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Boas, Franz. Race, Language and Culture – T62


The Aims of Ethnology 11

Many books of travel give us descriptions drawn in the most abhor^
rent lines of the people inhabiting foreign countries, describing
their mode of life as similar to that of wild beasts, denying that there is
any indication of emotional or rational life deserving of our sympathy.
In early descriptions of Australians, Bushmen, Fuegians they are often
described as the lowest forms of mankind, void of all feeling for social
obligations, without law and order, without imagination, even without
shelter and tools.

If travellers who have seen those people give us descriptions of this
type, it is not surprising that others who have never been in contact
with primitive people accept their views and we begin to understand
the reason for the oft-repeated question: What is the use of studying the
life of primitive people?

Even the rudest tribes do not conform to the picture that is drawn
by many a superficial traveller. Many examples may be culled from
the extensive literature of travel showing the superficiality of the reports
given. The well-known traveller Burchell met near the Garib a group
of Bushmen and gives us the most wonderful report of their complete
lack of reasoning power. He asked the question: What is the difference
between a good and an evil action? and since they could not answer
to his satisfaction he declared them to have no power of reasoning and
judging. In a similar way the Fuegians were asked about their religious
ideas in terms that were necessarily unintelligible to them, and since
they could not answer it was said that they cannot grasp any idea that
transcends the barest needs of everyday life. Nowadays we know better,
and no scientifically prepared traveller would dare to make statements
of this kind. We know now that the Bushmen, whom Burchell described
as little different from wild beasts, have a well-developed music,
a wide range of tales and traditions; they enjoy poetry and are excellent
626narrators. Their rock paintings show a high degree of skill and a
remarkable understanding of perspective. We also know that the
Fuegians have a well-developed social organization and that their customs
are proof of a deep-seated religious attitude.

The Andamanese are another people that owe their ill repute to the
reports of early travellers. Marco Polo, who visited them in 1285, said:
“These people are like wild beasts, and I assure you that all the men of
this island Angamanain have heads like those of dogs, and teeth and eyes
of the same kind; in fact, their faces look like those of bulldogs.” An
Arabic writer of the ninth century says: “The color of their skin is terrifying;
their feet are large, almost a cubit long, and they are absolutely
without clothing.” Compare this with the description of E. H. Man, to
whom we are indebted for a better knowledge of this interesting people.
He says: “It has been asserted that the communal marriage system
prevails among them, and that marriage is nothing more than taking
a female slave, but so far from the contract being regarded as a merely
temporary arrangement, to be set aside at the will of either party, no
incompatibility of temper or other cause is allowed to dissolve the
union, and while bigamy, polygamy, polyandry, and divorce are
unknown, conjugal fidelity till death is not the exception, but the rule.
… One of the most striking features of their social relations is the
marked equality and affection which subsists between husband and
wife.” Even if this description should be considered as somewhat
colored, it shows nevertheless that these people are not “like wild

Thus a closer study shows that some of the peoples of worst repute
are not as crude as superficial reports would make us believe, and we are
led to suspect that the cultural conditions among all primitive peoples
may be higher than is commonly assumed.

Our knowledge of primitive tribes the world over justifies the statement
that there is no people that lacks definite religious ideas and traditions;
that has not made inventions, that does not live under the rule of
customary laws regulating the relations between the members of the
tribe. And there is no people without language.

The task of ethnology is the study of the total range of phenomena
of social life. Language, customs, migrations, bodily characteristics are
subjects of our studies. Thus its very first and most immediate object
is the study of the history of mankind; not that of civilized nations
alone, but that of the whole of mankind, from its earliest traces found
627in the deposits of the ice age, up to modern times. We must follow the
gradual development of the manifestations of culture. The aim we have
in view may be illustrated by an example.

