Leveraging the Dead
Leveraging the Dead
The Ethnography of Ancestors
Abstract and Keywords
This chapter details the history of the anthropology of ancestors, beginning with the late nineteenth-century work of classical historians and sociologists. The development of the concept of “ancestors” is tracked through the influential ethnographic debates of the 1960s in which African ancestors became the prototypes for those in other world regions. Forays into China and Madagascar show how research from these regions simultaneously expanded the breadth of material on ancestors and contributed to the establishment of two primary and distinct traditions of ancestor studies—African and East Asian. The chapter identifies ten key points derived from the comparative study of ancestors, including the common roles ancestors fill and the cultural domains in which they operate and sometimes dominate. Ancestors do many things around the world, but they are consistently associated with agency, power, authority, descent, inheritance, resources, memory, and identity. The chapter concludes with a brief overview of the chapters in the volume.
… the ancestors do not die, but only slowly fade away as they are replaced by their more numerous descendants.
Since the late nineteenth century, American and European scholars in history, sociology, and anthropology have speculated on and debated the roles that the spirits of the dead play in societies both ancient and modern. Some—but not all—of those dead are ancestors. Why a select group of the deceased became ancestors, the ways those ancestors were honored and remembered, the ways that ancestors manifested in the lives of their descendants, and the identification of ancestors in archaeological contexts are the subjects of this book. In the simplest terms, an ancestor is a deceased forebear, a member of one’s lineage, clan, or house who is no longer among the living. In some societies, ancestors are vital, powerful entities in the daily lives of those who fear, venerate, and propitiate them. These ancestors represent a select subset of the deceased—those kin who, for various reasons, remain part of the collective consciousness of their descendants. Such ancestors may demand sacrifices, offerings, and libations, provide protection and good health, or bring illness, grief, and disaster.
Ancestor veneration is not a religion per se; rather, it is one set of beliefs and practices within a larger cosmological system that explains origins, structures relationships, and conveys information about group membership. While the term “veneration” is used here, earlier scholars often described the worship of the deceased as an “ancestor cult” or a (p.4) “cult of the dead.” In its original sense, the term “cult” generally referred to the rites, beliefs, and sacra used to pay homage to supernatural or divine beings. Although ancestors may be perceived as divine in some ethnographic contexts, far more often they occupy ambivalent positions vis-à-vis their descendants. That ambivalence is negotiated through prayer, sacrifice, and other ritual acts that memorialize the deceased, affirm kin relations, and reinforce status, authority, and access to resources. Although anthropologists today understand ancestors as part of the fabric of social organization—as historically contingent and temporally variable—nineteenth-century scholars looked to ancestors in their reconstructions of the earliest forms of human religion and social structure.
Working within the paradigm of cultural evolution and firmly situated within the colonial enterprise, Edward B. Tylor sought the origins of human belief in African and Australian Aboriginal societies. These supposed primitives appeared to Tylor to be relics of an earlier stage of human cultural development. Through the study of their beliefs in animism, totemism, and ancestor worship, he hoped to reconstruct humanity’s earliest attempts to explain the world. While Tylor sought answers in Aboriginal beliefs, his contemporary, French historian Numa Denis Fustel de Coulanges, explored the classical world for clues on how religion influenced the social development of Greece and Rome. Despite temporal and spatial distance, “modern primitives” and ancient Greeks appeared to share a similar preoccupation with the ancestral dead, a subject pursued into the twentieth century by Émile Durkheim and James G. Frazer.
Although Victorian era cultural evolution has long since been abandoned as an organizational schema, ancestors and their veneration became firmly entrenched in anthropological understanding of the social and political organization of societies throughout Africa and East Asia during the 1940s and 1950s. In the 1980s and 1990s, the abandonment of structural-functionalist perspectives, with their emphasis on kinship, led to the marginalization of ancestors as a subject of anthropological study in Africa. In spite of this marginalization, ancestors stubbornly maintained their presence among peoples studied by ethnographers. Twenty-first-century cultural anthropology is seeing interest in ancestors emerge in new ways: in colonial and historical critiques, in studies of postcolonialism and modernity, and in transformations of gender roles.
