Ancient Society. Lewis H. Morgan 1877

Part IV
Growth of the Idea of Property

Chapter I
The Three Rules of Inheritance

It remains to consider the growth of property in the several ethnical periods, the rules that sprang up with respect to its ownership and inheritance and the influence which it exerted upon ancient society.

The earliest ideas of property were intimately associated with the procurement of subsistence, which was the primary need. The objects of ownership would naturally increase in each successive ethnical period with the multiplication of those arts upon which the means of subsistence depended. The growth of property would thus keep pace with the progress of inventions and discoveries. Each ethnical period shows a marked advance upon its predecessor, not only in the number of inventions, but also in the variety and amount of property which resulted therefrom. The multiplicity of the farms of property would be accompanied by the growth of certain regulations with reference to its possession and inheritance. The customs upon which these rules of proprietary possession and inheritance depend, are determined and modified by the condition and progress of the social organization. The growth of property is thus closely connected with the increase of inventions and discoveries, and with the improvement of social institutions which mark the several ethnical periods of human progress.

I. Property in the Status of Savagery.

In any view of the case, it is difficult to conceive of the condition of mankind in this early period of their existence when divested of all they had gained through inventions and discoveries, and through the growth of ideas embodied in institutions, usages and customs. Human progress from a state of absolute ignorance and inexperience was slow m time, but geometrical in ratio. Mankind may be traced by a chain of necessary inferences back to a time when, ignorant of fire, without articulate language, and without artificial weapons, they depended, like the wild animals, upon the spontaneous fruits of the earth, Slowly, almost imperceptibly, they advanced through savagery, from gesture language and imperfect sounds to articulate speech; from the club, as the first weapon, to the spear pointed with flint, and finally to the bow and arrow; from the flint-knife and chisel to the stone axe and hammer, from the ozier and cane basket to the basket coated with clay, which gave a vessel for boiling food with fire; and, finally, to the art of pottery, which gave a vessel able to withstand the fire. In the means of subsistence, they advanced from natural fruits in a restricted habitat, to scale and shell fish on the coasts of the sea, and finally to bread roots and game. Rope and string-making from filaments of bark, a species of cloth made of vegetable pulp, the tanning of skins to be used as apparel and as a covering for tents, and finally the house constructed of poles and covered with bark, or made of plank split by stone wedges, belong, with those previously named, to the Status of Savagery. Among minor inventions may be mentioned the fire-drill, the moccasin and the snow-shoe.

Before the dose of this period, mankind had learned to support themselves in numbers. in comparison with primitive times; they had propagated themselves over the face of the earth, and come into possession of all the possibilities of the continents in favour of human advancement. In social organization, they had advanced from the consanguine horde into tribes organized in gentes, and thus became possessed of the germs of the principal governmental institutions. The human race was now successfully launched upon its great career for the attainment of civilization, which even then, with articulate language among inventions, with the art of pottery among arts, and with the gentes among institutions, was substantially assured.

The period of savagery wrought immense changes in the condition of mankind. That portion, which led the advance, had finally organized society and developed small tribes with villages here and there which tended to stimulate the inventive capacities. Their rude energies and ruder arts had been chiefly devoted to subsistence. They had not attained to the village stockade far defence, nor to farinaceous food, and the scourge of cannibalism still pursued them. The arts, inventions and institutions named represent nearly the sum of the acquisitions of mankind in savagery, with the exception of the marvellous progress in language. In the aggregate it seems small, but it was immense potentially; because it embraced the rudiments of language, of government, of the family, of religion, of house architecture and of property, together with the principal germs of the arts of life. All these their descendants wrought out more fully in the period of barbarism, and their civilized descendants are still perfecting.

But the property of savages was inconsiderable. Their ideas concerning its value, its desirability and its inheritance were feeble. Rude weapons, fabrics, utensils, apparel, implements of flint, stone and bone, and personal ornaments represent the chief items of property in savage life. A passion for its possession had scarcely been formed in their minds, because the thing itself scarcely existed. It was left to the then distant period of civilization to develop into full vitality that “greed of gain” (studium lucri), which is now such a commanding force in the human mind. Lands, as yet hardly a subject of property, were owned by the tribes in common, while tenement houses were owned jointly by their occupants. Upon articles purely personal which were increasing with the slow progress of inventions, the great passion was nourishing its nascent powers. Those esteemed most valuable were deposited in the grave of the deceased proprietor for his continued use in the spirit land. What remained was sufficient to raise the question of its inheritance. Of the manner of its distribution before the organization into gentes, our information is limited, or altogether wanting. With the institution of the gens came in the first great rule of inheritance, which distributed the effects of a deceased person among his gentiles. Practically they were appropriated by the nearest of kin; but, the principle was general, that the property should remain in the gens of the decedent, and be distributed among its members. This principle was maintained into civilization by the Grecian and Latin gentes. Children inherited from their mother, but took nothing from their reputed father;