The wealth of tales and traditions of Europe, and their innumerable
customs that persist even at the present time are well known. The collections
of fairy tales by Grimm and the folk songs gathered in Brentano's
Wunderhorn are perhaps the earliest systematic attempts to
gather the available material. Grimm considered the tales and customs
as survivals of ancient Germanic paganism being modified by the
changes of cultural life. The deities of early times were interpreted as
personified forces of nature. When the collected material increased, this
theory proved to be inadequate. It was found that certain tales and
songs or superstitions that were first considered as of ancient pagan
origin were introduced in recent times, and in many cases it was shown
that they originated in far-distant lands. As late as the middle ages
Europe received a considerable amount of its customs, beliefs and traditions
from the East, and these were modified according to European
cultural patterns. The new ideas exerted their influence upon the social
conditions of Europe. For example, M. Gaster has tried to prove that
the belief in witches of the middle ages that persists to the present time
was introduced into western Europe during the fourteenth century in
connection with the dualistic teachings of the schismatics who defended
the dogma of the power of Satan and the protection of the Saints.
These teachings originated among the Bulgarian Christians of southeastern
Europe. Although the views of Gaster are not entirely acceptable
they prove the strong influence of the teachings of the heretics upon
popular belief and popular literature. Besides these foreign elements,
customs and traditions are directly derived from pagan times, so that the
study of modern life leads us back to the cultural forms of primitive

In primitive society cultural contact exerts an even more marked
influence than in our complex civilization.

The famous story of the race of turtle and hare, or swinegel and
rabbit may serve as an example. It is found in Morocco where hedgehog
and jackal are the contestants. In Cameroon elephant and turtle,
among the Hottentot ostrich and turtle are the heroes. The Tupi Indians
of Brazil tell the same story about deer and turtle, and it seems
plausible that they learned it from African slaves. The tales of American
Negroes offer one of the most remarkable examples of transmission,
628since they represent a mixture of African and European ideas which,
in turn, have influenced the folk-tales of the American Indians.

Such transfers are found not only in customs and popular tales, but
also in mythology, which show many traces of foreign origin. The
Semitic elements of Greek mythology are well known. We need only
mention Aphrodite and Heracles. I may add an example taken from
my own observations among the Indians of British Columbia. In the
south are found many tales referring to the sun, his origin and wars
between the animals and the heavenly bodies. In southern Alaska the
Raven is the creator who made man, the country, fire and water. He
gave to man food and shelter, inventions and customary law. Both
groups of ideas, although quite distinct, have spread along the coast so
that the mythology is an inextricable mixture of these fundamental

These observations indicate that the first aim of ethnological inquiry
must be critical analysis of the characteristics of each people. This is
the only way of attaining a satisfactory understanding of the cultures
found in wider areas. The means at our disposal for making such an
analysis are varied: bodily form, language and culture are results of
historical processes and may, therefore, be utilized for the study of history.
For prehistoric times we have to be satisfied with the study of

Bodily form is inherited from one generation to the next. Therefore
it is the first task of the investigator to find the permanent forms characteristic
of each area. Since some time it has become customary to
look for the principal characteristics in the skull forms, partly because
they are quite stable, partly for practical reasons since it is easier to collect
skulls than other parts of the skeleton, excepting the long bones. In the
complicated forms of the skull the individuality of the group is most
clearly expressed and its form is not subject to habits of life to the same
degree as some other bones. Skulls are often preserved when other
bones are decomposed, broken or scattered, so that they are the most
available material for the study of populations of earlier periods. Data
based on skull measurements are merely a means of expressing in brief
terms characteristics of bodily build. Among people that form a unit
as far as language and culture are concerned, a mixed origin may be
shown. Thus Asia Minor is inhabited by people speaking Turkish, excepting,
however, Greeks and Armenians. Dr. von Luschan, who has
recently studied the bodily form of these people, shows that in bodily
629form they do not conform to other Turkish-speaking peoples, but that
the majority are in type like the Armenians. In the west Greek, and
in the south Arabic types prevail. Many of the Greek-speaking people
of Asia Minor are also of Armenian type, while those of the south coast
are Hellenized Arabs. We conclude from these data that the earlier
inhabitants of Asia Minor have been assimilated linguistically and culturally
by the invading Turks.

As another example showing the importance of these inquiries we
may mention the distribution of the Pygmies to which the French
anthropologist De Quatrefages has paid particular attention. I mentioned
before the Bushmen, a pygmy people. Tribes of small stature
have been found in many parts of Central Africa as far as the Lake
region at the sources of the Nile. Recently their occurrence in West
Africa has also been reported so that the ancient reports of Herodotus
are confirmed by modern observation. Equally short are the Andamanese
and some of the tribes of the mountains of India, the Malay Peninsula,
the Philippines and Formosa, and similar traits may be observed
among tribes of New Guinea and neighboring islands where they seem
to have intermarried with their neighbors. The males among most of
these people measure not more than about 140 cm. The Akka of Central
Africa are even shorter, measuring not more than 120 or 130 cm.
Although these types are not by any means of identical anatomical form
they have some traits in common, particularly the small size and the
stiff, frizzly hair. Their presence in all parts of the southern border of
the Old World — in which we include Africa — makes it likely that they
are the remnants of an ancient race which was overcome by the immigration
of the tall Negroes in Africa, by the invasion of southern Asia
by people who came from the West and the North.

