Trans-ethnic entities

To my knowledge, literature devoted to North-East India and the Himalayas makes little mention of either trans-ethnic descent groups or trans-ethnic patronymic groups. Hutton and Mills mention people from distinct Naga tribes who consider they belong to the same clan.1 In the Meghalaya-Assam borderland, Morningkeey Phangcho and myself recently collected a series of data that point to the existence of such entities across three ethno-linguistic groups: the Khasis, Karbis and Tiwas. We came across two forms which consist of the two facets of a single phenomenon:

Area of study: the Meghalaya-Assam borderland

-firstly family names (whether patrilineal or matrilineal) that people consider similar or equivalent to each other although they assert that these names refer to different ethnicities. Lists of equivalences make it possible to translate from one ethno-linguistic universe into the other. “Equivalent names” often show some similarity (e.g. Ingti-Mithi-Mukti) although this is far from being the rule (Be-Kholar-Lamare).

-secondly, we found identical or very similar sounding names whose ethnicity is perceived differently according to respondents and/or situations; respondents generally claim that these names belong to their own ethnicity (e.g. Umbah/Pumah, Amsong/Mynsong). Such disagreements are typical of local semantic struggles (where other fields such as toponyms are also concerned). Nevertheless, they pertain to the value of some parts of the system of equivalence without questioning the system itself.

In all cases, patronymic (or matronymic) groups that are considered equivalent are exogamous – and nowadays it seems to be the only practical aspect of this custom. What must be underlined here because it runs counter to common sociological beliefs is that people who assert different ethnicities might be affected by incest prohibition. Informants describe these facts in terms of surnames, the English word “title” being as much used as its local equivalents. These patronymic groups correspond, though not exactly, to the anthropological concept of a clan or lineage, and consequently, the association of several groups might be seen as a phratry. Nevertheless, even without considering patronymic groups as descent groups, the mere fact that they are shared by several “tribes” remains problematical as long as most (but not all) informants define the “tribes” as exclusive sets of titles. Hence a mutual determination between descent groups and ethnic groups doesn’t seem at odds with the existence of clan equivalences, thus with the existence of a kind of relatedness among clans from different ethnicities.

The hypothesis of an encompassing system not affected by ethnic discontinuities must be explored further. A major clue in favour of this thesis came out as I tried to explore the possibility of some correspondences between the intra-ethnic exogamy and the trans-ethnic exogamy. To my surprise I found a close congruence between the exogamy circles from one ethno-linguistic domain to the other (see diagram). With a few exceptions, groups that are exogamous within one ethno-linguistic sphere will remain exogamous when “translated” into another sphere.

Exogamy across Different Ethnicities

Exogamy across Different Ethnicities

The equivalence rules found in North-East India need to be compared with similar facts that have been reported in other regions of the world such as Altai (Teleut, Telengit, Kizhi)2, Western Siberia (Nenet, Khanty)3, North America (Iroquois nations)4, the Horn of Africa (Rendille, Garre…)5 and first of all Yunnan and Northern Myanmar6.
This could significantly help in understanding them. Trans-ethnic entities provide inspirations to – once again –  reconsider the congruence between cultural, social and ethnic entities. And to start with, we have yet to explain in greater depth how trans-ethnic institutions emerge.

1 Hutton, J.H., 1921. The Sema Nagas. London: Macmillan.Mills, J.P., 1922. The Lhota Nagas. London: Macmillan. Thanks to Pascal Bouchery for pointing out these references.

2 Blum, Alain, and Elena Filippova. 2003. “Ethnie, nationalité ou clan : des formes d’identité rivales ?” Revue d’études comparatives Est-Ouest, 34-4, pp. 131-152.

3 Toulouze, Eva. 2003. “The Forest Nenets as a Double Language Minority.” Pro ethnologia 15:96-108. Verbov. 1936. “Лесные ненцы.” Советская этнография 2:56-70. Thanks to Eva Toulouze for her translation and clarifications of Verbov’s article.

4 Barbeau, C. M. 1917. “Iroquoian Clans and Phratries.” American Anthropologist 19:392-402.

5 Schlee, Günther. 1985. “Interethnic Clan Identities among Cushitic-Speaking Pastoralists.” Africa: Journal of the International African Institute 55:17-38.

6 Sadan, Mandy, and Francois Robinne. 2007. “Reconsidering the dynamics of ethnicity through Foucault’s concept of‘Spaces of Dispersion’.” pp. 299-308 inRobinne F. Sadan M. (eds.) Social Dynamics in the Highlands of Southeast Asia. : reconsidering Political systems of Highland Burma by E.R. Leach, London: Brill.






Cite this blog post
Philippe Ramirez (2011, September 19). Trans-ethnic entities. The Himalayas and beyond. Retrieved May 25, 2024, from

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2 Responses

  1. Nicolas Sihlé says:

    Interesting post, and intriguing data… How closely related (or how different) are the languages spoken by the Khasis, Karbis and Tiwas? (And how close to each other do they currently live?) As a non-specialist of such issues, one might be drawn to tentatively interpret the phenomenon you describe as resulting possibly from a scenario of ethno-linguistic differentiation, in which former exogamy arrangements remain rather stable (which in itself one might be tempted to consider as pointing to a sort of fundamental character of the rule of exogamy or, in other words, of the prohibition of incest). But maybe this imagined scenario is just wild speculation? Are there alternative scenarios that you could suggest?

  2. Philippe Ramirez says:

    Thanks Nicolas for giving me the opportunity to make this point clearer. The facts I report concern an area of approx. 250km². Karbi and Tiwa are both TB languages although from two different groups, respectively the Bodo-Garo and Naga-Kuki-Chin (to say the least as TB classification is much debated). Khasi is a Mon-Khmer language. Thus, common descent groups and exogamic rules may be hardly attributed to a common origin, in the way Schlee did it in the Horn of Africa. Another type of thesis, which comes naturally to mind is that equivalences have been imposed by either clever missionaries, in order to induce inter-ethnic marriages, or by the Jaintia State, which ruled over the area till its annexation by the British in 1835. I found no clue yet to support either scenario. The Christian missionaries came late enough in this particular area for their policy to be well known. Although conversions have led to village secessions and/or the adoption of new ethnicities, I have not found any trace of an inter-ethnic system of marriage being invented in that context. As for the Jaintia state, the existing documents are yet too scarce to make assumptions on a “marriage policy”. Finally, as surname equivalence systems are found in other regions of the world, I would rather consider them as historical manifestations of a structural universal.

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