II. Property m the Lower Status of Barbarism.

From the invention of pottery to the domestication of animals, or, as an equivalent, the cultivation of maize and plants by irrigation, the duration of the period must have been shorter than that of savagery. With the exception of the art of pottery, finger weaving and the art of cultivation, in America, which gave farinaceous food, no great invention or discovery signalized this ethnical period. It was more distinguished for progress in the development of institutions. Finger weaving, with warp and woof, seems to belong to this period, and it must rank as one of the greatest of inventions; but it cannot be certainly affirmed that the art was not attained in savagery. The Iroquois and other tribes of America in the same status manufactured belts and burden-straps with warp and woof of excellent quality and finish; using fine twine made of filaments of elm and basswood bark. The principles of this great invention, which has since clothed the human family, were perfectly realized; but they were unable to extend it to the production of the woven garment. Picture writing also seems to have made its first appearance in this period. If it originated earlier, it now received a very considerable development. It is interesting as one of the stages of an art which culminated in the invention of a phonetic alphabet.

The series of connected inventions seem of have been the following:

1. Gesture Language, or the language of personal symbols;

2. Picture Writing, or idiographic symbols;

3. Hieroglyphs, or conventional symbols;

4. Hieroglyphs or phonetic symbols used in a syllabus; and

5. A Phonetic Alphabet, or written sounds.

Since a language of written sounds was a growth through successive stages of development, the rise of its antecedent processes is both important and instructive. The characters on the Copan monuments are apparently hieroglyphs of the grade of conventional symbols. They show that the American aborigines, who practised the first three forms, were proceeding independently in the direction of a phonetic alphabet.

The invention of the stockade as a means of village defence, of a raw-hide shield as a defence against arrow, which had now become a deadly missile, of the several varieties of the war-club, armed with an encased stone or with a point of deer horn, seem also to belong to this period. At all events they were in common use among the American Indian tribes in the Lower Status of barbarism when discovered. The spear pointed with flint or bone was not a customary weapon with the forest tribes,[2] though sometimes used. This weapon belongs to the period of savagery, before the bow and arrow were invented, and reappears as a prominent weapon in the Upper Status of barbarism, when the copper-pointed spear came into use, and close combat became the mode of warfare. The bow and-arrow and the war-club were the principal weapons of the American aborigines in the Lower Status of barbarism. Some progress was made in pottery in the increased size of the vessels produced, and in their ornamentation;[3] but, it remained extremely rude to the end of the period. There was a sensible advance in house architecture, in the size and mode of construction. Among minor inventions were the air-gun for bird-shooing, the wooden mortar and pounder for reducing maize to flour, and the stone mortar for preparing paints; earthen and stone pipes, with the use of tobacco; bone and stone implements of higher grades, with stone hammers and mauls, the handle and upper part of the stone being encased in raw hide; and moccasins and belts ornamented with porcupine quills. Some of these inventions were borrowed, not unlikely, from tribes in the Middle Status; for it was by this process constantly repeated that the more advanced tribes lifted up those below them, as fast as the latter were able to appreciate and to appropriate the means of progress.

The cultivation of maize and plants gave the people unleavened bread, the Indian succotash and hominy. It also tended to introduce a new species of property, namely, cultivated lands or gardens. Although lands were owned in common by the tribe, a possessory right to cultivated land was now recognized in the individual, or in the group, which became a subject of inheritance. The group united in a common household were mostly of the same gens, and the rule of inheritance would not allow it to be detached from the kinship.

The property and effects of husband and wife were kept distinct, and remained after their demise in the gens to which each respectively belonged. The wife and children took nothing from the husband and father, and the husband took nothing from the wife. Among the Iroquois, if a man died leaving a wife and children, his property was distributed among his gentiles in such a manner that his sisters and their children, and his maternal uncles, would receive the most of it. His brothers might receive a small portion. If a woman died; leaving a husband and children, her children, her sisters, and her mother and her sisters inherited her effects; but the greater portion was assigned to her children. In each case the property remained in the gens. Among the Ojibwas, the effects of a mother were distributed among her children, if old enough to use them; otherwise, or in default of children, they went to her sisters, and to her mother and her sisters, to the exclusion of her brothers. Although they had changed descent to the male line, the inheritance still followed the rule which prevailed when descent was in the female line.

