from Ecological Sensitivity and Resistance of Cultures in Asia (southeast asia in particular) published in 1978(!):

“Ecological influences on culture have been demonstrated by several investigators. Many such studies have been done in Asia where two ecological niches extend over vast areas. One of these is the highland or mountainous territory 500 meters above sea level; the other consists of plains and plateaus under 500 meters….

“…The HRAF files were used to compare cultures in the highlands with those in the lowlands. The files indicate that certain items may be ecology sensitive (that is, more apt to change with ecologic shift). These include agricultural methods, sociopolitical organization and preferred marriage forms….

“Sociopolitical Organization. … Lowland societies had larger communities, larger states, more nonhereditary local head-men, complex social distinctions, and exogamy. More lowland [sic - should be upland] groups had small communities, small states, hereditary headmen, no exogamy, and less complex class distinctions.

“Family, Marriage and Kinship. … Eskimo/Hawaiian cousin terms corresponded to the quadrilateral/nonlateral cousin marriages found in lowland cultures. Iroquois/Omaha/Crow cousin terms were found in association with matrilineal/patrilineal cousin marriages in the highlands….”

eskimo kinship terms are the ones that we use in the anglo/western world, and the eskimo kinship system is a very generalized one — eg. we don’t distinguish between maternal or paternal cousins, they’re all just “cousins.” so lowland southeast asians have similar kinship terms to us — or they use the hawaiian system which is even more generalized — all your brothers and male cousins are just “brother” and all your sisters and female cousins are just “sister.”

the iroquois, omaha, and crow systems used by the uplanders are all more complex, each distinguishing cousins in different ways — but none of them are as complex as the sudanese system which is the one used in the arab world — and in china. and it used to be used by the anglo-saxons before the Big Change in kinship terms in medieval europe.


“As observed by previous students of southeast Asia, the most parsimonious explanation for these sociopolitical and marriage findings is the production of surplus food in the lowlands. Intensive agriculture favors both increased population density and increased total population. Communities become larger, nation states are formed, and kingship comes into existence. The cetripetal nature of kingship government probably accounts for nonhereditary local headmen replacing hereditary headmen. Surplus rice allows a money economy, towns, a priestly class, social stratification, teachers, and writing.

“Swidden agriculturists in the highlands, on the other hand, maintain simple social and political organization. Small groups migrate more easily, keeping themselves politically and socially intact during and after the move. Each family, even that of the village chief, must raise its own food. Class stratification is simple and large towns are nonexistent. There are part-time shamans, but no priestly class. Even though writing systems (such as Chinese ideography) are near at hand and readily usable, absence of surplus food and large communities obstruct the development of literacy. Such small autonomous communities, numbering between 50 and 400 persons, do not form nation states.

These data again demonstrate the political role of preferred marriage forms. Exogamy and lack of cousin marriage within large lowland nation-states aid in uniting disparate clans and villages. By contrast, the absence of exogamy and the presence of preferred cousin marriage intensify relationships within the small upland social units. Among both societies, the preferred marriage types comprise a social strategy that reinforces the political organization of the group.


i wonder if these se asian “swidden agriculturalists” are/were also pastoralists (since cousin marriage and pastoralism seem to go together — see the arab world), or if just living in a marginal — and remote — upland environment is enough to push a group towards inbreeding, irregardless of whether one’s group is pastoralist or agriculturalist?

(note: comments do not require an email. dreamed i was an eskimo….)

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