In this chapter, we review the historiography of ancestors, beginning in the late nineteenth century with classical historians and sociologists. We (p.5) then highlight the work of twentieth-century ethnographers who more fully developed studies of ancestors, and we track the development of the concept through the influential ethnographic debates of the 1960s in which African ancestors became the prototypes for those in other world regions. Forays into China and, briefly, into Madagascar explore how research from these regions simultaneously expanded the breadth of material on ancestors and contributed to the establishment of two primary and distinct traditions of ancestor studies, African and East Asian.
We conclude with a list of ten key points we have derived from this comparative study of ancestors, including the common roles that ancestors fill and the cultural domains in which they operate. Ancestors do many things around the world, but they are consistently associated with agency, power, authority, descent, inheritance, resources, memory, and identity. Finally, we provide a brief overview of the chapters in this volume, which are divided into two parts: “Revisiting Ancestors” in the core areas where their study began (China, Greece, and Africa) and “Discovering Ancestors” in the archaeological records of Europe, Peru, and Mesoamerica.
One of the most influential definitions of “ancestor” to appear in the anthropological literature is that of Meyer Fortes:
a named, dead forbear [sic] who has living descendants of a designated genealogical class representing his continued structural relevance. … such an ancestor receives ritual service and tendance [by descendants]
As Fortes’s definition makes clear, not everyone who dies is or can become an ancestor. “Death has no deifying virtue,” wrote Durkheim (1964:62 ); it is a necessary “but not sufficient condition for the attainment of ancestorhood” (Fortes 1965:125). Creation of an ancestor requires the living to engage in some ritual act that separates some of the deceased from the “crowd of the profane” (Durkheim [1964:62 (1912)]). Such acts may be components of mortuary rites or completely separate, occurring months or years after death. Once select deceased have achieved ancestor-hood, they remain active among the living. Some inspire fear and require constant propitiation through offerings; other, more benign ancestors are (p.6) the source of good fortune and lineage prosperity. They, too, require veneration. In contrast to funerary and mourning rites occasioned by death, relations between ancestors and their descendants are reciprocal and periodic; rituals intended to maintain good relations are celebrated at regular intervals on some quotidian or calendrical basis (1964:63 ).
Following Durkheim, Fortes distinguished between ancestors and the dead more generally. He understood funerary rites as rites of passage—acts that resolved the disruption and assuaged the grief resulting from the death of a community member (1965:128). His perspective was similar to that of Max Gluckman[n] (1937:125), who differentiated between ancestor veneration and a more general concern with the spirits of the dead, noting that an “ancestral cult” involves “belief in the continued interference of ancestral ghosts in the affairs of their living kin and continual ritual behavior by the latter to the former.” Distinct rites were required to transform the deceased into an ancestor: “The dead has first to be ‘brought back home again,’ re-established in the family and lineage, by obsequial rites, and will even then not receive proper ritual service until he manifests himself in the life of his descendants and is enshrined” (Fortes 1965:129). From that point on, the deceased becomes “a regulative focus for … social relations and activities” (1965:129) through which lineages and other corporate groups are organized and constituted.
A broader definition of “ancestor” is provided by Newell (1976b:18–22) based on comparative work using East Asian materials. First, ancestors are named deceased who successfully undergo a rite of passage. Second, some form of continuity must exist between the ancestor and his former life, usually a family relationship, genealogy, or pedigree. This establishes for the ancestor living relations who may identify and worship him. Ritual, therefore, is an essential part of Newell’s definition (1976b:21). Finally, ancestors must be understood to have some existence separate from that of the body. Newell (1976b:20) finds Fortes’s definition too restricted; he charges that it reduces ancestor worship “to almost purely structural significance.”
