punalua

i’ve been trying to get my head around the different types of kinship terminologies that people around the world use. i remember from anthro 101 that anthropologists seem to be particularly obsessed with kinship terminologies, but at the time i couldn’t figure out why. i still can’t figure out why, actually, ’cause from what i can tell, most anthropologists don’t seem to be bothered by actual genetic relationships or how related different individuals within a society are to one another and how marriage patterns can affect that. maybe i’m doing anthropologists a disservice — do let me know if i’m wrong about this — but i don’t think i am.

anyway, for instance — let’s take the hawaiian kinship system first. it’s one of the easiest to remember: everyone of your own generation is called ‘brother’ or ‘sister’ (in hawaiian, of course), and everyone of your parents’ generation is called ‘father’ or ‘mother.’ cool, huh?

but i can’t find anyone anywhere explaining why the hawaiians (and some other malayo-polynesians) should use this system. oh, sure, there’s lots of talk about communal living and how, traditionally, kids were raised by groups of adults … but really … that’s the best you got?

how about this: traditionally, a certain portion (dunno how much) of hawaiian marriages were group marriages. (kinky, huh?) groups of brothers would share their wives in common; or groups of sisters would share their husbands. it might even be that it was a group of brothers PLUS a group of sisters.

soooo … if we envision this group as everyone in a small village or hamlet, then you may as well call all the adults mom and dad ’cause you can’t be sure which ones really are your mom and dad!

well, actually, it’s usually pretty obvious who your mom is … but it might be very hard to tell who your dad is if your mom has been sleeping around (not YOUR mom, of course. she would never do that!). and if she’s been sleeping around with a bunch of brothers, it might be hard to pick out which one you look like (and, therefore, which one is prolly your dad) ’cause the brothers prolly all look kinda alike.

and as for everyone in your generation — well, any number of them might actually be your half- or full- brothers and sisters, so you may as well just call them all “brother” or “sister.”

(in reality, a lot of the adult “brothers” and “sisters” — i.e. the dads and the moms — might be cousins not siblings, or not just siblings, so then all the kids are half brothers and sisters and|or cousins. or something like that. i dunno. it’s very complicated.)

here, from westermarck (yes, the incest guy) [pgs. 239-40]:

“We now come to another type of group-unions, where a group of brothers are represented as married or having access to a group of sisters; and since these groups are said to consist of brothers and sisters in the classificatory sense, they would be of considerable size.

“The classical instance of this sort of group-unions is the punalua system of the Sandwich Islanders [Hawaiians]. Judge Lorin Andrews wrote in 1860 to Morgan:— “The relationship of punalua is rather amphibious. It arose from the fact that two or more brothers with their wives, or two or more sisters with their husbands, were inclined to possess each other in common; but the modern use of the word is that of dear friend or intimate companion.” The Rev. A. Bishop, who sent Morgan a schedule of the Hawaian system of relationship terms, observed that the “confusion of relationships” was “the result of the ancient custom among relatives of the living together of husbands and wives in common.” Dr. Bartlett wrote, “Husbands had many wives and wives many husbands, and exchanged with each other at pleasure.” Dr. Rivers remarks that side by side with the presence of individual marriage as a social institution there existed among the Sandwich Islanders much laxity, and also “a definite system of cicisbeism in which the paramours had a recognised status. Of these paramours those who would seem to have had the most definite status were certain relatives, viz. the brothers of the husband and the sisters of the wife. These formed a group within which all the males had marital rights over all the females”; and Dr. Rivers was told that even now, nearly a century after the general acceptance of Christianity, the rights of punalua “are still sometimes recognised, and give rise to cases which come before the law courts where they are treated as cases of adultery. In addition to these punalua who had a recognised status owing to their relationship to the married couple, there were often other paramours apparently chosen freely at the will of the husband and wife.”

westermarck expresses some doubts about the accuracy of the reports on the hawaiians, but he was also doubtful about reports on australian aboriginal systems of kinship and marriage and they turned out to be correct (i.e. that you couldn’t marry within your own moiety). it could very well be that the punalua system in hawaii was real, but westermarck had a hard time believing it to be true.

engels (yes, that engels!) wrote about another group of people who seem to have had the same kinship naming system as the hawaiians and a similar marriage practice:

“At the session of October 10 (Old Style; October 22, New Style) of the Anthropological Section of the Society of the Friends of Natural Science, N. A. Yanchuk read an interesting communication from Mr. Sternberg on the Gilyaks, a little-studied tribe on the island of Sakhalin, who are at the cultural level of savagery. The Gilyaks are acquainted neither with agriculture nor with pottery; they procure their food chiefly by hunting and fishing; they warm water in wooden vessels by throwing in heated stones, etc. Of particular interest are their institutions relating to the family and to the gens. The Gilyak addresses as father, not only his own natural father, but also all the brothers of his father; all the wives of these brothers, as well as all the sisters of his mother, he addresses as his mothers; the children of all these ‘fathers’ and ‘mothers’ he addresses as his brothers and sisters. This system of address also exists, as is well known, among the Iroquois and other Indian tribes of North America, as also among some tribes of India. But whereas in these cases it has long since ceased to correspond to the actual conditions, among the Gilyaks it serves to designate a state still valid today. To this day every Gilyak has the rights of a husband in regard to the wives of his brothers and to the sisters of his wife; at any rate, the exercise of these rights is not regarded as impermissible. These survivals of group marriage on the basis of the gens are reminiscent of the well-known punaluan marriage, which still existed in the Sandwich Islands in the first half of this century.

if these ethnographic accounts are correct, then i can’t see why anyone wouldn’t conclude that the reason for the hawaiian kinship naming system is due to the genetic relatedness between the members of the group. any of the male adults in the generation before you might be your father (so you might as well call them all “dad”), and any or all of the guys and gals in your own generation might be your half-, or even full-, brothers or sisters — not to mention that many of them are also your cousins (so you might as well call them all “brother” or “sister”.)

