The Existence of Gentes and Phratries

In document Lewis H Morgan Ancient Society (Page 138-141)


I. The Existence of Gentes and Phratries

It may seem singular that the early Spanish writers did not discover the Aztec gentes, if in fact they existed; but the case was nearly the same with the Iroquois under the observation of our own people more than two hundred years. The existence among them of clans, named after animals, was pointed out at an early day, but without suspecting that it was the unit of a social system upon which both the tribe and the confederacy rested.[11] The failure of the Spanish investigators to notice the existence of the gentile organization among the tribes of Spanish America would afford no proof of its non-existence; but if it did exist, it would simply prove that their work was superficial m this respect.

There is a large amount of indirect and fragmentary evidence in the Spanish writers pointing both to the gens and the phratry, some of which will now be considered.

Reference has been made to the frequent use of the term ‘kindred’ by Herrera, showing that groups of persons were noticed who were bound together by affinities of blood. This, from the size of the group, seems to require a gens. The term

‘lineage’ is sometimes used to indicate a still larger group, and implying a phratry.

The pueblo of Mexico was divided geographically into four quarters, each of which was occupied by a lineage, a body of people more nearly related by consanguinity among themselves than they were to the inhabitants of the other quarters.

Presumptively, each lineage was a phratry. Each quarter was again subdivided, and each local sub- division was occupied by a community of persons bound together by some common tie.[12] Presumptively, this community of persons was a gens.

Turning to the kindred tribe of Tlascalans, the same facts nearly re-appear. Their pueblo was divided into four quarters, each occupied by a, lineage. Each had its own Teuctli or head war-chief, its distinctive military costume, and its own standard and blazon.[13] As one people they were under the government of a council of chiefs, which the Spaniards honoured with he name of the Tlascalan senate.[14] Cholula, in like manner, was divided into six quarters, called wards by Herrera, which leads to the same inference.[15] The Aztecs in their social subdivisions having arranged among themselves the parts of the pueblo they were severally to occupy, these geographical districts would result from their mode of settlement. If the brief account of these quarters at, the foundation of Mexico, given by Herrera, who follows Acosta, is read in the light of this explanation, the truth of the matter will be brought quite near. After mentioning the building of a

‘chapel of lime and stone for the idol.’ Herrera proceeds as follows: “When this was done, the idol ordered a priest to bid the chief men divide themselves, with

their kindred and followers, into four wards or quarters, leaving the house that had been built for him to rest in the middle, and each party to build as they liked best.

These are the four quarters of Mexico now called St. John, St. Mary the Round, St.

Paul and St. Sebastian. That division being accordingly made, their idol again directed them to distribute among themselves the gods he should name, and each ward to appoint peculiar places where the gods should be worshipped; and thus every quarter has several smaller wards in it according to the number of their gods this idol called them to adore;.... Thus Mexico, Tenochtitlan, was founded.... When the aforesaid partition was made, those who thought themselves injured, with their kindred and followers, went away to seek some other place,” [16] namely, Tlatelueco, which was adjacent. It is a reasonable interpretation of this language that they divided by kin, first into tour general divisions, and these into smaller subdivisions, which is the usual formula far stating results. But the actual process was the exact reverse; namely, each body of kindred located in an area by themselves, and the several bodies in such a way as to bring those most nearly related in geographical connection with each other. Assuming that the lowest subdivision was a gens, and that each quarter was occupied by a phratry, composed of related gentes, the primary distribution of the Aztecs in their pueblo is perfectly intelligible. Without this assumption it is incapable of a satisfactory explanation.

When a people, organized in gentes, phratries and tribes, settled in a town or city, they located by gentes and by tribes, as a necessary consequence, of their social organization. The Grecian and Roman tribes settled in their cities in this manner, For example, the three Roman tribes were organized in gentes and curiae, the curiae being the analogue of the phratry; and they settled at Rome by gentes, by curiae and by tribes. The Ramnes occupied the Palatine Hill. The Tities were mostly on the Quirinal, and the Luceres mostly on the Esquiline. If the Aztecs were in gentes and phratries, having but one tribe, they would of necessity be found in as many quarters as they had phratries, with each gens of the same phratry in the main locally by itself. As husband and wife were of different gentes, and the children were of the gens of the father or mother as descent was in the male or the female line, the preponderating number in each locality would be of the same gens.

Their military organization was based upon these social divisions. As Nestor advised Agamemnon to arrange the troops by phratries and by tribes, the Aztecs seem to have arranged themselves by gentes and by phratries. In the Mexican Chronicles, by the native author Tezozomoc (for a reference to the following passage in which I am indebted to my friend Mr. Ad. F. Bandelier, of Highland, Illinois, who is now engaged upon its translation), a proposed invasion of Michoacan is referred to. Axaycatl “spoke to the Mexican captains Tlacatecatl and Tlacochcalcatl, and to all the others, and inquired whether all the Mexicans were prepared, after the usages and customs of each ward, each one with its captains; and if so that they should begin to march, and that all were to reunite at Matlatzinco Toluca.” [17] 1t indicates that the military organization was by gentes and by phratries.