A more diffuse definition is offered by John Middleton (1960:33), based on his work among the Lugbara of Uganda:
Ancestors thus include all the dead and living forebears of ego’s lineage. … They are both male and female. … The dead among them are important in ritual as the objects of sacrifice. They are thought (p.7) of as forming a collectivity, in which individual ancestors are not significant qua individuals. They send sickness to the living, but they send it collectively, and shrines are erected for them as collectivities also.
In contrast to the Tallensi ancestors described by Fortes, those among the Lugbara may be unnamed, collective, and even childless, though the childless are distinguished as a collectivity separate from that of the patrior matriline. Despite the diversity of Lugbara ancestor types and their associated shrines, the most commonly recognized ancestors are those belonging to a select collectivity of the male deceased in ego’s minimal lineage who have begotten children. Such ancestors are “‘just ancestors’ without qualification … [and] form a collectivity in which individual personality, responsibility, and kin relationship to living people are irrelevant” (Middleton 1960:52).
A component of these definitions critical to the archaeological understanding of ancestors is the fact that veneration is materialized through periodic ritual acts, that is, Fortes’s (1965:124) “ritual service and tendance.” Middleton (1960:33) noted that the dead “are important in ritual as the objects of sacrifice,” while Durkheim (1964:63 ) included periodicity in his definition of venerative rites. Similarly critical to identifying ancestors archaeologically is their link with corporate groups. In his study of Chinese kinship, Watson (1982a:594) identified ancestors as the “original founders of the corporation” and the basis for the “ritual unity” of the lineage celebrated in rites conducted in halls and shrines. He concisely identified those features that distinguish ancestors and their veneration from a concern with the dead more generally: death rituals tend to be inclusive; they involve non-kin; serve as rites of passage for the community, the mourners, and the soul or spirit of the deceased; and function as venues for competition and intergroup negotiation. In contrast, beliefs and rituals associated with ancestor veneration emphasize lineage unity, exclusivity, and resource control. This concern with lineage and resources is evident in Stephan Feuchtwang’s (1974) succinct definition of ancestor worship as “the use of the biological fact of birth selectively for social classification and for claims on certain kinds of social relationships.”
In Ghana and Nigeria, ancestors and their shrines incorporate an additional conceptual component—they represent the domestication of space, their presence proof that the bush has been transformed and incorporated (p.8) (Kopytoff 1987; McCall 1995). Ancestors are those who came first, who cleared the land for farms, constructed the first shrines, and were interred beneath the floors of houses. McCall understands ancestors as the conceptual foundation of cultural space, their veneration and the maintenance of shrines as social and material acts that establish links between the living, the dead, and the land. Ancestors are also part of what makes one human; those who cannot claim kin and bear no responsibility to ancestors exist beyond the bounds of society (Middleton 1960). Thus remembering and propitiating ancestors are profoundly human acts; shrines, like houses, distinguish place from space, the village from the bush.
In sum, “ancestors” is a highly diverse category that includes some, but not all, of the deceased of a corporate group that is usually, but not always, unilineal. Ancestors may be named, as they are among the Tallensi of northern Ghana (Fortes 1965), or they may form part of a more nebulous collective presence, as do some long-dead Merina of Madagascar (Bloch 1971) and the most common Lugbara ancestors (Middleton 1960). Their remains may be curated individually for ritual use, or their bones may be deposited en masse in a lineage ossuary. Ancestors may be men or women; they may be fractious shades of elders or childless and dissatisfied. Beliefs about deceased kin are materialized through periodic rituals that seek to access the ancestors for the purposes of revering, propitiating, or gaining favor from them. Such rites tend to have spatial components and leave material residues that are commonly represented in the form of architecture and landscape modifications, curated or modified remains of the deceased, and structured deposits involving sacrifice, offerings, and libations.