The variety and amount of property were greater than in savagery, but still not sufficient to develop a strong sentiment in relation to inheritance. In the mode of distribution above given may be recognized, as elsewhere stated, the germ of the second great rule of inheritance, which gave the property to the agnatic kindred, to the exclusion of the remaining gentiles. Agnation and agnatic kindred, as now defined, assume descent in the male line; but the persons included would be very different from those with descent in the female line. The principle is the same in both cases, and the terms seem as applicable in the one as in the other. With descent in the female line, the agnates are those persons who can trace their descent through females exclusively from the same common ancestor with the intestate; in the other case, who can trace their descent through males exclusively. It is the blood connection of persons within the gens by direct descent, in a given line, from the same common ancestor which lies at the foundation of agnatic relationship.

At the present time, among the advanced Indian tribes, repugnance to gentile inheritance has begun to manifest itself. In some it has been overthrown, and an exclusive inheritance in children substituted in its place. Evidence of this repugnance has elsewhere been given, among the Iroquois, Creeks, Cherokees, Choctas, Menominees, Crows and Ojibwas, with references to the devices adopted to enable fathers to give their property, now largely increased in amount, to their children.

The diminution of cannibalism, that brutalizing scourge of savagery, was very marked in the Older Period of barbarism. It was abandoned as a common practice; but remained as a war practice, as elsewhere explained through this, and into the Middle Period. In this form it, was found in the principal tribes of the United States, Mexico and Central America. The acquisition of farinaceous food was the principal means of extricating mankind from this savage custom.

We have now passed over, with a mere glance, two ethnical periods, which covered four-fifths, at least, of the entire existence of mankind upon the earth. While in the Lower Status, the higher attributes of man began to manifest themselves. Personal dignity, eloquence in speech, religious sensibility, rectitude, manliness and courage were now common traits of character; but cruelty, treachery and fanaticism were equally common. Element worship in religion, with a dim conception of personal gods, and of a Great Spirit, rude verse-making, joint-tenement houses, and bread from maize, belong to this period. It also produced the syndyasmian family, and the confederacy of tribes organized in gentes and phratries. The imagination, that great faculty which has contributed so largely to the elevation of mankind, was now producing an unwritten literature of myths, legends and traditions, which had already become a powerful stimulus upon the race.

III. Property in the Middle Status of Barbarism. The condition of mankind in this ethnical period has been more completely lost than that of any other. It was exhibited by the Village Indians of North and South America in barbaric splendour at the epoch of their discovery. Their governmental institutions, their religious tenets, their plan of domestic life, their arts and their rules in relation to the ownership and inheritance of property, might have been completely obtained; but the opportunity was allowed to escape. All that remains are scattered portions of the truth buried in misconceptions and romantic tales. This period opens in the Eastern hemisphere with the domestication of animals, and in the Western with the appearance of the Village Indians, living in large joint- tenement houses of adobe brick, and, in some areas, of stone laid in courses. It was attended with the cultivation of maize and plants by irrigation, which required artificial canals, and garden beds laid out in squares, with raised ridges to contain the water until absorbed. When discovered, they were well advanced toward the close of the Middle Period, a portion of them having made bronze, which brought them near the higher process of smelting iron ore. The joint-tenement house was in the nature of a fortress, and held an intermediate position between the stockaded village of the Lower, and the walled city of the Upper Status. There were no cities, in the proper sense of the term, in America when discovered. In the art of war they had made but little progress, except in defence, by the construction of great houses generally impregnable to Indian assault. But they had invented the quilted mantle (escaupiles), stuffed with cotton, as a further shield against the arrow,[4] and the two-edged sword (macuahuitl)5 each edge having a row of angular flint points imbedded in the wooden blade. They still used the bow and arrow, the spear, and the war-club, flint knives and hatchets, and stone implements,[6] although they had the copper axe and chisel, which for some reason never came into general use.

