Ethnographic Surprises I: The Child Bride

Ethnography can be full of surprises  My first fieldwork was in the northern Kalahari with Bushmen, foragers living hand-to-mouth lives.  Their ecology was certainly unfamiliar but otherwise their ways were as comfortable as those of my neighbors at home in the northern Appalachians.  There were durable pair-bonds who cooperated in provisioning of children, families all seemed to like each other, and no one was concerned with larger scale politics and government.

Their new (by a few decades) neighbors were the edge of the still ongoing Bantu expansion, self-consciously ethnic folks who called themselves Ovaherero.  Those in Botswana were descendants of refugees from the German genocide in Southwest Africa early in the twentieth century.  I had many interactions with Herero but I never paid much attention to their ways.  Twenty years later I went back to the Kalahari intending to learn more about the Herero.  I was able to waltz right in to the community with no difficulty at all since I had known and interacted with the same people for twenty years.  I was welcomed as an old friend.

My interests were demography, family histories, family organization, and reproductive strategies.  I soon discovered that, in contrast to Bushmen, Herero were full of a lot of interesting surprises.  I intend to describe several of these surprises on this blog since anthropology in general seems to have lost much of its old keen sense of cultural diversity.  Time to try to resurrect some of it.

We initially set up a camp, several tents surrounded by a thorn-bush fence, about half a kilometer from the village of a male named Katjambandje, a prosperous rancher in his late sixties.  He had two wives: a senior wife who was his age and who had never had children and a junior wife who was hardly ever present in his village, although a number of her children lived there.

One day Katjambandje stopped by our camp and mentioned that his new wife had arrived and that we should drop by to see her.  I wandered over and met his new wife, a giggly young girl about 11 years old. Since his senior wife had never had children, her family (i.e. matrilineage) was obligated to provide him a replacement senior wife: the 11 year old was indeed a niece of his current senior wife.

I sat down with him to find out more about all this.  I felt comfortable teasing him just a little bit since he was an old friend.  “You are old, not very good looking, and you only have three teeth,” I said, “don’t you think taking a new 11 year old wife is somewhat extreme?”  He was completely puzzled by my question, with no idea what I was talking about.  I gently persisted but without any connection at all in the conversation until, finally, he got it.  He looked at me with surprise and disgust: “you Europeans must have really bizarre customs” he said.

The idea that he would have sexual access to his new wife never occurred to him.   I was hinting around thinking bad thoughts about my old friend, “was he a dirty old man?” He caught on and told me that I was a dirty old man.  He then explained that it didn’t matter whom she invited into her hut at night, the children would still belong to him.

A few days later I was sitting around drinking tea with his original senior wife, a lovely lady named Musuona.  She looked at her niece and replacement with love and pride and said “Look at her, isn’t she beautiful?  See how her breasts are growing.”  She was an ok looking girl but her chest was just as flat as a pine board.  Nevertheless I agreed.

As I became familiar with Herero culture I understood more and more of what was going on.  Herero men are from the sociology department and Herero women are from the biology department.  Men strive for followers, which means people sharing the same (patrilineally inherited) surname.  By all the evidence they are indifferent to paternity certainty.  No matter the biological fathers of the new senior wife’s children, the children would “belong” to Katjambandje and bear his surname, Mbakeya.

Musuona, on the other hand, was focused on biological kinship, meaning her matrilineage.  Her niece would have children who would have claims to inherit cattle from Katjambandje, and these cattle would bring prosperity to her own family.  Again read “matrilineage” for “family.”  There were three centers of power in the village, Musuona was one, Katjambandje’s sister and her daughter and grandchildren were another, and the junior wife and her children were a third.  They all had their eyes firmly on Katjambandje’s cattle and were encouraging the fertility of young women of each group to validade claims to his wealth. The new senior wife and several of the other giggling pre-adolescent girls in the village were pawns in a dynastic struggle.

Following custom in anthropology all the names in this post are pseudonyms.

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12 Responses to Ethnographic Surprises I: The Child Bride

  1. Pincher Martin says:

    “He then explained that it didn’t matter whom she invited into her hut at night, the children would still belong to him.”

    In Herero culture, what benefits come to you as a man from having younger non-kin followers who share your name and “belong” to you? Do you just get the children’s labor or do these adopted kin continue to serve some function for you into their adulthoods when, presumably, they go off and have families of their own?