Thus the investigation of the types of man leads us back into the
earliest periods of human life. The method is founded on the permanence
of anatomical forms.

Another important means for investigating early history is language.
Many languages have succumbed under the influx of conquerors, while
in other cases they have survived slightly altered and the languages of
the conquerors have been lost. In still other cases ancient languages
survive in protected areas, in remote villages, in infertile, swampy districts
or on islands. Such are a number of Romance dialects, the Basque,
the numerous languages of the Caucasus, of California and of West
Africa. The history of the Athapascans is illuminated by the fact that
630isolated tribes of the Pacific coast, the Navaho and Apache of our
southwestern States and the people of the Mackenzie area speak dialects
belonging to this linguistic family. The discovery of Carib languages
in Brazil throws new light on the history of these peoples.

Another trait of language is of importance. While anatomical characteristics
are important on account of their permanence, languages
change more readily and the changes are such that they throw much
light on their history. New languages originate, grow and disappear.
From earlier languages new ones arise through mixture (like English);
and they disintegrate according to their phonetic character and grammatical
processes and according to the fates of the people speaking them,
and form new dialects. These changes, due to mixture or inner development,
are a fruitful source of historical inferences. The methods of
study have been developed through the study of Indo-European languages,
but beginnings are being made to apply these results to other
linguistic families. The analysis of dialects enables us to follow the history
of words and of concepts through long periods of time and over
distant areas. The introduction of new inventions and migration into
distant countries are often indicated by the appearance of new words
the origins of which may be ascertained. Thus the history of language
reflects the history of culture. Schrader and Penka have applied this
method to investigations on the early home of Aryan-speaking peoples.
Our knowledge of the languages of primitive people is, on the whole,
not far enough advanced to permit a similar analysis. To make this
possible we need a literature of these languages. At present we have
hardly adequate vocabularies.

The third means for the investigation of early history of peoples that
have no written records is the study of their culture. It is not too much
to say that there is no people whose customs have developed uninfluenced
by foreign culture, that has not borrowed arts and ideas which
it has developed in its own way.

A noteworthy example of this kind is found among the Fan, a tribe
living north of the lower Congo. When the Portuguese discovered the
Congo about 450 years ago, they found bows and arrows used by the
Negroes. The Portuguese influenced the culture of the Negroes in many
ways and they learned from them the use of the crossbow. Later on,
when Portuguese influence declined, the Fan retained the use of the
crossbow. Being unable to imitate the complicated mechanism of the
Portuguese crossbow, they invented a new release. The new form was
631not strong enough to fly the bolt over long distances, therefore they used
poisoned bolts to make them effective. When the Fan were rediscovered
in the nineteenth century they were found in possession of this curious
weapon, the origin of which seemed at first quite unexplainable. Similar
imitations of European objects are found on the islands of the
Pacific Ocean. Thus the Fiji Islanders gave to their clubs the forms of
European guns, and the chiefs of New Britain adopted as headdress the
hat form of British Admirals. There are some cases of double imitation.
The steel harpoon used by American and Scotch whalers is a
slightly modified imitation of the Eskimo harpoon. These were again
imitated by the Eskimo.

In some cases imitations are not confined to single inventions. Cases
are known in which the bulk of the culture of a people is adopted by
their neighbors. Thus an African tribe which was subject to attack of
the warlike Zulu sought protection by assuming Zulu customs and

On the other hand, there exists a decided conservatism, minute peculiarities
being retained while the general life of the people may undergo
important changes. Thus Edward Morse proved that the peoples of
large continental areas have in common methods of arrow-release,
which differ from those used in other extended areas.