To maize, beans, squashes and tobacco, were now added cotton, pepper, tomato, cacao, and the care of certain fruits. A beer was made by fermenting the juice of the maguey. The Iroquois, however, had produced a similar beverage by fermenting maple sap. Earthen vessels of capacity to hold several gallons, of fine texture and superior ornamentation were produced by improved methods in the ceramic art. Bowls, pots and water-jars were manufactured in abundance. The discovery and use of the native metals first for ornaments, and finally for implements and utensils, such as the copper axe and chisel, belong to this period. The melting of these metals in the crucible, with the probable use of the blow-pipe and charcoal, and casting them in moulds, the production of bronze, rude stone sculptures, the woven garment of cotton,[7] the house of dressed stone, ideographs or hieroglyphs cut on the grave-posts of deceased chiefs, the calendar for measuring time, and the solstitial stone for marking the seasons, cyclopean walls, the domestication of the llama, of a species of dog, of the turkey and. other fowls, belong to the same period in America. A priesthood organized in a hierarchy, and distinguished by a costume, personal gods with idols to represent them, and human sacrifices, appear for the first time in this ethnical period. Two large Indian pueblos, Mexico and Cusco, now appear, containing over twenty thousand inhabitants, a number unknown in the previous period. The aristocratic element in society began to manifest itself in feeble forms among the chiefs, civil and military, through increased numbers under the same government, and the growing complexity of affairs.

Turning to the Eastern hemisphere, we find its native tribes, in the corresponding period, with domestic animals yielding them a meat and milk subsistence, but probably without horticultural and without farinaceous food. When the great discovery was made that, the wild horse, cow, sheep, ass, sow and goat might be tamed, and when produced in flocks and herds, become a source of permanent subsistence it must have given a powerful impulse to human progress. But the effect would not become general until pastoral life for the creation and maintenance of flocks and herds became established. Europe, as a forest area in the main, was un-adapted to the pastoral state; but the grass plains of high Asia, and upon the Euphrates, the Tigris and other rivers of Asia, were the natural homes of the pastoral tribes. Thither they would naturally tend; and to these areas we trace our own remote ancestors, where they were found confronting like pastoral Semitic tribes. The cultivation of cereals and plants must have preceded their migration from the grass plains into the forest areas of Western Asia and of Europe. It would be forced upon them by the necessities of the domestic animals now incorporated in their plan of life. There are reasons, there- fore, for supposing that the cultivation of cereals by the Aryan tribes preceded their western migration, with the exception perhaps of the Celts. Woven fabrics of flax and wool, and bronze implements and weapons appear in this period in the Eastern hemisphere.

Such were the inventions and discoveries which signalized the Middle Period of barbarism. Society was now more highly organized, and its affairs were becoming more complex. Differences in the culture of the two hemispheres now existed in consequence of their unequal endowments; but the main current of progress was steadily upward to a knowledge of iron and its uses. To cross the barrier into the Upper Status, metallic tools able to hold an edge and point were indispensable. Iron was the only metal able to answer these requirements. The most advanced tribes were arrested at this barrier, awaiting the invention of the process of smelting iron ore.

From the foregoing considerations, it is evident that a large increase of personal property had now occurred, and some changes in the relations of persons to land. The territorial domain still belonged to the tribe in common; but a portion was now set apart for the support of the government, another for religious uses, and another and, more important portion, that from which the people derived their subsistence, was divided among the several gentes, or communities of persons who resided in the same pueblo. That any person owned lands or houses in his own right, with power to sell and convey in fee — simple to whomsoever he pleased, is not only un-established but improbable. Their mode of owning their lands in common, by gentes, or by communities of persons, their joint tenement houses, and their mode of occupation by related families, precluded the individual ownership of houses or of lands. A right to sell an interest in such lands or in such houses, and to transfer the same to a stranger, would break up their plan of life.[8] The possessory right, which we must suppose existed in individuals or in families, was inalienable, except within the gens, and on the demise of the person would pass by inheritance to his or her gentile heirs. Joint tenement houses, and lands in common indicate a plan of life adverse to individual ownership.

