Ancient Society

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The experience of mankind, as elsewhere remarked, has developed but two plans of government, using the word plan in its scientific sense. Both were definite and systematic organizations of society. The first and most ancient was a social organization, founded upon gentes, phratries and tribes. The second and latest in time was a political organization, founded upon territory and upon property. Under the first a gentile society was created, in which the government dealt with persons through their relations to a gens and tribe. These relations were purely personal. Under the second a political society was instituted, in which the government dealt with persons through their relations to territory, e.g.—the township, the county, and the state. These relations were purely territorial. The two plans were fundamentally different. One belongs to ancient society, and the other to modern.

The gentile organization opens to us one of the oldest and most widely prevalent institutions of mankind. It furnished the nearly universal plan of government of ancient society, Asiatic, European, African and Australian. It was the instrumentality by means of which society was organized and held together. Commencing in savagery, and continuing through the three sub-periods of barbarism, it remained until the establishment of political society, which did not occur until after civilization had commenced. The Grecian gens, phratry and tribe, the Roman gens, curia and tribe find their analogues in the gens, phratry and tribe of the American aborigines. In like manner, the Irish sept, the Scottish clan, the phrara of the Albanians, and the Sanskrit ganas, without extending the comparison further, are the same as the American Indian gens, which has usually been called a clan. As far as our knowledge extends, this organization runs through the entire ancient world upon all the continents, and it was brought down to the historical period by such tribes as attained to civilization. Nor is this all. Gentile society wherever found is the same in structural organization and in principles of action; but changing from lower to higher forms with the progressive advancement of the people. These changes give the history of development of the same original conceptions.

Gens, genos, and ganas in Latin, Greek and Sanskrit have alike the primary signification of kin. They contain the same element as gigno, gignomai, and ganamai, in the same languages, signifying to beget; thus implying in each an immediate common descent of the members of a gens. A gens, therefore, is a body of consanguinei descended from the same common ancestor, distinguished by a gentile name, and bound together by affinities of blood. It includes a moiety only of such descendants. Where descent is in the female line . . . . the gens is composed of a supposed female ancestor and her children, together with the children of her female descendants, through females, in perpetuity; and where descent is in the male line, . . . . of a supposed male ancestor and his children, together with the children of his male descendants, through males in perpetuity. . . .

The gentile organization, originating in the period of savagery, . . . . finally gave way, among the more advanced tribes, when they attained civilization, the requirements of which it was unable to meet. Among the Greeks and Romans, political society supervened upon gentile society, but not until civilization had commenced. The township (and its equivalent, the city ward), with its fixed property, and the inhabitants it contained, organized as a body politic, became the unit and the basis of a new and radically different system of government. After political society was instituted, this ancient and time-honored organization, with the phratry and tribe development from it, gradually yielded up their existence. . . .

The plan of government of the American aborigines commenced with the gens and ended with the confederacy, the latter being the highest point to which their governmental institutions attained. It gave for the organic series: first, the gens, a body of consanguinei having a common gentile name; second, the phratry, an assemblage of related genres united in a higher association for certain common objects; third, the tribe, an assemblage of gentes, usually organized in phratries, all the members of which spoke the same dialect; and fourth, a confederacy of tribes, the members of which respectively spoke dialects of the same stock language. It resulted in a gentile society (societas), as distinguished from a political society or state (civitas). The difference between the two is wide and fundamental. There was neither a political society, nor a citizen, nor a state, nor any civilization in America when it was discovered. . . .

From lapse of time the Iroquois tribes have come to differ slightly in the number, and in the names of their respective gentes. The largest number being eight, as follows:

Senecas.—1. Wolf. 2. Bear. 3. Turtle. 4. Beaver. 5. Deer. 6. Snipe. 7. Heron. 8. Hawk.

Cayugas.—1. Wolf. 2. Bear. 3. Turtle. 4. Beaver. 5. Deer. 6. Snipe. 7. Eel. 8. Hawk.

Onondagas.—1. Wolf. 2. Bear. 3. Turtle. 4. Beaver. 5. Deer. 6. Snipe. 7. Eel. 8. Ball.

Oneidas.—1. Wolf. 2. Bear. 3. Turtle.

Mohawks.—1. Wolf. 2. Bear. 3. Turtle.