The style of ornament, the forms of implements and weapons are
generally preserved tenaciously. When a new material is introduced the
earlier forms are often maintained. Thus tribes that learned the art of
pottery and that had used in earlier times basketry in its place, often
imitate basketry forms in clay. Weapons set with spines or teeth are
imitated in woodcarving or stone. New forms may also be imitated in
familiar material. Thus the bronze axes of early Europe were imitated
in stone.

Traditions, and particularly verses and tunes contained in them, are
often retained with great tenacity. The songs, being transmitted from
one generation to the other, may differ so much from current speech
that they come to be mysterious and unintelligible.

We recognize that the life of a people in all its aspects is a result of its
history, in which are reflected the tribal tradition as well as the features
learned by contact with neighbors. To the ethnologist the most trifling
features of social life are important because they are expressions of historical
happenings. They are part of the data from which the past has
to be reconstructed.632

It may be said that what we describe here is history of culture, not
ethnology. This is true. Ethnography is part of the history of culture,
and cannot be separated from it. Owing to our increasing ethnological
knowledge we appreciate that the history of civilization cannot be
understood without a knowledge of that of primitive man. At the same
time the development of ethnology is largely due to the general recognition
of the principle of biological evolution. It is a common feature
of all forms of evolutionary theory that every living being is considered
as the result of an historical development. The fate of an individual does
not influence himself alone, but also all the succeeding generations.
Therefore, in order to understand an organism it is not sufficient to
study it as a stable form, but it must be compared with all its ascendants
and descendants. This point of view introduced an historical perspective
into the natural sciences and revolutionized their methods. The
development of ethnology is largely due to the adoption of the evolutionary
standpoint, because it impressed the conviction upon us that no
event in the life of a people passes without leaving its effect upon later
generations. The myths told by our ancestors and in which they believed
have left their impress upon the ways of thinking of their descendants
who were subjected to the influence of a foreign civilization. Even the
most brilliant genius is influenced by the spirit of the time in which he
lives, by his environment, which is a product of events of the past. Thus
the history of culture teaches the continuity of ideas and inventions
beginning with the stages on which we find the primitive tribes of our
times. The history of science, invention and religion must be based on
the study of the lives of primitive tribes.

I have used here throughout the term “primitives” without further
explanation. I hope this has not conveyed the impression that I
consider these tribes as living in an original state of nature, such as
Rousseau imagined. On the contrary, we must remember that every
primitive people has had a long history. It may have descended by
decay from a stage of higher development or it may have risen to its
present stage battling against vicissitudes. There is no primitive tribe
that is not hemmed in by conventional laws and customs. The more
primitive it is the greater is the number of restrictions that determine
every action.

If we found that ethnology as an historical science is intimately
related to the history of culture, this connection appears still closer when
we turn to the second important task of our science. A comparison of
633the social life of different peoples proves that the foundations of their
cultural development are remarkably uniform. It follows from this that
there are laws to which this development is subject. Their discovery is
the second, perhaps the more important aim of our science.

There is no fundamental contrast between these aims, for the general
law is expressed in the individual phenomenon just as much as the
individual phenomenon is interpreted as an exemplification of the
general law. However, the method used in discovering these laws is distinctive
and throws light upon the individual case, for it shows which
of its features are accidental and which are of general applicability.
Therefore the purely historical method without a comparative study
will be incomplete. The detailed study of the individual case compels
us to fall back on the comparative method, for the means at our disposal
for clearing up the actual history of cultures are limited. Written
records do not reach back into hoary antiquity and are available only
for a few cultures. The other methods which we have discussed are also
too often of little avail. In all these cases nothing is left but to compare
the social phenomena of distinct areas and to base our deductions on
their similarities and dissimilarities. In the pursuit of these studies we
find that the same custom, the same idea, occurs among people for whom
we cannot establish any historical connection, so that a common historical
origin may not be assumed and it becomes necessary to decide
whether there are laws that result in the same, or at least similar phenomena
independently of historical causes; in other words whether the
development of the human mind follows definite laws. Thus develops
the second important task of ethnology, the investigation of the laws
governing social life, or as it is generally called, the study of folk psychology-

The very first question to be answered is whether there are laws according
to which culture progresses or whether its development is due to
accident. We mentioned before examples of the occurrence of similar
phenomena in regions far apart. In these cases the ethnologist is always
confronted with two equally possible explanations. The two phenomena
may have originated from a common historical source or they may have
developed independently of each other. Only in a few very general cases
there can be no doubt. For instance the fact that there are no peoples
without religion or without art; that everywhere some form of social
organization is found, that everywhere with progressing culture the individual
becomes freer, because the innumerable arbitrary rules governing
634his conduct tend to disappear — all these may be justly explained as due
to the mental characteristics of mankind.