A History of Ancestors
Ancestors have figured prominently in anthropological and historical literature since the late nineteenth century. Their Victorian era study was part of a larger intellectual project to understand the origins of human civilization and identify the evolutionary stages of its advancement. Religion was of particular interest, as the complexity and sophistication of a society’s belief system was thought to be indicative of its overall level of cultural progress. Through the study of funerary rituals and beliefs about (p.9) death, nineteenth-century scholars learned how people in non-Western societies perceived souls, spirits, and the afterlife. Ancestors proved to be a common component of some of these “lower theologies” (Tylor 1958a:22 ). Comparison of the patterns in their veneration across cultures could therefore illuminate the development of more enlightened religions, such as Christianity.
Fustel de Coulanges (1874:24, 28) described ancestors among the ancient Greeks and Romans as the souls, or manes, of the deceased. The family of the deceased made offerings and sacrifices in his memory and asked for aid, strength, and prosperity. Clearly, Fustel de Coulanges observed, the dead could not do without the living nor the living without the dead (1874:44). Failure to provide nourishment to the ancestors in the form of sacrifice was extremely impious and considered “parricide, multiplied as many times as there were ancestors in the family” (1874:43). Untended ancestors became malevolent, punishing their descendants with disease, blight, or drought (1874:23).
Significantly for archaeology, Fustel de Coulanges argued that the structure of the ancient family and concepts of property were built upon the veneration of dead ancestors (1874:51–52; see also Morris 1991 for a critique). Families maintained tombs for deceased paterfamilias who, according to Fustel de Coulanges, were located on the family’s agricultural fields (1874:49). This placement of the tomb—“the second home of [the] family”—ensured that the ancestors were involved in the day-to-day affairs of the living and materialized the family’s claim to the land.
Edward B. Tylor (1958b:199 ) expanded the discussion of “manes worship,” characterizing it as one of the “great branches of the religion of mankind.” Gleaning evidence of the practice from travelers’ accounts from across the globe, Tylor attributed worship of the dead to societies as varied as the Malagasy, Tongans, Natchez of Louisiana, and Camacans of Brazil. The deceased, “passed into a deity” (1958b:199 ), protected his own family and received service from them. Tylor emphasized the connection between the living and the dead in West Africa and China, where aged family members were highly respected and death gave them even more influence over the living. Descendants not only provided food and drink for the dead, asking for help and good fortune, but also strove to glorify the ancestors by living exemplary lives (1958b:201–205 ).
Like Fustel de Coulanges, scholars of comparative religion, such as Frank B. Jevons (1908:199 ), noted the close correlation between (p.10) ancestor veneration and family structure, specifically patrilineality and “the filial piety of the patriarchal family.” Working within the cultural evolutionary paradigm of the era and elaborating on the link between ancestors and land, Jevons observed that offerings of food by family members to the dead only came about with the development of agriculture (1908:194–195 ). He agreed with Edward Clodd (1895:113) that ancestor worship was not, therefore, the primal religion of humankind; it was contingent upon the recognition of kinship—a “comparatively late” occurrence (1908:195n1, 199 ). Jevons argued that ancestor worship existed side by side with worship of the gods (1908:197–198 ), but that the public worship of the gods tended to “assimilate” the private cult of ancestors (1908:195–196 ).
Herbert Spencer, following Jevons, emphasized the tie between a sedentary farming lifestyle and ancestor veneration. In contrast to Jevons, however, he believed that ancestor worship was the “root” of every belief system, an evolutionary stepping-stone in the history of religion, with ancestors being transformed into deities along the way (Spencer 1916:293–294). Citing cross-cultural examples, Spencer 1916:303) argued that “nearly all [societies] … have a belief, vague or distinct, in a reviving other-self of the dead man.” “More advanced” peoples demonstrated “persistent” ancestor worship; of these, some differentiated between “distinguished” and “undistinguished” ancestors. Spencer related forms of ancestor worship to phases of cultural evolution, with “primitive” tribes making few distinctions among the deceased. For members of advanced societies, “once-similar human souls” diverged in character and importance until their original forms became “scarcely recognizable” (1916:303).
