PIE kinship and marriage

(<< see what i did there? PIE? geddit? (~_^) )

historical linguists have worked out what they think (there are debates within the discipline, of course) were the likely kinship terms in proto-indo-european (PIE). i’m not going to get into the terms here, but you can read all about them in Indo-European and the Indo-Europeans: A Reconstruction and Historical of a Proto-language and a Proto-culture, in chapter seven — “The social organization, economy, and kinship system of the ancient Indo-Europeans” — starting on page 643 (for something of an opposing viewpoint, see chapter five — “Proto-Indo-European Kinship” — here).

to get straight to the point, it seems that pretty much all of the historical linguistics working on PIE agree that the proto-indo-europeans probably had an omaha kinship system (where they disagree is on how to interpret the signficance of that, for example, did the proto-indo-europeans marry their…wait for it…cousins?). they haven’t actually worked out what the proto-indo-europeans called their cousins — whether they had just one word (like us) or several words (like the chinese or the arabs) — but they have figured out via the naming of other relatives (like uncles and grandfathers) that the system was an omaha one.

the omaha kinship system looks like this (real world kinship systems often vary a bit from these schematic outlines, so you should keep in mind that while the PIE system was probably close to this scheme, it may not have necessarily matched it perfectly — click on image for LARGER view):

omaha kinship

the notable points about this system are that: 1) ego’s paternal uncle (his father’s brother) is called the same term as his father, and his mother’s sister is called the same as his mother; 2) therefore, the children of these uncles and aunts (ego’s cousins) are called the same as his siblings; 3) for some whacky reason that i don’t fully grok yet, ego’s mother’s brother is called the same thing as ego’s PATernal grandfather, therefore those cousins are actually called “(grand)father” and “mother” (i.e. there’s a generational shift in the terminology — on the right of the diagram); and 4) at the other end of the family (diagram), ego’s father’s sister is called “sister” and his cousins there are called “nephew” and “niece.”

don’t worry, you don’t have to learn all that! this material will not be included in the final exam. the important point here is that the naming of the cousins might give us some indications of which cousins (if any) were considered marriage material and which were off-limits. my thinking on first looking at this omaha system was that 1) the cousins called the same thing as siblings (fbd and mzd) must be off-limits — who marries their siblings? and 2) the cousins called the same thing as “mom” (mbd) DEFINITELY must be off-limits — who marries their MOM?! =/

in my view, the only available cousins to marry in this scheme appear to be the father’s sister’s daughter (fzd) who is called “niece.” plenty of peoples have uncle-niece marriage, so that concept isn’t (that) strange at all. (to be fair, a few populations with omaha kinship systems do manage to marry their mbds — the cousins called “mom” — but they typically have all sorts of purification rituals surrounding those marriages — ’cause, ewwww!)

however, the general consensus of the PIE researchers seems to be that both cross-cousins — the fzd AND the mbd — were probably marriage material as far as the proto-indo-europeans were concerned. the only question is, to what extent did they marry these cousins? who knows. that is simply impossible to say. (again, there are some dissenting voices out there wrt cousin marriage among the PIE speakers).

gamkrelidze and ivanov are some of the historical linguists who think that mbd marriage was probably possible, too, despite the ewwww-factor of marrying someone you call mom. mbd is the most common form of cousin marriage there is, so maybe proto-into-europeans did, indeed, marry them, too [pg. 671]:

“The fact that individuals bearing different kinship relations are called by the same term — father’s father and mother’s brother, grandson and sister’s son — can be explained if we assume that they were functionally identical from ego’s viewpoint. This reconstructed system points to a close consanguineal relation between the father’s father and mother’s brother, as is possible in a dual-exogamous cross-cousin marriage system, where a man can marry his mother’s brother’s daughter or father’s sister’s daughter, both of whom belng to the other lineal group.”

proto-indo-europeans are thought to have had a patrilineal family system — descent was reckoned primarly through the father’s line — and patrilocal residence — a woman would leave her family upon marriage and go live with her husband and his family. finally, they had clans [pg. 652 — i’m missing the PIE script formatting here]:

“7.4.1. The Indo-European word for ‘kin, clan’

“One of the basic structural units of ancient Indo-European society was the kin grouping *k’en-(th-) ‘clan, tribe, kin collectivity’. The stem is etymologically related to *k’en- ‘give birth’ (Skt. janati ‘gives birth’, OLat. geno ‘(I) give birth’, Gk. gignomai ‘(I) issue from, come from’, etc. The word for ‘clan’, etc. is a derivative in *-th- from this root, a formation well preserved in a number of early Indo-European dialects….