The method of inquiry of the student of folk psychology may also be
illustrated by an example. The results obtained by recent inquiries into
the history of the family present an excellent example.

The results of philological and historical investigations referring to
peoples speaking Indo-European languages demonstrated that the family
was the foundation of society and that on this basis the tribe and state
developed. From this point of view it seemed strange that among some
peoples the father was not the head of the family but that often the
mother had rights which in later time belonged to the father. Thus
Herodotus tells that among the Lycians the daughters inherited from
their parents, not the sons. It is told that in Athens at the time of
Cecrops the children took their names from their mothers, and according
to Tacitus the mother's brother enjoyed particular respect. The
numerous tales of Amazons may also be mentioned. From the standpoint
of our culture these customs were unexplainable, but when the
customs of primitive people came to be known the history of the development
of the family was more readily understood. 12 (Among many
primitive tribes descent is unilateral, the child being counted as a member
of either the father's or the mother's line; not a member of both.
When the child belongs to the mother's line and position or other rights
are held by males conflicts develop; because the child does not inherit
these from his father, but from the men of his mother's line, that is to say
from his maternal uncle. When the family consisting of parents and
children form an economic and social unit this type of organization leads
easily to conflicts between father and sons, and between a man and his
wife's brothers. Therefore there is an element of instability in these institutions
and they are liable to break down and change to a form in which
either the child belongs to the father's line, so that conflicts are avoided,
or that it belongs to both lines.)

A conclusion based on investigations of this type should be emphasized.
It shows that emotional reactions which we feel as natural are in
reality culturally determined. It is not easy for us to understand that
the emotional relation between father and son should be different from
the one to which we are accustomed, but a knowledge of the life of
635people with a social organization different from ours brings about situations
in which conflicts or mutual obligations arise of a character quite
opposed to those we are accustomed to and that run counter to what we
consider “natural” emotional reactions to those to whom we are related
by blood.

The data of ethnology prove that not only our knowledge, but also
our emotions are the result of the form of our social life and of the history
of the people to whom we belong. If we desire to understand the
development of human culture we must try to free ourselves of these
shackles. This is possible only to those who are willing to adapt themselves
to the strange ways of thinking and feeling of primitive people.
If we attempt to interpret the actions of our remote ancestors by our
rational and emotional attitudes we cannot reach truthful results, for
their feeling and thinking was different from ours. We must lay aside
many points of view that seem to us self-evident, because in early times
they were not self-evident. It is impossible to determine a priori those
parts of our mental life that are common to mankind as a whole and
those due to the culture in which we live. A knowledge of the data of
ethnology enables us to attain this insight. Therefore it enables us also
to view our own civilization objectively.

When it is recognized that similar customs may spring up independently,
we are no longer prone to infer from superficial similarities community
of origin of peoples. How often have the lost tribes of Israel
been rediscovered — in America, Polynesia and Africa! How often have
lost tribes of antiquity been supposed to have migrated by way of the
fabulous Atlantis to America! The argument for such extravagant
theories is generally the occurrence of some taboo or of an ornament
found in widely separated regions.

It is indeed most remarkable that the same cultural phenomena recur
in the most remote parts of the world and that the varied complex forms
of thought and action which the human mind develops are repeated and
so distributed that historical connection is almost unthinkable. The
Phaëthon tale is a good example. It is the story of the son of the Sun who
drives the heavenly chariot and is cast down by the thunderbolt of Zeus
when he scorches the earth. Among the Indians of British Columbia the
mink visits his father, the sun, carries the sun in his stead and is cast down
by his own father when he scorches the earth. The custom of wearing
large ornaments in the lips is found in parts of America, but also in equatorial
Africa. Recently Bastian has treated modern spiritism from the
636same point of view, showing its similarity with the practices of spiritism
among primitive people.

The frequent occurrence of similar phenomena in cultural areas that
have no historical contact suggests that important results may be derived
from their study, for it shows that the human mind develops everywhere
according to the same laws.