    • harpend says:

      That is a pretty central question you ask. I wish that I knew the answer.

      Men say that the need for allies and dependents reflects the old history of cattle raiding: the larger the male population of your village the better your defense.

      My own cynical perspective on it is that the Herero are a nearly perfect 1970s feminist version of Stepford with the sexes reversed. The women pull all the strings and pursue their own interests while the men are droids run by the women, occupied mostly with mumbo-jumbo like witchcraft and the ancestor cult.

      More on this question in subsequent posts..

      • random mutation says:

        So, an interesting question is:

        Has this arrangement been stable for a very long period of time or is it a relatively new development …

        I would expect both males and females to have been selected to look after their own genetic interests. Also, it would seem not to be in the interests of a woman who has mostly sons, or high status sons, for what you describe to occur. However, if there is no possibility of the accumulation of wealth over many generations, then perhaps the pursuit of short-term goals is appropriate.

      • harpend says:

        random mutation asks “Has this arrangement been stable for a very long period of time or is it a relatively new development ..”

        Right, I can give you my own model of the history. I am not sure how much of it is testable, if any. I think (with some linguistic backing) that the Herero, part of the western Bantu expansion, came south right out of central Africa rather than going the long way around through East Africa.

        Central Africa, roughly the Congo basin south to the Cunene, Okavano, and upper Zambezi rivers has a number of nicknames in anthropology. It is the tsetse fly belt, marked by the absence of cattle because the tsetse killed them. Population densities were never very high so there was not a whole lot of warfare but states never amounted to anything. Absent chronic warfare, it seems that in general related human females hang out together, so this is also the matrilineal belt with food produced by gardening, “female farming systems” as the economists call them. Men don’t control any resources nor do they do anything very useful. This is also the infertility belt with up to half of women never having had a live birth because of rampant STDs. There is a whole lot of female autonomy and sexual freedom. This led to yet another nickname, the AIDS belt in the 1980s and 90s.

        From this kind of social and economic environment I think the Herero expanded south into the desert, stole some cattle and sheep from the Hottentos, and became mobile pastoralists. It is the way of cattle pastoralists that males own the herds and thereby are able to control the women. Herero aren’t there yet. I would wager that they would be a whole lot like the NE African pastoralists, Turkana for example, if they were left to it for a few more centuries.

        Meanwhile the men, for whatever reason, are out watering and taking care of cattle all day, working their butts off, while the women basically do nothing except sit around and chat all day. Herero are wealthy indeed, Katjambandje had a herd of between 500 and 1000 head. I never could get clear how many were his, how many were his sister’s, his wives’, etc. Botswana has an efficient veterinary/abattoir system so his cattle, taken to market, are slaughtered, frozen, put on 747s, and flown to Europe. Have a burger at MacDonald’s in Paris and think of the Herero.

        Wealth is extremely volatile, In particular there is a toxic weed that occasionally blooms and kills many cattle. One neighbor lost 30 of 35 head to within a week. There was also a terrible drought from about 1982 to 1990 that wiped out a large percentage of everyone’s herds.

        So in answer to your question I think what I describe is transient and nowhere near any equilibrium. I doubt that it will go to a Nilotic-cattle-complex type of equilibrium because there are too many education opportunities and jobs and such in the Botswana of today.

      • harpend says:

        Some further thoughts on random mutation’s remark that “Also, it would seem not to be in the interests of a woman who has mostly sons, or high status sons, for what you describe to occur. ”

        Not so simple. I don’t want to clog up this discussion with a lot of long-winded ethnography so I will try to be brief. First, that the age specific birth rates of married and unmarried women are exactly the same. There is a slight marriage effect: when women marry the interbirth interval is slightly longer, by a few months, because marriage disrupts their lives I suppose. As I recall something over half of all births are to unmarried women.

        So the men do not shirk at all in looking after their own genetic interests. When the sun goes down there are young males on horseback everywhere one turns. What I would like to remove from my audience’s heads is the idea or assumption that reproduction has anything much to do with marriage and that marriage has anything to do with male parental investment. (When we first started doing ethnography among the Herero we used many standard census questions, like “where did you sleep last night?’ The modal answer from young males was “under a tree.”)

