1902 Encyclopedia > Totemism > (3) Rules of Descent

(Part 7)


(3) Rules of Descent

In a large majority of the totem tribes at present known to us in Australia and North America descent is in the female line; i.e., the children belong to the totem clan of their mother, not to that of their father. In Australia the proportion of tribes with female to those with male descent is as four to one; in America it is between three and two to one.

As to the totem tribes of Africa, descent among the Damaras is in the female line, [Footnote 473-16] and there are traces of female kin among the Bechuanas. [Footnote 473-17] Among the Bakalai property descends in the male line, but this is not a conclusive proof that descent is so reckoned all the clans in the neighbourbood of the Bakalai have female descent both for blood and property. [Footnote 473-18] In Bengal, where there is a considerable body of totem tribes, Mr Risley says that after careful search he and his coadjutors have found no tribe with female descent, and only a single trace of it in one. [Footnote 473-19] Among the totem tribes of Bengal descent is male. [Footnote 474-1] In Assam the exogamous totem clans of the Kasias have female descent, [Footnote 474-2] as also have the exogamous clans of the Garos, but it does not appear whether their clans are totem clans, though some of their legends point to totemism. [Footnote 474-3]

In the Australian tribal organization of two phratries, four subphratries, and totem clans, there occurs a peculiar form of descent of which no plausible explanation has yet been offered. It seems that in all tribes thus organized the children are born into the subphratry neither of their father nor of their mother, and that descent in such cases is either female or male, according as the subphratry into which the children are born is the companion subphratry of their mother’s or of their father’s subphratry. In the former case we have what may be called indirect female descent ; in the latter, indirect male descent. But it is only in the subphratry that descent is thus indirect. In the totem clan it is always direct ; the child belongs to the clan either of its mother or of its father. Thus, in the typical Australian organization, descent, whether female or male, is direct in the phratry, indirect in the subphratry, and direct in the clan.

To take examples, the following is the scheme of descent, so far as the phratries and subphratries are concerned, in the Kamilaroi:—


This is an example of indirect female descent, because the children belong to the companion subphratry of their mother, not to the companion subphratry of their father. But in the totems the female descent is direct ; e.g., if the father is Muri-Kangaroo aild the mother is Kumbo-Emu, the children will be Ipai-Emu ; if the mother is Kumbo-Bandicoot, the children will be Ipai-Bandicoot. [Footnote 474-4]

The following is the scheme of descent in the Kiabara tribe: [Footnote 474-5]—-


This is an example of indirect male descent, because the children belong to the companion subphratry of their father, not to the companion subphratry or their mother. We have no information as to the totems, but on the analogy of indirect fernale descent we should expect them to be taken from the father. This at any rate is true of a large tribe or group of tribes to the south of the Gulf of Carpentaria; their rules of marriage and descent, so far as concerns the subphratries, are like those of the Kiabara, and the totems (which at the lower Leichhardt river are the names of fish) are inherited from father to son. [Footnote 474-6]

In some Australian tribes sons take their totems frorn their father and daughters from their mother. Thus the Dieri in South Australia are divided into two phratries, each of which includes under it sixteen totem clans, (Caterpillar, Mullet, Dog, Rat, Kangaroo, Frog, Crow, &c.); [Footnote 474-7] and if a Dog man marries a Rat woman, the sons of this marriage are Dogs and. the daughters are Rats. [Footnote 474-8] The Ikula (Morning Star) tribe, at the head of the Great Australian Bight, has, with certain exceptions, the same rule of descent. [Footnote 474-9]

Besides the tribes whose line of descent is definitely fixed in the female or male line, or, as with the Dieri and Ikula, half-way between the two, there are a number of tribes among whom a child may be entered in either his mother’s or his father’s clan. Among the Haidas, children regularly belong to the totem clan of their mother; but in very exceptional cases, when the clan of the father is reduced in numbers, the newly-born child may be given to the father’s sister to suckle. It is then spoken of as belonging to the paternal aunt, and is counted to its father’s clan. [Footnote 474-10] Among the Delawares descent is regularly in the female line ; but it is possible to transfer a child to its father’s clan by giving it one of the names which are appropriated to the father’s clan. [Footnote 474-11] In the Hervey Islands, South Pacific, the parents settled beforehand whether the child should belong to the father’s or mother’s clan. The father usually had the preference; but sometimes, when the father’s clan was one which was bound to furnish human victims from its ranks, the mother had it adopted into her clan by having the name of her totem pronounced over it. [Footnote 474-12] In Samoa at the birth of a child the father’s totem was usually prayed to first; but if the birth was tedious, the mother’s totem was invoked ; and whichever happened to be invoked at the moment of birth was the child’s totem for life. [Footnote 474-13]

