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  • Proto-Micronesian Kin Terms, Descent Groups, and Interisland Voyaging1
  • Per Hage and Jeff Marck

The historical method of comparative linguistics is used to reconstruct Proto-Micronesian kin terms. Linguistic evidence suggests that Proto-Micronesian society was matrilineal rather than bilateral as Murdock proposed in an early typological reconstruction of Micronesian society. The weakening or disappearance of matrilineal institutions in Micronesia is associated with the demise of regular long-distance voyaging.

1. Introduction.

In a typological approach to culture history, Murdock (1948) argued that Proto-Micronesian society was "Hawaiian" in type, with generation-Hawaiian kinship terminology (parent = parent's same sex sibling, sibling = cousin, child = sibling's child), bilateral kindreds, bilocal residence, and the absence of unilineal descent groups. According to Murdock, matrilineal residence, matrilineal descent, and Crow terminologies (with generational skewing) and Iroquois terminologies (with separate terms for cross-cousins) were later developments. Murdock's reconstruction of Proto-Micronesian society was consistent with his more general reconstruction of Proto-Malayo-Polynesian society as Hawaiian in type. It was accepted by many anthropologists, most notably by Goodenough (1951:95), who wrote: "That the Hawaiian type of kinship system was ancestral not only to the system now found in Truk but to those found throughout Micronesia has been demonstrated by Murdock (1949)." Goodenough (1955) proposed a major amendment to Murdock's interpretation by adding, as a basic feature, the presence of cognatic landholding descent groups.

Murdock followed the method of reconstruction outlined in Social Structure (Murdock 1949), arranging types of kinship systems in a purely logical sequence independent of any historical linguistic data. Without such data, however, it is difficult to give a typological sequence a temporal interpretation. The actual historical sequence in Micronesian societies may have been just the reverse of that postulated by Murdock, with bilateral Hawaiian (and patrilineal) features developing out of the matrilineal organization of Proto-Micronesian society. In this paper [End Page 159] we reconstruct Proto-Micronesian kin terms using the comparative method of historical linguistics. Linguistic evidence suggests that Proto-Micronesian society was matrilineal to begin with. The weakening or disappearance of matriliny is associated with the demise of regular long-distance voyaging.

2. Nuclear Micronesia.

"Nuclear Micronesian" languages are those languages of geographical Micronesia that descend from "Proto-Micronesian" (PMC) and consist of all the languages of geographical Micronesia other than those of the western high islands (the Marianas, Yap, and Belau) and the Polynesian outliers, Nukuoro, and Kapingamarangi (figure 1). With the exception of three high islands in the Carolines—Pohnpei, Kosrae, and Chuuk (formerly Truk)—all the islands where Nuclear Micronesian languages are spoken are low islands, atolls and, in the case of Nauru, a raised reef structure. The region was settled by 2000 B.P. from Vanuatu or the Southeast Solomons (Kirch 2000).2 The center of linguistic diversity is in central-eastern Micronesia, implying earliest settlement in the eastern Carolines, the Marshalls, and Kiribati (Grace 1961, Blust 1984). However, the relative lack of linguistic differentiation in the Micronesian languages and the high level of voyaging technology suggest that settlements began spreading through the eastern and central islands and groups rather soon after the area was encountered and colonized (Bender and Wang 1985).3

Micronesian languages are Oceanic Austronesian languages of the Eastern Oceanic rather than Western Oceanic variety. They seem to have diverged quite early from Eastern Oceanic in Melanesia, but the source is not clear. Changes in sound systems give the appearance of affinities with northern Vanuatu languages, mostly those of the far north around the Banks Islands (Grace 1961). However, a few—but more diagnostic—sporadic sound changes and changes in morphology put the Melanesian source for Micronesian in the Southeast Solomons (Blust 1984), and the Cristobal-Malaitan group in particular. The special affinities are so thin that early divergence (about 1000 B.C.) is implied, but it is also possible that Micronesian diverged from languages that no longer exist, due to language replacement. Internally, except for Nauruan, the age of the group's common ancestor would seem to be on the order of 2000 to 2500 years B.P. Comparative linguistics suggests divergence from other Oceanic languages much earlier than this, but it is possible...