Tusearoras.—1. Gray Wolf. 2. Bear. 3. Great Turtle. 4. Beaver. 5. Yellow Wolf. 6. Snipe. 7. Eel. 8. Little Turtle.

These changes show that certain gentes in some of the tribes have become extinct through the vicissitudes of time; and that others have been formed by the segmentation of over-full genres.

With a knowledge of the rights, privileges and obligations of the members of a gens, its capabilities as the unit of a social and governmental system will be more fully understood, as well as the manner in which it entered into the higher organizations of the phratry, tribe, and confederacy.

The gens is individualized by the following rights, privileges, and obligations conferred and imposed upon its members, and which made up the jus gentilicium:

I. The right of electing its sachem and chiefs.

II. The right of deposing its sachem and chiefs.

III. The obligation not to marry in the gens.

IV. Mutual rights of inheritance of the property of deceased members.

V. Reciprocal obligations of help, defense, and redress of injuries.

VI. The right of bestowing names upon its members.

VII. The right of adopting strangers into the gens.

VIII. Common religious rites, query.

IX. A common burial place.

X. A council of the gens.

These functions and attributes gave vitality as well as individuality to the organization, and protected the personal rights of its members.

I. The right of electing the sachem and chiefs.

Nearly all the American Indian tribes had two grades of chiefs, who may be distinguished as sachems and common chiefs. Of these two primary grades all other grades were varieties. They were elected in each gens from among its members. A son could not be chosen to succeed his father, where descent was in the female line, because he belonged to a different gens, and no gens would have a chief or sachem from any gens but its own. The office of sachem was hereditary in the gens, in the sense that it was filled as often as a vacancy occurred; while the office of chief was non-hereditary, because it was bestowed in reward of personal merit, and died with the individual. Moreover, the duties of a sachem were confined to the affairs of peace. He could not go out to war as a sachem. On the other hand, the chiefs who were raised to office for personal bravery, for wisdom in affairs, or for eloquence in council, were usually the superior class in ability, though not in authority over the gens. The relation of the sachem was primarily to the gens, of which he was the official head; while that of the chief was primarily to the tribe, of the council of which he, as well as the sachem, were members. . . .

While the office [of sachem] was hereditary in the gens it was elective among its male members. When the Indian system of consanguinity is considered, it will be found that all the male members of a gens were either brothers to each other, own or collateral, uncles or nephews, own or collateral, or collateral grandfathers and grandsons. This will explain the succession of the office of sachem which passed from brother to brother, or from uncle to nephew, and very rarely from grandfather to grandson. The choice, which was by free suffrage of both males and females of adult age, usually fell upon a brother of the deceased sachem, or upon one of the sons of a sister; an own brother, or the son of an own sister being most likely to be preferred. As between several brothers, own and collateral, on the one hand, and the sons of several sisters, own and collateral, on the other, there was no priority of right, for the reason that all the male members of the gens were equally eligible. To make a choice between them was the function of the elective principle.

Upon the death of a sachem, for example among the Seneca-Iroquois, a council of his gentiles was convened to name his successor. Two candidates, according to their usages, must be voted upon, both of them members of the gens. Each person of adult age was called upon to express his or her preference, and the one who received the largest number of affirmative declarations was nominated. It still required the assent of the seven remaining gentes before the nomination was complete. If these gentes, who met for the purpose by phratries, refused to confirm the nomination it was thereby set aside, and the gens proceeded to make another choice. When the person nominated by his gens was accepted by the remaining genres the election was complete; but it was still necessary that the new sachem should be raised up, to use their expression, or invested with his office by a council of the confederacy, before he could enter upon its duties. It was their method of conferring the imperium. In this manner the rights and interests of the several gentes were consulted and preserved; for the sachem of a gens was ex officio a member of the council of the tribe, and of the higher council of the confederacy. The same method of election and of confirmation existed with respect to the office of chief, and for the same reasons. But a general council was never convened to raise up chiefs below the grade of a sachem. They awaited the time when sachems were invested.

The principle of democracy, which was born of the genres, manifested itself in the retention by the gentiles of the right to elect their sachem and chiefs, in the safeguards thrown around the office to prevent usurpation, and in the check upon the election held by the remaining gentes. . . .

