Sex and Temperament in Three Primitive Societies


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The Arapesh regard marriage as primarily an opportunity to increase the warm family circle within which one’s descendants may then live even more safely than one has lived oneself. This attitude is brought out very clearly in their comment on incest. I had the greatest difficulty in getting any comment upon it at all. The only formulation on the subject that I obtained is contained in a series of rather esoteric aphorisms:

Your own mother, Your own sister, Your own pigs, Your own yams that you have piled up,2 You may not eat. Other people’s mothers, Other people’s sisters, Other people’s pigs, Other people’s yams that they have piled up, You may eat.

This sums up the Arapesh attitude toward selfishness, their feeling that there is an intimate connection between a man and his surplus yam crop that would make his eating from it rather like incest, and similarly that to appropriate for one’s own purposes one’s mother or sister would be of the nature of antisocial and repellent hoarding. . . . The native line of thought is that you teach people how to behave about yams and pigs by referring to the way that they know they behave about their female relatives. To questions about incest I did not receive the answers that I had received in all other native societies in which I had worked, violent condemnation of the practice combined with scandalous revelations of a case of incest in a neighboring house or a neighboring village. Instead both the emphatic condemnation and the accusations were lacking: "No, we don’t sleep with our sisters. We give our sisters to other men and other men give us their sisters." Obviously. It was simple as that. Why did I press the point? And had they not heard of a single case of incest? I queried. Yes, finally, one man said that he had. He had gone on a long journey, towards Aitape, and there in the village of a strange people he had heard a quarrel; a man was angry because his wife refused to live with him, but instead kept returning to her brother, with whom she cohabited. Was that what I meant? That, in effect, was what I meant. No, we don’t do that. What would the old men say to a young man who wished to take his sister to wife? They didn’t know. No one knew. The old men never discussed the matter. So I set them to asking the old men, one at a time. And the answers were the same. They came to this: "What, you would like to marry your sister! What is the matter with you anyway? Don’t you want a brother-in-law? Don’t you realize that if you marry another man’s sister and another man marries your sister, you will have at least two brothers-in-law, while if you marry your own sister you will have none? With whom will you hunt, with whom will you garden, whom will you go to visit?" Thus incest is regarded among the Arapesh not with horror and repulsion towards a temptation that they feel their flesh is heir to, but as a stupid negation of the joys of increasing, through marriage, the number of people whom one can love and trust.1

2 This does not refer to ordinary yams, but to yams that have been formally exhibited in an abullu and dietributed to the community for seed.

1Mead, M.n/an/an/an/an/a, , 83–84 (William Morrow & Company, Inc. By permission).


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Chicago: "Sex and Temperament in Three Primitive Societies," Sex and Temperament in Three Primitive Societies in Primitive Behavior: An Introduction to the Social Sciences, ed. Thomas, William I. (New York: McGraw-Hill Book Company, Inc., 1937), Original Sources, accessed September 22, 2023,

MLA: . "Sex and Temperament in Three Primitive Societies." Sex and Temperament in Three Primitive Societies, in Primitive Behavior: An Introduction to the Social Sciences, edited by Thomas, William I., New York, McGraw-Hill Book Company, Inc., 1937, Original Sources. 22 Sep. 2023.

Harvard: , 'Sex and Temperament in Three Primitive Societies' in Sex and Temperament in Three Primitive Societies. cited in 1937, Primitive Behavior: An Introduction to the Social Sciences, ed. , McGraw-Hill Book Company, Inc., New York. Original Sources, retrieved 22 September 2023, from