The Maqui Village Indians, besides their seven large pueblos and their gardens, now have flocks of sheep, horses and mules, and considerable: other personal property. They manufacture earthen vessels of many sizes and of excellent quality, and woollen blankets in looms, and with yarn of their own production. Major J. W. Powell noticed the fallowing case at the pueblo of Oraybe, which shows that the husband acquires no rights over the property of the wife, or over the children of the marriage. A Zunian married an Oraybe woman, and had by her three children. He resided with them at Oraybe until his wife died, which occurred while Major Powell was at the pueblo. The relatives of the deceased wife took possession of her children and of her household property; leaving to him his horse; clothing and weapons. Certain blankets which belonged to him, he was allowed to take, but those belonging to his wife remained. He left the pueblo with Major Powell, saying he would go with him to Santa Fe, and then return to his own people at Zuni. Another case of a similar kind occurred at another of the Moqui pueblos (She-pow-e-luv-ih), which also came to the notice of my informant. A woman died, leaving children and a husband, as well as property. The children and the property were taken by the deceased wife’s relatives; all the husband was allowed to take was his elothing. Whether he was a Moqui Indian or from another tribe, Major Powel, who saw the person, did not learn. 1t appears from these cases that the children belonged to the mother, and not to the father, and that he was not allowed to take them even after the mother’s death. Such also was the usage among the Iroquois and other northern tribes. Furthermore, the property of wife was kept distinct, and belonged to her relatives after her death. It tends to show that the wife took nothing from her husband, as an implication from the fact that the husband took nothing form the wife. Elsewhere it has been shown that this was the usage among the Village Indians of Mexico.

Women, as well as men, not unlikely, had a possessory right to such rooms and sections of these pueblo houses as they occupied; and they doubtless transmitted these rights to their nearest of kin, under established regulations. We need to know how these sections of each pueblo are owned and inherited, whether the possessor has the right to sell and transfer to a stranger, and if not, the nature and limits of his possessory right. We also need to know who inherits the property of the males, and who inherits the property of the females. A small amount of wee directed labour would furnish the information now so much desired.

The Spanish writers have left the land tenure of the southern tribes in inextricable confusion. When they found a community of persona owning lands in common; which they could not alienate, and that one person among them was recognized as their chief, they at once treated these lands as a feudal estate, the chief as a feudal lord, and the people who owned the lands in common as his vassals. At best, it was a perversion of the facts. One thing is plain, namely, that these lands were owned in common by a community of persons; but one, not less essential, is not given; namely, the bond of union, which held these persons together. If a gens, or a part of a gens, the whole subject would be at once understood.

Descent in the female line still remained in some of the tribes of Mexico and Central America, while in others, and probably in the larger portion, it had been changed, to the male line. The influence of property must have caused the change, that children might participate as agnates in the inheritance of their father’s property. Among the Mayas,

Descent was in the male line, while among the Aztecs, Tezucans, Tlacopans and Tlascalans, it is difficult to determine whether it was in the male or the female line. It is probable that descent was being changed to the male line among the Village Indian generally, with remains of the archaic rule manifesting themselves, as in the case of the office of Teuctli. The change would not overthrow gentile inheritance. It is claimed by a number of Spanish writers that the children, and in some cases the eldest son, inherited the property of a deceased father; but such statement, apart from an exposition of their system, are of little value.

Among Village Indians, we should expect to find the second great rule of inheritance which distributed the property among the agnatic kindred. With descent in the male line, the children of a deceased person would stand at the bead of the agnates, and very naturally receive the greater portion of inheritance. It is not probable that the third great rule, which gave an exclusive inheritance to the children of the deceased owner had become established among them. The discussion of inheritances by the earlier and later writers is unsatisfactory, and devoid of accurate information. Institutions, usages and customs still governed the question, and could alone explain the system. Without better evidence than we now possess, an exclusive inheritance by children, cannot be asserted.


1. “League of the Iroquois,” p. 364.

2. For example, the Ojibwas used the lance or spear, She-ma-gun, pointed with flint or bone.

3. The Greeks made earthen vessels holding from two to ten gallons (Adair’s “History of American Indians,” p. 424.) and the Iroquois ornamented their jars and pipes with miniature human faces attached as buttons. This discovery was recently made by Mr. F. A. Cushing, of the Smithsonian Institution.

4. Herrera, 1. c., iv, 16.

5. lb. iii, 13; iv, 16, 137. Clavigero, ii, 165.

6. Clavigero, ii, 238. Herrera, ii, 145; iv, 133.

7. Hakluyt’s “Coll. of Voyages,” 1, c., iii, 377.

8. The Rev. Samuel Gorman, a missionary among the Laguna: Pueblo Indians, remarks in an address before the Historical Society of New Mexico (p. 12), that “the right of property belongs to the female part of the family, and descends in that line from mother to daughter. Their land is held in common as the property of the community but after a person cultivates a lot he has personal claim to it, which the can sell to one of the community.” Their women, generally, have control of the granary, and they are more provident than their Spanish neighbours about the future. Ordinarily they try to have a year’s provisions on hand. It is only when two years of scarcity succeed each other, that Pueblos, as a community, suffer hunger.”