In The Elementary Forms of the Religious Life, Émile Durkheim took issue with the idea that ancestor cults were the earliest form of religion. Like Jevons, he believed that ancestor veneration was a cultural development that occurred after the origin of agriculture, since groups such as the Australian Aborigines, who represented the “simplest form of social organization,” practiced totemism rather than ancestor worship (Durkheim 1964:63, 64 ). Durkheim defined “ancestors” as those kin who become the object of veneration after death; therefore, the mythic forebears found in totemic societies—those who exercised superhuman or divine powers during life—occupied a separate conceptual category. They were not ancestors but rather “sacred beings of a wholly different nature” (1964: 64 ). For Durkheim, ancestor cults were restricted to (p.11) advanced societies, such as ancient China or Egypt (1964:63 ) where a “system of diverse rites, festivals, and ceremonies … reappear periodically.” Periodicity was key to distinguishing between irregular death rituals and ancestor cults, which Durkheim (1964:63 ) defined as rites, sacrifices, or libations performed in honor of select dead on a regular basis.
Like Durkheim, Freud viewed totemism, rather than ancestor worship, as the earliest form of religion. In Totem and Taboo, he identified totems as “tribal ancestors” among the Australian Aborigines and explored taboos related to the dead, their belongings, and the treatment of mourners (1918:9, 35, 87–89). He suggested that the dead aroused ambivalent, contradictory emotions, both hostility and tenderness. The living repressed their unconscious fear of and hostility toward the deceased and, through the mechanism of projection, transformed the deceased into evil demons who rejoiced in human misfortune and death (1918:99–108). As humans developed, however, Freud (1918:109–110) suggested that the same ambivalence that gave rise to the fear of demons gave rise to ancestor veneration. Fear of demons disappeared as grief lessened and the mourning period ended. The same spirits that had been feared earlier were now “revered as ancestors, and appealed to for help in times of distress” (1918:110).
James G. Frazer published three volumes examining the relationship between the living and the dead in Australia (1913), Polynesia (1968 ), and Micronesia (1968 ). The dead in the South Pacific were feared, and a variety of practices were undertaken to prevent the dead from returning to the world of the living. Frazer emphasized that those in greatest danger were the immediate descendants of the deceased. In The Fear of the Dead in Primitive Religion, Frazer also considered evidence from the Americas, Asia, and Africa. His exhaustive review of the available data led him to believe that, with a few exceptions that established the rule, fear of the dead was universal (1933:13–14).
Like Durkheim and Freud, Frazer drew many of his examples from the Aboriginal societies of Australia. However, in contrast to Durkheim’s rejection of any association between totemism and ancestor worship, Frazer argued that
dead forefathers viewed as beings perfectly distinct from and far superior to the living, might easily come to receive from the latter the homage of prayer and sacrifice, might be besought by their (p.12) descendants to protect them in danger and to succor them in all the manifold ills of life, or at least to abstain from injuring them [1913:115].
In Frazer’s view, ancestor worship was one aspect of a more general cult of the dead (1933:66). African societies were of particular interest, as beliefs in ancestral spirits were “widely spread and more deeply rooted” there than elsewhere (1933:51). Frazer’s ethnographic examples demonstrated the often idiosyncratic and vengeful nature of ancestors, who were feared and propitiated with offerings and sacrifices. Recalling Freud’s idea of ambivalence toward the dead, Frazer asserted that while relations with the deceased may initially be friendly, they become “decidedly hostile” after mourning ends (1933:66; see Leach 1966 for a critique). Frazer’s evidence indicated that relations with the deceased were materialized in food offerings, such as the beer and porridge provided in household shrines, and in activities at the site of interment. In a Micronesian example, he noted that the dead were buried beneath the floors of houses. The graves were periodically reopened and skulls removed for anointing with coconut oil. Family members slept and ate beside the skulls and in some cases entire skeletons were disinterred so that they might be appealed to for good luck “in fishing, war, or love” (1933:19). Though Frazer’s subject was fear of the dead rather than their veneration, many of his examples show that the living attributed great powers to their ancestral kin and expected to receive aid from them as well as misfortune.
