ancestor within the gens, which was a great innovation upon the previous punaluan group. When the gens subdivided, the prohibition followed its branches, for long periods of time, as has been shown was the case among the Iroquois. Secondly. The structure and principles of the organization tended to create a prejudice against the marriage of consanguinei, as the advantages of marriages between unrelated persons were gradually discovered through the practice of marrying out of the gens. This seems to have grown apace until a public sentiment was finally arrayed against it which had become very general among the American aborigines when discovered.[6] For example, among the Iroquois none of the blood relatives enumerated in the Table of consanguinity were marriageable. Since it became necessary to seek wives from other gentes they began to be acquired 4y negotiation and by purchase. The gentile organization must have led, step by step, as its influence became general, to a scarcity of wives in place of their previous abundance; and as a consequence, have gradually contracted the numbers in the punaluan group. This conclusion is reasonable, because there are sufficient grounds for assuming the existence of such groups when the Turanian system of consanguinity was formed. They have now disappeared although the system remains. These groups must have gradually declined, and finally disappeared with the general establishment of the Syndyasmian family. Fourthly. In seeking wives, they did not confine them- selves to their own, nor even to friendly tribes, but captured them by force from hostile tribes. It furnishes a reason for the Indian usage of sparing the lives of female captives, while the males were put to death. When wives came be acquired by purchase and by capture, and more and more by effort and sacrifice, they would not be as readily shared with others. It would tend, at least, to cut off that portion of the theoretical group not immediately associated for subsistence; and thus reduce still more the size of the family and the range of the conjugal system. Practically, the group would end to limit itself, from the first, to own brothers who shared their wives in common and to own sisters who shared their husbands in common. Lastly. The gens created a higher organic structure of society than had before been known, with processes of development as a social system adequate to the wants of mankind until civilization supervened. With the progress of society under the gentes, the way was prepared for the appearance of the Syndyasmian family.

The influence of the new practice, which brought unrelated persons into the marriage relation, must have given a remarkable impulse to society. It tended to create a more vigorous stock physically and mentally. There is a gain by accretion in the coalescence of diverse stocks which has exercised great influence upon human development. When two advancing tribes, with strong mental and physical characters, are brought together and blended into one people by the accidents of barbarous life, the new skull and brain would widen and lengthen to the sum of the capabilities of both. Such a stock would be an improvement upon both, and this superiority would assert itself in an increase of intelligence and of numbers.

It follows propensity to pair, now so powerfully developed in the civilized races, had remained unformed in the human mind until the punaluan custom began to disappear. Exceptional cases undoubtedly occurred where usages would permit the privilege; but it failed to become general until the syndyasmian family appeared. This propensity, therefore, cannot be called normal to mankind, but is, rather, a growth through experience, like all the great passions and powers of the mind. Another influence may be adverted to which tended to retard the growth of this family. Warfare among barbarians is more destructive of life than among savages, from improved weapons and stronger incentives. The males, in all periods and conditions of society, have assumed the trade of fighting, which tended to change the balance of the sexes, and leave the females in excess. This would manifestly tend to strengthen the conjugal system created by marriages in the group. It would, also retard the advancement, of the Syndyasmian family by maintaining sentiments of low grade with respect to the relations of the sexes, and the character and dignity of woman.

On the other hand, improvement in subsistence, which followed the cultivation of maize and plants among the American aborigines, must have favoured the general advancement of the family. It led to localization, to the use of additional arts, to an improved house architecture, and to a more intelligent life. Industry and frugality though limited in degree, with increased protection of life, must have accompanied the formation of families consisting of single pairs. The more these advantages were realized, the more stable such a family would become, and the more its individuality would increase. Having taken refuge in a communal household, in which a group of such families succeeded the punaluan group, it now drew its support from itself, from the household, and from the gentes to which the husbands and wives respectively belonged. The great advancement of society indicated by the transition from savagery into the Lower Status of barbarism would carry with it a corresponding improvement in the condition of the family, the course of development of which was steadily upward to the monogamian. If the existence of the Syndyasmian family were unknown, given the punaluan toward one extreme, and the monogamian on the other, the occurrence of such an intermediate form might have been predicted. It has had a long duration in human experience. Springing up on the confines of savagery and barbarism, it traversed the Middle and the greater part of the Later Period of barbarism, when it was superseded by a low form of the monogamian. Overshadowed by the conjugal system of the times, it gained in recognition with the gradual progress of society. The selfishness of mankind, as distinguished from womankind, delayed the realization of strict monogamy until that great fermentation of the human mind which ushered in civilization.

