Access to Origins

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Access to Origins

Affines, Ancestors, and Aristocrats

By Mary W. Helms

A broadly cross-cultural study of aristocracy in chiefly societies.



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6 x 9 | 272 pp.

ISBN: 978-0-292-72374-0

In many non-industrial, non-Western societies, power and prestige are closely linked to the extent of an individual's or group's perceived connection to the supernatural realm, which also explains and validates tangible activities such as economic success, victories in war, or control over lucrative trade. Affines (in-laws), ancestors, and aristocrats, in particular, are connected to the realm of creative cosmological origins (i.e., to Genesis), which accords them distinctive, supernatural powers and gives them a natural and legitimate right to worldly authority.

This is the hypothesis that Mary W. Helms pursues in this broadly cross-cultural study of aristocracy in chiefly societies. She begins with basic ideas about the dead, ancestors, affines, and concepts of cosmological origins. This leads her to a discussion of cosmologically defined hierarchies, the qualities that characterize aristocracy, and the political and ideological roles of aristocrats as wife-givers and wife-takers (that is, as in-laws). She concludes by considering various models that explain how societies may develop or define aristocracies.

  • List of Figures
  • Preface
  • Introduction
    1. The Setting
    2. The House
  • Part One
    1. The Dead
    2. Ancestors
    3. Affines
    4. Origins
  • Part Two
    1. Hierarchy
    2. Qualities and Aristocrats
    3. Aristocrats and Affines
  • Part Three
    1. Structure and Communitas
    2. Tangible Durability
    3. Concluding Remarks
  • Appendix. Geographical Distribution of Select Ethnographic Sources
  • Notes
  • References
  • Index

From the literary perspective of scholarship I am inclined to agree that there is only one method of discovery better than reading a book on a subject, and that is by researching and writing one. Putting this thought into practice, Access to Origins is the fourth volume in which I have sought to explore implications of the general hypothesis, first presented a number of years ago in Ancient Panama (1979), that in human cosmologies geographical distance corresponds with supernatural distance. This idea was initially suggested to me as I pondered the fact that indigenous peoples of pre-Columbian Panama, and especially the elites of the centralized polities or chiefdoms characteristic of the isthmus, tangibly embodied the qualities of the celestial realm in skillfully crafted golden ornaments frequently obtained from neighboring Colombia, a locale situated not celestially "up there" but geographically "out there"--yet apparently evocative, nonetheless, of the qualities associated with the cosmological realm "above."

Intrigued by the theoretical possibilities suggested by investigation of geographically distant or outside locales in terms of cosmography rather than of ecology, as was then the fashion, I sought to further ground the initial hypothesis in a broader, cross-cultural setting. Thus, in Ulysses' Sail (1988), using ethnographic data from a wide range of societies, I argued that awareness of geographically distant places, peoples, and things constitutes a valued type of esoteric knowledge often avidly sought and greatly prized as a politically useful resource by politically ambitious persons in both centralized and noncentralized polities. In the succeeding volume, Craft and the Kingly Ideal (1993), also broadly cross-cultural in scope, I focused on the qualities accorded tangible goods obtained from cosmographically significant distant locales and on the qualitative nature of their production and acquisition.

In the volume presented here I explore the idea that certain categories of people, especially affines (in-laws), are associated with the cosmographically charged outside world and, therefore, convey distinctive supernaturally informed qualities associated with the wider cosmos. In this volume I also return more directly to chiefdoms to explore implications of the fact that high-status elites or aristocrats very often are structurally related to the general population through marriage, and thus embody the qualities of affines relative to the populace at large.

In pursuing this research I have been informed and encouraged by the work of numerous ethnologists, many of whom are cited as references. To each of these I extend my deep appreciation and most sincere thanks. Unfortunately, it has not been possible to document in the text every source I consulted. The ethnographic and ethnohistoric investigations on which this study is based were conducted over many decades by diverse anthropologists whose published accounts vary greatly with respect to the type of information recorded, the amount of detail provided, and the manner in which material is presented. Some reports contain suggestive or fragmentary information that often was helpful to my thinking but is not sufficiently complete to be meaningful to readers of this volume without extensive explanations that would add many pages to the presentation but provide little additional useful information. Most of these sources are not cited. Some reports contain considerable useful material but present it in a scattered fashion or in a manner of reporting that would also require considerable lengthy explication to be meaningful. Some but not all of these sources are cited. Fortunately some reports not only contain reasonably complete information on some aspect of the study but also recount it in sufficiently clear and concise form to be useful to readers as examples and illustrations of the points I wish to make in my analysis. These sources are cited, and select passages are often quoted; they are also listed in an appendix for easier reference. It should be noted, too, that when several sources are cited at the end of ethnographic quotes, the first is the source of the quote; the others refer to additional relevant material either from the same or from comparable settings.

The extensive scope of ethnographic coverage that I have used in the preparation of this study and its predecessors necessitates a broad, qualitative approach to the interpretation of ethnographic data. I support and pursue this type of research because I fully concur with Rubel and Rosman's reaffirmation that "anthropology's goal has always been . . . , and still is to many of us, the understanding of human behavior, both the similarities and the differences across cultures" (1994:341). In pursuit of that end I also agree with the argument (e.g., Vansina 1990:260-262) that even if the methods usually employed in comparative analysis are far from perfect, this approach nonetheless allows us to address fundamental issues in anthropology that are usually not as readily apparent in the study of individual cultures. In addition, as a result of my extensive reading in the ethnographic record, I have become thoroughly convinced that indeed "there are uniformities and common patterns in the customs and institutions of mankind; and if we want to understand them we must take into account the common intellectual and emotional dispositions of mankind" (Fortes 1983:1-2). The following pages assert and examine some of these common dispositions as they inform basic qualitative and structural elements of social and political life, ideology, and cosmology in low-technology societies.


Mary W. Helms is Professor of Anthropology at the University of North Carolina at Greensboro.

"This is a new and major contribution to the study of social stratification in general and New World chiefly elites in particular....This book will occupy a permanent place in anthropological literature."

—F. Kent Reilly III, Professor of Anthropology, Southwest Texas State University

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