Ancestors in Africa
Max Gluckman’s structural-functionalist work in Africa represents a radical departure from the evolutionary and comparative studies of the late nineteenth and early twentieth century. He approached burial practices and beliefs about ancestors among Bantu speakers of southern Mozambique in terms of conflict and cohesion. While death ritual was about the “readjustment of social relationships” (1937:124) involving the entire community, sacrifice and commemoration of ancestors concerned only the kin group. Ancestors were deceased elders who affected their descendants by sending “illness … fertility or barrenness, pestilence, rain, good crops” (1937:123). These ancestors were approached at their places of interment in either a cattle kraal or sacred grove (see also Insoll 2007, 2008). When a (p.13) village was relocated and the remains of the deceased were left behind, the ancestor could be accessed in a “temple of the village” in the new location (Gluckman 1937:127).
Gluckman made three primary points concerning the nature of ancestor veneration among the Bantu and related peoples. First, he identified a correlation between ancestor veneration and the level of concern a society had with the condition of the soul in the afterlife. Societies that worshipped ancestors “have a very inchoate picture of the afterlife” (1937:125), whereas societies that did not placed greater emphasis on culturally coherent beliefs about the journey and destination of the soul of the deceased. This observation may have originated from Gluckman’s comparison of Bantu practices with Bronislaw Malinowski’s account (1916) of the Trobriand feast of the dead; Trobrianders had a well-articulated and shared cultural vision of the soul’s journey to and existence in the netherworld.
Gluckman’s second point was the distinction between ancestor veneration and a more generic “cult of the dead” (1937:129–130). His definition of ancestor veneration as “the belief in the continued interference of ancestral ghosts in the affairs of their living kin and continual ritual behavior by the latter to the former” (1937:125) is in clear contrast to Malinowski’s pointed observation that Trobrianders had no fear of or concern with the baloma (spirit) of the deceased except during their annual feasts. Gluckman further suggested that social bonds were strongest among those descended from a common ancestor, in part because such kin groups, which were both patrilineal and patrilocal, tended to live in close proximity. Gluckman thus linked ancestors to the social cohesion of the lineage and viewed veneration as a cult embedded in kinship that reminded lineage members of their social bonds. Because ancestor worship was “compulsory” (1937:128), rites functioned effectively even in societies with large and complex systems of kinship. Among the Xhosa, Gluckman (1937:128) noted, obligations to attend ancestral rites superseded Christian beliefs, lest converts “be expelled from their families” (cf. Meyer 1999).
Gluckman’s third point was that ancestor veneration entrenched the social position of elders within kin groups. Elders alone had the privilege of sacrificing to the ancestors, and thus they reinforced their authority with every ritual act. They also negotiated relationships between and among ancestors and living kin. Like ancestors, elders could curse and punish erring relatives. Younger members of the lineage who quarreled or made trouble had no choice but to “make amends” with elders (1937:128).
(p.14) Meyer Fortes’s ethnography of the Tallensi ancestor cult in Ghana is framed by considerations similar to those of Gluckman; his definition of an ancestor as a “named, dead forbear” (1965:124) with living descendants has become a standard in anthropology. Fortes understood ancestors as members of a distinct social category created by the death of an elder, usually a parent or lineage head. While mortuary rituals “disincorporat[ed]” the deceased from the social group, specific “obsequial rites” were required to confer ancestorhood and establish the ancestor in family and lineage organization in his reconstituted form (1965:128–129). This “reincorporation” was made tangible to the living through shrines (Fortes 1949:329, 1965:128–129, 1976:7), which symbolized the unity and corporate identity of lineage members (Fortes 1945:55).