Two forms of the family had appeared before the syndyasmian and created two great systems of consanguinity; or rather two distinct forms of the same system; but this third family neither produced a new system nor sensibly modified the old. Certain marriage relationships appear to have been changed to accord with those in the new family; but the essential features of the system remained unchanged. In fact, the Syndyasmian family continued for an unknown period of time enveloped in a system of consanguinity, false, in the main, to existing relationships, and which it had no power to break. It was for the sufficient reason that it fell short of monogamy, the coming power able to dissolve the fabric. Although this family has no distinct system of consanguinity to prove its existence, like its predecessors, it has itself existed over large portions of the earth within the historical period, and still exists in numerous barbarous tribes.

In speaking thus positively of the several forms of the family in their relative order, there is danger of being misunderstood. I do not mean to imply that one form rises complete in a certain status of society, flourishes universally and exclusively wherever tribes of mankind are found in the same status, and then disappears in another, which is the next higher form. Exceptional cases of the punaluan family may have appeared in the consanguine, and vice versa; exceptional cases of the Syndyasmian may have appeared in the midst of the punaluan, and vice versa; and exceptional cases of the monogamian in the midst of the Syndyasmian, and vice versa. Even exceptional cases of the monogamian may have appeared as low down as the punaluan, and of the Syndyasmian as low down as the consanguine. Moreover, some tribes attained to a particular form earlier than other tribes more advanced; for example, the Iroquois had the Syndyasmian family while in the Lower Status of barbarism, but the Britons, who were in. the Middle Status, still had the punaluan. The high civilization on the shores of the Mediterranean, had propagated arts and inventions into Britain far beyond the mental development of its Celtic inhabitants, and which they had imperfectly appropriated. They seem to have been savages in their brains, while wearing the art apparel of more advanced tribes. That which I have endeavoured to substantiate, and for which the proofs seem to be adequate, is, that the family began in the consanguine, low down in savagery, and grew, by progressive development, into the monogamian, through two well-marked intermediate forms. Each was partial in its introduction, then general, and finally universal over large areas; after which it shaded off into the next succeeding form, which, in turn, was at first partial, then general, and finally universal in the same areas. In the evolution of these successive forms the main direction of progress was from the consanguine to the’ monogamian. With deviations from uniformity in the progress of mankind through these several forms it will generally be found that the consanguine and punaluan families belong to the status of savagery — the former to its lowest, and the latter to its highest condition — while the punaluan continued into the Lower Status of barbarism; that the Syndyasmian belongs to the Lower and to the Middle Status of barbarism, and continued into the Upper; and that the monogamian belongs to the Upper Status of barbarism, and continued to the period of civilization.

It will not be necessary, even if space permitted, to trace the Syndyasmian family through barbarous tribes in general upon the partial descriptions of travellers and observers. The tests given may be applied by each reader to cases within his information. Among the American aborigines in the Lower Status of barbarism it was the prevailing form of the family at the epoch of their discovery. Among the Village Indians in the Middle Status, it was undoubtedly the prevailing form, although the information given by the Spanish writers is vague and general. The communal character of their joint-tenement houses is of itself wrong evidence that the family had not passed out of the syndyasmian form. It had neither the individuality nor the exclusiveness which monogamy implies.