“In Italic the Proto-Indo-European word for ‘clan’, etc. is represented by Lat. gens, gen. gentis ‘clan; kinship grouping; tribe’. In Germanic the root is attested in a derivative, Goth. kindins ‘clan leader’ (from *k’enthi-nos)….”

so, the PIE speakers were: a patrilineal, patrilocal, clannish people who probably married their cross-cousins to some extent.

that is all!

previously: more on inbreeding in germanic tribes and archaic greek mating patterns and kinship terms

(note: comments do not require an email. pie!)

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15 Comments

  1. Just a thought – try exploring the Dravidian Iroquois kinship where cross cousins are preferred marriage partners . . .

    Reply

  2. @whyvert – “Anyone know if they had monogamy or polygyny?”

    oh, good question! i forgot about polygyny.

    probably, yes, there were concubines or some sort-of extra-pair lovers, but concubinage was most likely not the rule and certainly not large harems. see page 123 here. maybe if you were some sort of tribal leader you might have a concubine or two, but not all PIE males.

    Reply

  3. Some kind of codified Oedipal complex, perhaps? Maybe the mother’s brother’s daughter was the mate of choice for the Proto-Indo European beta male momma’s boy, or they were thought to have personalities most similar to one’s mother.

    Reply

  4. It’s worth mentioning two things.

    For one, the Indo-Europeans were something like steppe nomads. Apparently, they had horses, as I understand. Cousin marriage among such people is quite common.

    Second, there probably wasn’t one “proto-Indo-European” group. They apparently arose from a fusion of many peoples, as recently discussed by Razib Khan.

    Well, there is a third thing: good work!

    Reply

  5. @jayman – “Well, there is a third thing: good work!”

    well, a lotta great work from the PIE researchers! all i did was to cut-and-paste a few items from their stuff. (~_^)

    Reply

  6. @ihtg – “Some kind of codified Oedipal complex, perhaps? Maybe the mother’s brother’s daughter was the mate of choice for the Proto-Indo European beta male momma’s boy, or they were thought to have personalities most similar to one’s mother.”

    well, the mother’s brother’s daughter might make sense in one way if you think about paternity uncertainty — you always know who the mother is, you can never be sure about the dad. so, from the mother’s brother’s point of view, he marries his daughter (if she really is his daughter) off to a guy that he knows is a blood relative. he can’t be sure about his brother’s kids — they could be anybody.

    i haven’t thought this through for all the cousin marriage types, though, so maybe there’s nothing in it.

    Reply

  7. @hbd chick ” the important point here is that the naming of the cousins might give us some indications of which cousins (if any) were considered marriage material and which were off-limits” it was Robin Fox who wrote the book Kinship and Marriage. It has been a standard Anthropology text for decades. Every society has a marriage strategy. Only Inuit and modern urbania have the outbreed uber alles approach. So if you want to study a society you size up their kinship and marriage rules. These will have an impact on language, as you point out, and on flow of property through the society and between generations, assignment of chores and who is in charge of what rituals and so forth. So yes, you are in good company. Which cousins you are supposed to marry lies at the heart of all cultures with only a couple exceptions. At lest that’s my perspective. I assume you’ve read his book.

    Reply

  8. btw (hmm. thought I just posted something) Of course as you know I am forever poking around trying to understand the underlying biological necessity. My latest attempt is at nobabies.net the March 2 posting. It’s a video to click on and download.

    Reply

  9. @ hbd chick – “so, the PIE speakers were: a patrilineal, patrilocal, clannish people who probably married their cross-cousins to some extent.”

    Very interesting post. Also, if PIE languages really did originate in the Pontic Caspian Steppe, it is worth noting that ancient and modern DNA from that part of the world suggests a considerable West Asian contribution. My suspicion is that neolithic pastoralist groups in North Africa/West Asia brought this patrilineal, patrilocal, clannish, cousin-marrying culture with them wherever they spread. But I don’t buy the view that some seem to hold, that Mesolithic Eurasian hunter-gatherers were a bunch of docile, peace-loving. egalitarian, socialist, feminist, matriarchs. Lol.

    @ Jayman – “Second, there probably wasn’t one “proto-Indo-European” group. ”

    Yes. Plus many anthropologists/archaeologists to the left of the political spectrum have rigidly held to the “pots are not people” view, while many on the right have rigidly held to the opposite view, ie language, culture, and archaeology are the result of mass invasions and population replacements. Somewhere between the two is a more likely explanation in my opinion, at least in terms of IE languages/culture.

    Reply

  10. @JayMan

    This bit of meiosis is well placed.

    PIE peoples didn’t only apparently have horses; they were 1. the first peoples to domesticate the horse or 2. the first people to adapt the domesticated draft horse into a transport animal and war machine. And if neither of those are true, they at least did it better than any of the folk around them at the time.

    Reply

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