When a North American tribe is on the march, the members of each totem clan camp together, and the clans are arranged in a in fixed order in camp, the whole tribe being arranged in a great circle or in several concentric circles. [Footnote 474-14] When the tribe lives in settled villages or towns, each clan has its separate ward. [Footnote 474-15] The clans of the Osages are divided into war clans and peace clans; when they are out on the buffalo hunt, they camp on opposite sides of the tribal circle ; and the peace clans are not allowed to take animal life of any kind ; they must therefore live on vegetables unless they can obtain meat in exchange for vegetables from the war clans. [Footnote 474-16] Members of the same clan are buried together and apart from those of other clans; hence the remains of husband and wife, belonging as they do to separate clans, do not rest together. [Footnote 474-17] It is remarkable that among the Thlinkets the body must always be carried to the funeral pyre and burned by men of another totem, [Footnote 474-18] and the presents distributed on these occasions by the representatives of the deceased must always be made to men of a different clan. [Footnote 474-19]

Here we must revert to the religious side of totemism, in order to consider some facts which have emerged from the study of its social aspect. We have seen that some phratries, both in America and Australia, bear the names of animals; [Footnote 474-20] and in the case of the Thlinkets and Mohegans we have seen reason to believe that the animals which give their names to the phratries were once clan totems. The same seems to hold of the names of the Australian phratries, Eaglehawk, Crow, and Seal, or at least of Eaglehawk and Crow, for these are clan totems in other tribes, and are, besides, important figures in Australian mythology. Indeed, there appears to be direct evidence that both the phratries and subphratries actually retain, at least in some tribes, their totems. Thus the Port Mackay tribe in Queensland is divided into two phratries, Yungaru and Wutaru, with subphratries Gurgela, Burbia, Wungo, and Kubera; and the Yungaru phratry has for its totem the alligator, and Wutaru the kangaroo, [Footnote 474-21] while the subphratries have for their totems the emu (or the carpet snake), iguana, opossum, and kangaroo (or scrub turkey). [Footnote 474-22]

As the suphratries of this tribe are said to be equivalent to the subphratries of the Kamilaroi, it seems to follow that the subphratries of the Kamilaroi (Muri, Kubi, Ipai, and Kumbo) have or once had totems also. Hence it appears that in tribes organized in phratries, subphratries, and clans each man has three totems—his phratry totem, his subphratry totem, and his clan totem. If we add a sex totem and an individual totem, each man in the typical Australian tribe has five distinct kinds of totems. What degree of allegiance he owes to his subphratry totem and phratry totem respectively we are not told ; indeed, the very existence of such totems, as distinct from clan totems, appears to have been generally overlooked. But we may suppose that the totem bond diminishes in strength in proportion to its extension,; that therefore the clan totem is the primary tie, of which the subphratry and phratry totems are successively weakened repetitions.

In these totems superposed on totems may perhaps be discerned a rudimentary classification of natural objects under heads which bear a certain resemblance to genera, species, &c. This classification is by some Australian tribes extended so as to include the whole of nature. Thus the Port Mackay tribe in Queensland (see above) divides all nature between the phratries ; the wind belongs to one phratry and the rain to another ; the sun is Wutaru and the moon is Yungaru ; the stars, trees, and plants are also divided between the phratries. [Footnote 475-1] As the totem of Wutaru is kangaroo and of Yungaru alligator, this is equivalent to making the sun a kangaroo and the moon an alligator.

