Kinship Envy

By Small, Meredith F. | Natural History, March 2000 | Go to article overview

Kinship Envy


Small, Meredith F., Natural History


Musings on the ties of blood and marriage

On the left-hand side of the entrance to the African Peoples hall at the American Museum of Natural History is a small diorama that lacks the usual accoutrements of culture that a viewer might expect to see-no traditional costumes, no sacred items, no curious tools. Instead, it is a miniature model of an African village, laid out according to its kinship network. Garnished by a border of green forest, groups of tiny thatched huts are set together to form compounds, or extended households. Rising above them is an elaborate scaffolding of sticks, triangles, and circles representing individuals in the village and their relationships. Every time I visit the Museum, I drift toward this display, arrested by its simple but profound message about connections between people.

It looks complex from a distance, but up close and with a little time, a visitor can follow paths of individual relationships and eventually figure out the whole system. When lines of sticks are connected vertically, they show descent; double lines connected horizontally show marriage. In keeping with the traditional shorthand that anthropologists employ to trace kinship, males are shown as triangles and females as circles.

Immediately above each compound are the circles and triangles of the household--Mom, Dad, and the kids--colored red, blue, green, or yellow to distinguish lineage. Because descent in this village is patrilineal, offspring are the same color as Dad. Branching from the parents are lines that connect to other households across the clearing or that reach outside the village. It's striking to follow a few individuals through the maze and to see that by one route or another, everyone has connections throughout the village. What we don't see is how relatedness affects village society: how one woman helps another tend the field because their mothers are sisters or how two men exchange livestock because they have a common relative.

And those ties also affect marriage rules, which may be simple and general (such as marrying outside the village) or quite specific. Most common are cross-cousin matches (a daughter or son marrying the father's sister's or mother's brother's offspring) or parallel-- cousin matches (a daughter or son marrying the father's brother's or mother's sister's offspring). …

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