An inference of the existence of Aztec gentes arises also from their land tenure.

Clavigero remarks that “the lands which were called Atepetlalli [altepetl=pueblo]

that is, those of the communities of cities and villages, were divided into as many

parts as there were districts in a city, and every. district possessed its own part entirely distinct from, and independent of every other. These lands could not be alienated by any means whatever.[18]” In each of these communities we are led to recognize a gens, whose localization was a necessary consequence of their social system. Clavigero puts the districts for the community, whereas it was the latter which made the district, and which owned the lands in common. The element of kin, which united each community, omitted by Clavigero is supplied by Herrera.

“There were other lords, called major parents [sachems], whose landed property all belonged to one lineage [gens], which lived in one district, and there were many of them when the lands were distributed at the time when Spain was peopled; and each lineage received its own, and have possessed them until now; and these lands did not belong to any one in particular, but to all in common, and he who possessed them could not sell them, although he enjoyed them for life and left them to his sons and heirs; and if a house died out they were left to the nearest parent to wham they were given and to no other, who administered the same district or lineage[19].”

In this remarkable statement our author was puzzled to harmonize the facts with the prevailing theory of Aztec institutions. He presents to us an Aztec lord who held the fee of the land as a feudal proprietor, and a title of rank pertaining to it, both of which he transmitted to his son and heir. But-in obedience to truth he states the essential fact that the lands belonged to a body of consanguinei of whom he is styled the major parent, i.e., he was the sachem, it may be supposed, of the gens, the latter owning these lands in common. The suggestion that he held the lands in trust means nothing. They found Indian chiefs connected with gentes, each gens owning a body of lands in common, and when the chief died, his place was filled by his son, according to Herrera. In so far it may have been analogous to a Spanish estate and title; and the misconception resulted from a want of knowledge of the nature and tenure of the office of chief. In some cases they found the son did not succeed his father, but the office went to some other person; hence the further statement, “if a house (alguna casa, another feudal feature) died out, they [the lands] were left to the nearest major parent;” i.e., another person was elected sachem, as near as any conclusion can be drawn from the language. What little has been given to us by the Spanish writers concerning Indian chiefs, and the land tenure of the tribes is corrupted by the use of language adapted to feudal institutions that had no existence among them. In this lineage we are warranted in recognizing an Aztec gens; and in this lord an Aztec sachem, whose office was hereditary in the gens, in the sense elsewhere stated, and elective among its members. If descent was in the male line, the choice would fall upon one of the sons of the deceased sachem, own or collateral, upon a grandson, through one of his sons, or upon a brother, own or collateral. But if in the female line, it would fall upon a brother or nephew, own or collateral, as elsewhere explained. The sachem had no title whatever to the lands, and therefore none to transmit to any one. He was thought to be the proprietor because he held an office which was perpetually maintained, and because there was a body of lands perpetually belonging to a gens over which he was a sachem. The misconception of this office and of its tenure has been the fruitful source of unnumbered errors in our aboriginal histories. The lineage of Herrera, and the communities of Clavigero were evidently organizations, and the same organization.

They found in this body of kindred, without knowing the fact; the unit of their social system, a gens, as we must suppose.

Indian chiefs are described as lords by Spanish writers, and invested with rights over lands and over persons they never possessed. It is a misconception to style an Indian chief a lord in the European sense, because it implies a condition of society that did not exist. A lord holds a rank and a title by hereditary right, secured to him by special legislation in derogation of the rights of the people as a whole. To this rank and title, since the overthrow of feudalism, no duties are attached which maybe claimed by the king or the kingdom as a matter of right. On the contrary, an Indian chief holds an office, not by hereditary right, but by election from a constituency, which retained the right to depose him for cause. The office carried with it the obligation to perform certain duties for the benefit of the constituency.

He had no authority over the persons or property or lands of the members of the gens. It is thus seen that no analogy exists between a lord and his title, and an Indian chief and his office. One belongs to political society, and represents an aggression of the few upon the many; while the other belongs to gentile society and is founded upon the common interests of the member of the gens. Unequal privileges find no place in the gens, phratry or tribe.

Further traces of the existence of Aztec gentes will appear. A prima facie case of the existence of gentes among them is at least made out. There was also an antecedent probability to this effect, from the presence of the two upper members of the organic series, the tribe, and the confederacy, and from the general prevalence of the organization among other tribes. A very little close investigation by the early Spanish writers would have placed the question beyond a doubt, and, as a consequence, have given a very different complexion to Aztec history.

The usages regulating the inheritance of property among the Aztecs have come down to us in a confused and contradictory condition. They are not material in this discussion, except as they reveal the existence of bodies of consanguinei, and the inheritance by children from their fathers. If the latter were the fact it would show that descent was in the male line, and also an extraordinary advance in a knowledge of property. It is not probable that children enjoyed an exclusive inheritance, or that any Aztec owned a foot of land which he could call his own, with power to sell and convey to whomsoever he pleased.

In document Lewis H Morgan Ancient Society (Page 138-141)