        Back to a rich woman with sons: the family wealth is going to increase the attractiveness of those sons to women so I suppose, with nothing but anecdotal evidence, that their fitness is augmented a lot by family wealth. Why would women find wealthy males attractive? Males spend a lot of resources, like cattle, in negotiating paternal rights to children and young adults. If I am a female and I have Greg’s child, ten years later Greg is likely to come to my family and say “since I am the father of little Timmy, I would like to buy paternity rights to him” and the families might settle on a five cow fee. Greg doesn’t get to take little Timmy home, he doesn’t get any labor from him, the only thing he gets is that little Timmy is now Timmy Cochran instead of Timmy Harpending.

        More on all this tomorrow….

      • random mutation says:

        Thank you … that brings to light many things that seem to have bearing on the illegitimacy rate of various demographics in the US, as well.

        However, it also suggests that whether females can provide for their own offspring through their own efforts or not has an effect on the psychology and behavior of both males and females, and strong selection effects.

        In an environment where male parental investment is a necessity it would seem that both sexes would be, on average, very sensitive to sexual exploitation (ie, males being used for their parental investment but not their genetic investment, and females simply for sex and then abandoned.)

        In an environment where getting pregnant without male parental investment being available …

      • Douglas Knight says:

        Age-specific fertility not depending on marital status is a great way of checking what’s going on, but if we’re interested in paternal investment, children surviving to age 1 or 5 seems like a better statistic.

      • harpend says:

        In reply to Douglas Knight:

        Child survival is also the same between married and unmarried women in this group. Remember that this is essentially a matrilineal society. If you are a male, you have responsibilities to women and children, your sisters and their children. You are not all that responsible for your “own” children, who are of a different matrilineage. The whole underlying logic of male-female relations is different in a matrilineal structure, which is the big point of the original post.

  2. dave chamberlin says:

    I wish I had the perspective you do Henry of immersing myself in cultures truly alien to our own. It must give you insight into what we should not take for granted that folks living their whole lives as mainstream americans will never have.

  3. whatever says:

    Compliments for the entertaining article. I think, however, that * harpend * is trowing an elegant joke at us. His observations run somehow against the Hamilton’s rule and cast some doubts on the validity of the inclusive fitness-kin selection relation. And suspiciously supports E. Wilson’s hypothesis for the existence of group selection mechanism (no-kinship related, group driven Bantu structure outcompetes kinship/nepotistic driven Bushmen and thus supply empirical evidence that Wilson is right and and Dawkins is wrong in their resent socio-biological argument.
    However, I will take the joke seriously.
    Hypothesis 1.Sometimes informants mislead the interviewing anthropologist, and in the above case interviewer could be a victim of purposeful disinformation by the informant’s who did truly reveal his intentions and whereabouts of the situation.
    Hypothesis 2. A reversed Abraham – Sarah situation;The junior spouse of the informant is also his sibling – a half sister, cousin, etc and by caring for/adopting her offspring the informant would add an extra 25%, or 12.5% or whatever to his inclusive fitness without fathering the children; and as in the case of Sarah, adopting the child of her half brother, Hamilton’s rule would still be in effect, as it has always been, btw, because Wilson is wrong.
    Hypothesis 3. Could be a maladaptive cultural trait – cultural traits do not always go along the functionality lines in therms of biology and some of them are, although binding the group, in fact dysfunctional – or – merciless Darwinian diseases.
    Hypothesis 4. Darwin and Hamilton are wrong and Wilson is right – group selection really exist and the informant improves the fitness of the group(increases the quantity of the group members and the Bantu groups outcompete the neighboring bushmen groups) at the expenses of his own inclusive fitness, which includes the fitness of his kin, where his gene are distributed at the highest frequency.
    Can’t think of anything else. Matriarchal societies never existed in human kind; even if they did, the male/female ratio in Bantu would have been affected as in ants.

  4. I still don’t understand Katjambandje’s reference to his wife bringing someone into her hut. Was her referring to the girl’s future in, say, four to six years? Or was he thinking about the present? It was expected that she would be left alone sexually because of her tender age … by everyone, or only by her aged husband? I know there are cultures where that extremely young initiation in considered acceptable, which is interesting (frankly, it’s disturbing) because girls seem prone to both great pain and cervical cancer from such encounters.

    I’ll echo Mr. Chamberlin–I envy this kind of transcultural experience but I personally am way too shy, cautious, and poor to pull it off.

    • Thanks for your question: I should have been more clear. He was almost certainly thinking about the distant future. African women, at least those I know well, are autonomous and do not put up with coercion from males or almost anyone else except for their moms.

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