The foreign elements intermingled with the native culture in sections of the Eastern hemisphere produced an abnormal condition of society, where the arts of civilized life were re-loaded to the aptitudes and wants of savages and barbarians.[7] Tribes strictly nomadic have also social peculiarities, growing out of their exceptional mode of life, which are not well understood. Through influences, derived from the higher races, the indigenous culture of many tribes has been arrested, and so far adulterated as to change the natural flow of their progress. Their institutions and social state became modified in consequence.

It is essential to systematic progress in Ethnology that the condition both of savage and of barbarous tribes should be studied in its normal development in areas where the institutions of the people are homogeneous. Polynesia and Australia, as elsewhere suggested, are the best areas for the study of savage society. Nearly the whole theory of savage life may be deduced from their institutions, usages and customs, inventions and discoveries. North and South America, when discovered, afforded the best opportunities for studying the condition of society in the Lower and in the Middle Status of barbarism. The aborigines, one stock in blood and lineage, with the exception of the Eskimos, bad gained possession of a great continent, more richly endowed for human occupation than the Eastern continents save in animals capable of domestication. It afforded them an ample field for undisturbed development. They came into its possession apparently in a savage state; but the establishment of the organization into gentes put them into possession of the principal germs of progress possessed by the ancestors of the Greeks and Romans. Cut off thus early, and losing all further connection with the central stream of human progress, they commenced their career upon a new continent with the humble mental and moral endowments of savages. The independent evolution of the primary ideas they brought with them commenced under conditions insuring a career undisturbed by foreign influences. It holds true alike in the growth of the idea of government, of the family, of household life, of property, and of the arts of subsistence. Their institutions, inventions and discoveries, from savagery, through the Lower and into the Middle Status of barbarism, are homogeneous, and still reveal a continuity of development of the same original conceptions.

In no part of the earth, in modern times, could a more perfect exemplification of the Lower Status of barbarism be found than was afforded by the Iroquois, and other tribes of the United States east of the Mississippi. With their arts indigenous and unmixed, and with their institutions pure and homogeneous, the culture of this period, in its range, elements and possibilities, is illustrated by them in the fullest manner. A systematic exposition of these several subjects ought to be made, before the facts are allowed to disappear.

In a still higher degree all this was true with respect to the Middle Status of barbarism, as exemplified by the Village Indians of New Mexico, Mexico, Central America, Granada, Ecuador, and Peru. In no part of the earth was there to be found such a display of society in this Status, in the sixteenth century, with its advanced arts and inventions, its improved architecture, its nascent manufactures and its incipient sciences. American scholars have a poor account to render of work done in this fruitful field. It was in reality a lost condition of ancient society which was suddenly unveiled to European observers with the discovery of America; but they failed to comprehend its meaning, or to ascertain its structure.

There is one other great condition of society, that of the Upper Status of barbarism, not now exemplified by existing nations; but it may be found in the history and traditions of the Grecian and Roman, and later of the German tribes. It must be deduced, in the main, from their institutions, inventions and discoveries, although there is a large amount of information illustrative of the culture of this period, especially in the Homeric poems.

When these several conditions of society have been studied in the areas of their highest exemplification, and are thoroughly understood, the course of human development from savagery, through barbarism to civilization, will become intelligible as a connected whole. The course of human experience will also be found as before suggested to have run in nearly uniform channels.

The patriarchal family of the Semitic tribes requires but brief notice, for reasons elsewhere stated; and it will be limited to little more than a definition. It belongs to the Later Period of barbarism, and remained for a time after the commencement of civilization. The chiefs, at least lived in polygamy; but this was not the material principle of the patriarchal institution. The organization of a number of persons, bond and free, into a family, under paternal power, or the purpose of holding lands, and for the care of flocks and herds, was the essential characteristic of this family. Those held to servitude, and those employed as servants, lived in the marriage relation, and, with the patriarch as their chief, formed a patriarchal family. Authority over its members and ever its property was the material fact. It was the incorporation of numbers in servile and dependent, relations, before that time unknown, rather than polygamy, that stamped the patriarchal family with the attributes of an original institution. In the great movement of Semitic society, which produced this family, paternal power over the group was the object sought; and with it a higher individuality of persons.

