Accepted Paper:

Bedouin matriliny revisited: from enlightenment conjectural history to modern social anthropology  


Suzanne Joseph (American University of Sharjah (AUS))

Paper short abstract:

The aim of this paper is to show how conceptual-empirical insights drawn from Bedouin ethnographic and demographic research allow us to newly apprehend proto-anthropological accounts of matrilineal kinship in early Arabia and more broadly engage with contemporary theories on the origin of kinship.

Paper long abstract:

Recent archaeological evidence suggests that while tracing descent through males appears to have been the norm in pre-Islamic Arabia, there are indications of matrilineal-type descent and marriage arrangements (Hoyland 2001). In contrast, ethnographic accounts render Bedouin Arabs as firmly agnatic in structure. Anthropologists are often reluctant to take up questions of matriliny, partly owing to the subject's association with Enlightenment stadial theory (the idea that humankind 'progresses' through determinate economic and moral stages, culminating in civilization). Victorian proto-anthropologists, McLennan and Robertson Smith, expounded the view that early human societies, including those found in Arabia, were matrilineal. The Enlightenment provided the underpinning behind and prelude to nineteenth-century anthropology's focus on the evolution of kinship and marriage, as evidenced by Ferguson's attribution of matrilineal descent and matrilocal residence to hunting, 'savage nations' and Kames's proffering of examples of 'primitive' marriage customs and marriage-capture ceremonies from various nations, Wales being among them.

While the influence of a classic evolutionary paradigm in anthropology has since waned, there has been a recent resurgence in scholarship on early human kinship and a questioning of the standard model of human evolution which places the patriarchal nuclear family at the center (Knight 2008). This paper will revisit proto-anthropological accounts of kinship and marriage in early Arabia, not in order to use past conjectural accounts to illuminate the kinship structures of extant Bedouin peoples, but in order to reconsider those early observations in light of new insights to emerge from Bedouin ethnography and demography as well as kinship studies.

Panel P41
Social anthropology and human origins