II. The right of deposing its sachem and chiefs.

This right, which was not less important than that to elect, was reserved by the members of the gens. Although the office was nominally for life, the tenure was practically during good behavior, inconsequence of the power to depose. The installation of a sachem was symbolized as "putting on the horns," and his deposition was "taking off the horns." Among widely separated tribes of mankind horns have been made the emblem of office and of authority, suggested probably, as Tylor intimates, by the commanding appearance of the males among ruminant animals bearing horns. Unworthy behavior, followed by a loss of confidence, furnished a sufficient ground for deposition. When a sachem or chief had been deposed in due form by a council of his gens, he ceased thereafter to be recognized as such, and became thenceforth a private person. The council of the tribe also had power to depose both sachems and chiefs, without waiting for the action of the gens, and even against its wishes. Through the existence and occasional exercise of this power the supremacy of the gentiles over their sachem and the chiefs was asserted and preserved. It also reveals the democratic constitution of the gens.

III. The obligation not to marry in the gens.

Although a negative proposition it was fundamental. It was evidently a primary object of the organization to isolate a moiety of the descendants of a supposed founder, and prevent their intermarriage for reasons of kin. . . . The Iroquois still adhere inflexibly to the rule which forbids persons to marry in their own gens.

IV. Mutual rights of inheritance of the property of deceased members.

In the status of savagery and barbarism, the amount of property was small. It consisted in the former condition of personal effects, to which, in the latter, were added possessory rights in joint-tenement houses and in gardens. The most valuable personal articles were buried with the body of the deceased owner. Nevertheless, the question of inheritance was certain to arise, to increase in importance with the increase of property in variety and amount, and to result in some settled rule of inheritance. Accordingly we find the principle established low down in barbarism, and even back of that in savagery, that the property should remain in the gens, and be distributed among the gentiles of the deceased owner. . . .

Practically, the effects of a deceased person were appropriated by his nearest relations within the gens. In the case of a male his own brothers and sisters and maternal uncles divided his effects among themselves. This practical limitation of the inheritance to the nearest gentile kin discloses the germ of agnatic inheritance. In the case of a female her property was inherited by her children and her sisters, to the exclusion of her brothers. In every case the property remained in the gens. The children of the deceased males took nothing from their father because they belonged to a different gens. It was for the same reason that the husband took nothing from the wife, or the wife from her husband. These mutual rights of inheritance strengthened the autonomy of the gens.

V. Reciprocal obligations of help, defense and redress of injuries.

In civilized society the state assumes the protection of persons and of property. Accustomed to look to this source for the maintenance of personal rights, there has been a corresponding abatement of the strength of the bond of kin. But under gentile society the individual depended for security upon his gens. It took the place afterwards held by the state, and possessed the requisite numbers to render its guardianship effective. Within its membership the bond of kin was a powerful element for mutual support. To wrong a person was to wrong his gens; and to support a person was to stand behind him with the entire array of his gentile kindred. . . .

VI. The right of bestowing names upon its members.

Among savage and barbarous tribes there is no name for the family. The personal names of individuals of the same family do not indicate any family connection between them. The family name is no older than civilization. Indian personal names, however, usually indicate the gens of the individual to persons of other gentes in the same tribe. As a rule each gens had names for persons that were its special property, and, as such, could not be used by other gentes of the same tribe. A gentile name conferred of itself gentile rights. These names either proclaimed by their signification the gens to which they belonged, or were known as such by common reputation.

After the birth of a child a name was selected by its mother from those not in use belonging to the gens, with the concurrence of her nearest relatives, which was then bestowed upon the infant. But the child was not fully christened until its birth and name, together with the name and gens of its mother and the name of its father, had been announced at the next ensuing council of the tribe. Upon the death of a person his name could not be used again in the life-time of the oldest surviving son without the consent of the latter.