The discovery of these is the greatest aim of our science. To attain it
many methods of inquiry and the assistance of many other sciences will
be needed. Up to this time the number of investigations is small, but the
foundations have been laid by the labors of men like Tylor, Bastian, Morgan
and Bachofen. As in other new branches of science there is no lack of
hasty theorizing that does not contribute to healthy growth. Far-reaching
theories have been built on weak foundations. Here belongs the
attempt to explain history as determined by the nature of the country in
which the people live. A relation between soil and history cannot be
denied, but we are not in a position to explain social and mental behavior
on this basis and anthropo-geographical “laws” are valid only as
vague, empty generalities. Climate and soil exert an influence upon the
body and its functions, but it is not possible to prove that the character
of the country finds immediate expression in that of its inhabitants. It
is said that the Negro, living in tropical Africa and not troubled by lack
of food, is lazy and does not take the trouble to clothe his body. The
Eskimo also is said to be made lazy by the long Polar night which dwarfs
his imagination. Unfortunately such generalizations are entirely misleading.
There are Negro tribes which punish anyone who appears in
public improperly clothed; while the tribes of Tierra del Fuego which
live in an inhospitable climate are scantily clothed. The Eskimo, during
the long winter night, find entertainment in dance, song and story telling.

Furthermore, the principles of biological evolution were easily applied
to the phenomena of cultural history and so one system after another
developed telling us how mankind from the lowest levels of barbarism
was led to the highest levels of civilization. The cautious scientist cannot
follow those vagaries. We have attempts to construe the development of
modern ethics from ethnological data starting with the simple assumption
that consideration of the welfare of fellow-men was useful to the
individual. Fear of revenge and desire for security are said to be the
basis of all ethical concepts. Customary law may have developed in a
manner similar to these ideas, but it is not justifiable to conclude that this
is the basis, the only basis of the concepts of good and evil. It would take
637us too far afield to enter into this subject in greater detail, but it seemed
necessary to define the limitations of ethnological science. It will not
give us information regarding the fundamental traits of the human mind.
Ethnology will give us no information on the origin of the concepts of
space and time, or of causality.

On the other hand ethnology may contribute new ideas to other
sciences, such as psychology, philosophy and history. We have seen that
ethnology deals with the history of primitive peoples. Their fates repeat
under simpler conditions, on a lesser scale, the same kinds of events that
occur in the history of our complex civilization. New ideas are assimilated
according to the culture of the recipient people. They are developed
or disappear again. It is instructive to see how difficult it is to
adopt new ideas. The invention is not difficult. Difficult is the retention
and further development. Therefore the development is the slower the
lower the cultural status. On the other hand it is important to observe
the fight of individuals against tribal customs. The same kind of struggle
that the genius has to undergo among ourselves in his battle against
dominant ideas or dominant prejudice occurs among primitives and it is
of particular interest to see in how far the strong individual is able to free
himself from the fetters of convention.

Ethnology may also contribute much to the study of psychology.
Nothing is more instructive for the student of the human mind than an
understanding of human error and for this subject ethnology furnishes a
plethora of materials. The eternal war between rational thought and
emotion and the historical development of the progress of reason over
tradition must find its principal source in the data of ethnology.

I have hastily sketched the scope of our science. I have not been able
to do more than to mark the broadest outlines of the aims we have in
mind. With a few words I have tried to indicate the methodological
means at our disposal. The history of mankind* is to be reconstructed by
investigations of bodily form, languages, and customs. We wish to discover
the laws governing the development of the mind by a careful comparison
of its varied manifestations; and I have tried to indicate the
limits beyond which ethnology cannot proceed.

I hope I may have succeeded in my task: to show that it is not idle
curiosity or fondness of adventure that induces the scientist to visit distant
people of apparently low grades of culture; that we are conscious
of a task well worthy of the most strenuous efforts when we collect the
languages, customs and tales of tribes whose life differs in fundamental
aspects from our own.638

11 Lecture given before the Deutscher Gesellig-Wissenschaftlicher Verein von New
York, March 8, 1888; New York, Hermann Bartsch, 1889. I have included this paper
in the present series because it illustrates my early views regarding ethnological

21 The following passage has been changed, because the current view of a necessary
precedence of matrilineal forms of family organization was accepted. This view is
not tenable since it is impossible to derive all forms of family organization from a
single source.