(note: comments do not require an email. or a long-form hawaiian birth-certificate.)

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8 Comments

  1. I wonder if this is a small island solution?

    When there’s no escape from intra-clan violence, make sure *everyone* is closely related.

    Reply

  2. @g.w. – “When there’s no escape from intra-clan violence, make sure *everyone* is closely related.”

    yeah, good solution. seems kinda idyllic, really. (^_^)

    Reply

  3. I used to think the whole Fletcher Christian,Tahiti, mutiny on the bounty thing was a kind of fabricated sex fantasy but reading this it kinda makes sense now.

    Maybe the Easter Islanders went puritan, developed into clans, and slaughtered each other :p

    .
    “seems kinda idyllic, really”

    Unfortunately i have monogamous genes – maybe for a holiday though :)

    .
    ” anthropologists seem to be particularly obsessed with kinship terminologies, but at the time i couldn’t figure out why. i still can’t figure out why, actually, ’cause from what i can tell, most anthropologists don’t seem to be bothered by actual genetic relationships or how related different individuals within a society are to one another and how marriage patterns can affect that.”

    subconscious maybe? i keep being struck by how much old stories have relatedness elements buried in them e.g. wicked step-mothers, incest between relatives separated at birth etc. you wonder how much people have always had an instinctive inkling.

    Reply

  4. Hey, you hit me at home! Okay, just some notes from my memory:

    Punalua was mostly the domain of people of the commoner caste (the maka’ainana) who were the large bulk of the population. The chiefly caste and the priest caste (ali’i and kahuna) had far more stringent kapu (taboo) on marriages and physical contact in general, as genealogical lineages had to be maintained and sacred power (mana) left uncontaminated. This focus on concentrating mana meant that Hawaii was one of the few places in history that practiced brother-sister marriage. Of course, you can see the problem with that practice. Very quickly, the history of Hawaii in the chiefly period (~1400s-1820) became one of chiefs conquering an entire island or two, having their kids marry and produce sickly offspring, and then a lesser chief who was relatively more outbred overthrowing the male line and marrying the female. This led to some interesting things. Kamehameha was a lesser chief, so much so, that even after he united the island chain, the dictates of mana meant that since he was lesser, he could only approach his favored wife’s hut on his hands and knees (for a commoner to be found anywhere near her would bring about death penalty). So why punalua for commoners? Well, for intents and purposes, they were chattel for the chiefs who could move them as he wished between his various landholdings. This meant that it was probably best to regard your communal cohort as a general family unit… and (here comes the weird part) use ritualized aspects of punalua to dissolve tension within communities. For example, what is now Ford Island in Pearl Harbor was a place used during certain phases of the moon for couples to swap at ritualized random selection. So say your ali’i forced you to move to the other side of the island because your district is overpopulated and the one he just conquered is lacking people, well, because he just conquered it violently. He may decree that the new inhabitants do such a ritual so that paternity becomes muddled. It’s hard to kill the new guy’s kid if he might be your own and vice versa.

    Easter Island went kaput because of malthusian limits. They essentially used up all their wood and maxed out their farmable land.

    If I would say which Polynesian culture was most “puritan” in regards to sexual matters, it would probably be the Maori.

    Reply

  5. @spike – thanks for all that! very, very interesting.

    @spike – “The chiefly caste and the priest caste (ali’i and kahuna) had far more stringent kapu (taboo) on marriages and physical contact in general, as genealogical lineages had to be maintained and sacred power (mana) left uncontaminated.”

    yes, that sounds familiar — from an anthropolgy class a long time ago (in a galaxy far, far away… (~_^) ).

    @spike – “…one of the few places in history that practiced brother-sister marriage.”

    oops! =/

    @spike – “So why punalua for commoners? Well, for intents and purposes, they were chattel for the chiefs who could move them as he wished between his various landholdings.”

    interesting. this is a sort-of parallel to how commoners were viewed/dealt with in parts of early medieval europe. sort-of.

    @spike – “and (here comes the weird part) use ritualized aspects of punalua to dissolve tension within communities. For example, what is now Ford Island in Pearl Harbor was a place used during certain phases of the moon for couples to swap at ritualized random selection. So say your ali’i forced you to move to the other side of the island because your district is overpopulated and the one he just conquered is lacking people, well, because he just conquered it violently. He may decree that the new inhabitants do such a ritual so that paternity becomes muddled. It’s hard to kill the new guy’s kid if he might be your own and vice versa.

    oh, fascinating! that is absolutely fantastic. thank you! now THAT’S what i call social engineering!

    can you recommend any good sources that discuss these issues related to mating patterns in the south pacific? very, very interesting. thanks again!

    Reply

  6. @spike – “Also important, but not cited in this article is Fornander.”

    excellent! thank you for the link and the references. perfect! (^_^)

    Reply

  7. Just make sure you look at the originals. Like I said Diamond has an axe to grind, which he does by selective citation to make it seem like Polynesia was some sort of sexually liberal paradise when there were many instances of strict sexual control in regards to caste and reproduction for the sake of official geneology and spiritual purity. There was also societal prejudices on exclusive homosexuality (as the domain of the effete and lazy), and severely restricted social roles for flamboyant gender role breakers (see “mahu” or “fa’afafine”).

    Reply

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