The Mount Gambier tribe in South Australia is divided into two phratries (Kumi and Kroki), which again are subdivided into totem clans. Everything in nature belongs to a totem clan, thus: [Footnote 475-2]


With reference to this classification Mr D. S. Stewart, the authority for it, says, "I have tried in vain to find some reason for the arrangement. I asked, ‘To what division does a bullock belong?’ After a pause came the answer, ‘It eats grass: it is Boortwerio.’ I then said, ‘A cray-fish does not eat grass; why is it Boortwerio?’ Then came the standing reason for all puzzling questions: ‘That is what our fathers said it was.’" [Footnote 475-3] The natural objects thus classed under and sharing the respect due to the totem may be conveniently called, as Mr Howitt proposes, [Footnote 475-4] subtotems. Again, the Wotjoballuk tribe in north-western Victoria has a system of subtotems, thus: [Footnote 475-5]


Of the subtotems in this tribe Mr Howitt says, "They appear to me to be totems in a state of development. Hot wind has at least five of them, white cockatoo has seventeen, and so on for the others. That these subtotems are now in process of gaining a sort of independence may be shown by the following instance: a man who is Krokitch-Wartwut (hot wind) claimed to own all the five subtotems of hot wind (three snakes and two birds), yet of these there was one which he specially claimed as ‘belonging’ to him, namely, Moiwuk (carpet-snake). Thus his totem, hot wind, seems to have been in process of subdivision into minor totems, and this man’s division might have become hot wind carpet-snake had not civilization rudely stopped the process by almost extinguishing the tribe."


473-16 Anderson, Lake Ngami, p. 221.

473-17 Casalis, The Basutos, p. 179 sq.

473-18 Du Chaillu, Journey to Ashango Land, 429 ; Id., Equat. Aft., 308 sq.

473-19 As. Quart. Rev., July 1886, p. 94.

474-1 As. Quart. Rev., July 1886, p. 94.

474-2 Dalton, Ethn. of Beng., p. 56 sq.; W. W. Hunter, Statistical Account of Assam, ii. p. 217 sq.

474-3 Dalton, op. cit., 60, 63, Hunter, op. cit., ii. 154 sq.

474-4 Fison and Howitt, p. 37 sq.; J. A. I., xiii. 335, 341, 344.

474-5 J. A. I, xiii. 336, 341.

474-6 Ibid., xii. 504.

474-7 Ibid., xii. 500.

474-8 Letter of Mr S. Gason to the present writer.

474-9 J. A. I., xii. 509.

474-10 Geol. Surv. of Canada, Rep. for 1878-79, p. 134B.

474-11 Morgan, A. S., p. 172 sq.

474-12 Gill, Myths and Songs of the South Pacific, p. 36.

474-13 Turner, Samoa, p. 78 sq. The child might thus be transferred to a clan which was that neither of his father nor of his mother.

474-14 First Rep., 64; Third Rep., 219; Amer. Naturalist, xviii. 113.

474-15 Gatschet, Migration Legend of the Creek Indians, 154; Bourke, Snake Dance, 229; Acad., 27th Sept. 1884, p. 203.

474-16 Rev. J. Owen Dorsey in American Naturalist, xviii. p. 113.

474-17 Adair, Hist. Amer. Ind., 183 sq.; Morgan, A. S., 83 sq. ; Brinton, The Lenape and their Legends, 54; Id., Myths of the New World, 87 n; A. Hodgson, Letters from North America, i. p. 259: Dalton, Eth. of Beng., 56 ; cf. Robertson Smith, Kinship and Marriage in Early Arabia, 315 sq.

474-18 Holmberg, op. cit., 324.

474-19 Krause, Die Tlinkit-Indianer, 223.

474-20 As among the Chickasas, Thlinkets, and Mohegans in America, and the Turra, Ngarego, and Theddora tribes in Australia. The subphratries of the Kiabara also bear animal names.

474-21 Fison and Howitt, 38 sq., 40.

474-22 Fison and Howitt, p. 41. The totems of the phratries and subphratries are given by different authorities, who write the native names of the subphratries differently. But they seem to be speaking of the same tribe; at least Mr Fison understands them so.

475-1 Brough Smyth, i. 91 ; Fison and Howitt, 168 cf. J. A. I., xiii. 300.

475-2 Fison and Howitt, loc. cit.

475-3 Fison and Howitt, 169.

475-4 In Smithson. Rep. for 1883, p. 818.

475-5 Ibid.

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