The same motive precisely originated the Roman family under paternal power (Patria potestas); with the power in the father of life and death over his children and descendants, as well as over the slaves and servants who formed its nucleus and furnished its name; and with the absolute ownership of all the property they created. Without polygamy, the pater familias was a patriarch and the family under him was patriarchal. In a less degree the ancient family of the Grecian tribes had the same characteristics. It marks that peculiar epoch in human progress when the individuality of the person began to rise above the gens, in which it had previously been merged, craving an independent life, and a wider field of individual action. Its general influence tended powerfully to the establishment of the monogamian family, which was essential to the realization of the objects sought. These striking features of the patriarchal families, so unlike any form previously known, have given to it a commanding position; but the Hebrew and Roman forms were exceptional in human experience. In the consanguine and punaluan families, paternal authority was impossible as well as unknown; under the syndyasmian it began to appear as a feeble influence; but its growth steadily advanced as the family became more and more individualized, and became fully established under monogamy, which assured the paternity of children. In the patriarchal family of the Roman type, paternal authority passed beyond the bounds of reason into an excess of domination.

No new system of consanguinity was created by the Hebrew patriarchal family. The Turanian system would harmonize with a part of its relationships; but as this form of the family soon fell out, and the monogamian became general, it was followed by the Semitic system of consanguinity, as the Grecian and Roman were by the Aryan. Each of the three great systems — the Malayan, the Turanian, and the Aryan — indicates a completed organic movement of society, and each assured the presence, with unerring certainty, of that form of the family whose relationships it recorded.


1. The late Rev. A. Wright, for many years a missionary among the Senecas, wrote the author in 1873 on this subject as follows: “As to their family system, when occupying the old long-houses, it is probable that some one clan predominated, the women taking in husbands, however, from the other clans; and sometimes, for a novelty, some of their sons bringing in their young wives until they felt brave enough to leave their mothers. Usually, the female portion ruled the house, and were doubtless clannish enough about it. The stores were in common; but woe to the luckless husband or lover who was too shiftless to do his share of the providing. No matter how many children, or whatever goods he might have in the house, he might at any time be ordered to pick up his blanket and budge; and after such orders it would not be healthful for him to attempt to disobey. The house would be too hot for him; and, unless saved by the intercession of some aunt or grandmother, he must retreat to his own clan; or, as was often done, go and start a new matrimonial alliance in some other. The women were the great power among the clans, as everywhere else. They did not hesitate, when occasion required, ‘to knock off the horns,’ as it was technically called; from the head of a chief, and send him back to the ranks of the warriors. The original nomination of the chiefs also always rested with them.” These statements illustrate the gyneocracy discussed by Bachofen in “Das Mutterrecht.”

2. “History of Mexico,” Phil. ed., 1817, Cullen’s trans., ii, 99.

3. lb., ii, 101.

4. “History of America,” 1 c., iii, 217.

5. “History of America,” iv, 171.

6. A case among the Shyans was mentioned to the author, by one of their chiefs, where first cousins had married against their usages. There was no penalty for the act; but they were ridiculed so constantly by their associates that they voluntarily separated rather than face the prejudice.

7. Iron has been smelted from the ore by a number of African tribes, including the Hottentots, as far back as our knowledge of them extends. After producing the metal by rude processes acquired from foreign sources, they have succeeded in fabricating rude implements and weapons.

8. The Asiatic origin of the American aborigines is assumed. But it follows as a consequence of the unity of origin of mankind -another assumption, but one toward which all the facts of anthropology tend. There is a mass of evidence sustaining both conclusions of the most convincing character. Their advent in America could not have resulted from a deliberate migration; but must have been due to the accidents of the sea, and to the great ocean currents from Asia to the North-west coast.