Two classes of names were in use, one adapted to childhood, and the other to adult life, which were exchanged at the proper period in the same formal manner; one being taken away, to use their expression, and the other bestowed in its place. O-wi’-go, a canoe floating down the stream, and h-wou’-ne-ont, hanging flower; are names for girls among the Seneca-Iroquois; and Gä-ne-o-di’-yo, handsome lake, and Do-ne-ho-gä’-weh, doorkeeper, are names of adult males. At the age of sixteen or eighteen, the first name was taken, away, usually by a chief of the gens, and one of the second class bestowed in its place. At the next council of the tribe the change of names was publicly announced, after which the person, if a male, assumed the duties of manhood. In some Indian tribes the youth was required to go out upon the war-path and earn his second name by some act of personal bravery. After a severe illness it was not uncommon for the person, from superstitious considerations, to solicit and obtain a second change of name. It was sometimes done again in extreme old age. When a person was elected a sachem or a chief his name was taken away, and a new one conferred at the time of his installation. The individual had no control over the question of a change. It is the prerogative of the female relatives and of the chiefs; but an adult person might change his name provided he could induce a chief to announce it in council. A person having the control of a particular name, as the eldest son of that of his deceased father, might lend it to a friend in another gens; but after the death of the person thus bearing it the name reverted to the gens to which it belonged. . . .

VII. The right of adopting strangers into the gens.

Another distinctive right of the gens was that of admitting new members by adoption. Captives taken in war were either put to death, or adopted into some gens. Women and children taken prisoners usually experienced clemency in this form. Adoption not only conferred gentile rights, but also the nationality of the tribe. The person adopting a captive placed him or her in the relation of a brother or sister; if a mother adopted, in that of a son or daughter; and ever afterwards treated the person in all respects as though born in that relation. . . . Captives when adopted were often assigned in the family the places of deceased persons slain in battle, in order to fill up the broken ranks of relatives. A declining gens might replenish its numbers, through adoption, although such instances are rare. At one time the Hawk gens of the Senecas were reduced to a small number of persons, and its extinction became imminent. To save the gens a number of persons from the Wolf gens by mutual consent were transferred in a body by adoption to that of the Hawk. The right to adopt seems to be left to the discretion of each gens.

Among the Iroquois the ceremony of adoption was performed at a public council of the tribe, which turned it practically into a religious rite.

VIII. Religious rites in the gens. Query. . . .

IX. A common burial place.

An ancient but not exclusive mode of burial was by scaffolding the body until the flesh had wasted, after which the bones were collected and preserved in bark barrels in a house constructed for their reception. Those belonging to the same gens were usually placed in the same house. . . .

Among the Iroquois, and what is true of them is generally true of other Indian tribes in the same status of advancement, all the members of the gens are mourners at the funeral of a deceased gentilis. The addresses at the funeral, the preparation of the grave, and the burial of the body were performed by members of other gentes. . . .

X. A council of the gens.

The council was the great feature of ancient society, Asiatic, European and American, from the institution of the gens in savagery to civilization. It was the instrument of government as well as the supreme authority over the gens, the tribe, and the confederacy. Ordinary affairs were adjusted by the chiefs; but those of general interest were submitted to the determination of a council. As the council sprang from the gentile organization the two institutions have come down together through the ages. The Council of Chiefs represents the ancient method of evolving the wisdom of mankind and applying it to human affairs. Its history, gentile, tribal, and confederate, would express the growth of the idea of government in its whole development, until political society supervened into which the council, changed into a senate, was transmitted.

The simplest and lowest form of the council was that of the gens. It was a democratic assembly because every adult male and female member had a voice upon all questions brought before it. It elected and deposed its sachem and chiefs, it elected Keepers of the Faith, it condoned or avenged the murder of a gentilis, and it adopted persons into the gens. It was the germ of the higher council of the tribe, and of that still higher of the confederacy, each of which was composed exclusively of chiefs as representatives of the gentes. . . .

These facts are material, because the gens Was the unit of a social and governmental system, the foundation upon which Indian society was organized.


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Chicago: Ancient Society in Source Book in Anthropology, ed. Kroeber, Alfred L., 1876-1960, and Waterman, T. T. (Berkeley, CA: University of California Press, 1920), Original Sources, accessed July 21, 2024,

MLA: . Ancient Society, in Source Book in Anthropology, edited by Kroeber, Alfred L., 1876-1960, and Waterman, T. T., Berkeley, CA, University of California Press, 1920, Original Sources. 21 Jul. 2024.

Harvard: , Ancient Society. cited in 1920, Source Book in Anthropology, ed. , University of California Press, Berkeley, CA. Original Sources, retrieved 21 July 2024, from