The extent to which ancestors were interwoven with the daily life of the Tallensi is one of Fortes’s key points: the entirety of social life was predicated on the ability to trace descent from a known and named ancestor along a putatively continuous male line (Fortes 1945:30–33). This is evidenced not only in religion but also in the beliefs and practices associated with marriage and landownership (Fortes 1959:346, 1965:137). Though all males of the lineage had the right to inherit corporate land, control was vested in the head of the lineage by right of seniority (Fortes 1945:178). Lineage headship was marked by succession to the custody of the ancestor shrine. The custodian was, by definition, an elder or senior male who accepted the role of shrine custodian and sacrificer irrespective of his personal relations with a given ancestor (Fortes 1965:133). The authority of the lineage head was, in turn, based on privileged access to the ancestors through his possession and tendance of the shrine. The shrine was located within the house of the lineage head and linked status, authority, and ancestors in both material and spatial terms (Fortes 1959:32). To Fortes, shrine ritual served two purposes: it promoted lineage cohesion and maintained social inequalities by affirming the status of the lineage head. When he died, specific rites were performed to decouple him from the shrine and inaugurate a new headman (Fortes 1945:227–228).
Shrine construction and “ritual service and tendance” operated at multiple scales. The erection of a shrine honoring patrilineal ancestors marked the establishment of a household at the family scale, while lineage shrines and the burial of select deceased in sacred groves materially and spiritually tied larger kin groups to specific localities (Fortes 1945:143; see also Insoll 2007, 2008). Together, shrines and graves fixed lineage origins (p.15) on the landscape and demarcated ancestral lands and sacred places from the surrounding bush (Fortes 1945:208; see also Kuba and Lentz 2002:386; McCall 1995).
The ancestral cult as a whole was based on parental duty and filial piety (Fortes 1961). The authority of the ancestors was, in Fortes’s view, analogous to the authority of a father over a son, but infinitely magnified and sanctified (1959:59–60). As children were dependent on their parents for survival, so living descendants were dependent on the ancestors, who could either punish or reward them. Like parents, ancestors antedated their descendants and made their existence possible; thus the living owed the social order in its entirety to the ancestors (Fortes 1945:68). Both sets of relationships were marked by ambivalence, with the parent or ancestor perceived as alternately protective and benevolent or demanding and persecutory (Fortes 1949, 1959, 1965). It behooved a son to construct shrines and make offerings to his forebears “irrespective of his sympathies or aversions, and without regard to his character or achievements” (Fortes 1965:134). Thus “the experience of filial dependence … provides the material for the code of symbolism and ritual by means of which reverence for authority can be regularly affirmed and enacted” (1965:139). Fortes’s interpretation of ancestor worship is explicitly psychoanalytic; his focus on the ambivalent and arbitrary nature of ancestors is suggestive of Freudian perspectives on parenthood. In Tallensi beliefs about ancestors, Fortes found a culturally constructed psychological matrix that reproduced the parent-child relationship and reinforced social norms regarding kinship, descent, and authority.
Similar themes emerged in Jack Goody’s (1962) monumental study of the LoDagaa (Dagara) of northwestern Ghana, in which he explored how social organization and authority were materialized through ancestor worship, death ritual, and inheritance. Goody argued that unilineal genealogies were flexible mnemonics of social relationships past and present (1962:381–382). The construction and maintenance of ancestor shrines provided “a material counterpart to the patrilineal genealogy” (1962:389). These shrines were wooden and impermanent, unlike those of the Tallensi. They were sometimes consumed by fire or grew “smaller and smaller as the termites [ate] into them” (1962:389). In contrast to the durable descent relationships and authority structures that Fortes described, Goody emphasized the malleable nature of kinship and memory and the negotiable custody and maintenance of shrines.
(p.16) Ancestors were ideally tended by the eldest son (Goody 1962:384), but in contrast to the Tallensi, any male in the direct agnatic line could make offerings (1962:388). Offerings were obligatory; they were not gifts but rather a “fulfillment of obligations to those who … provide the living with earthly goods” (1962:414). Typically, important events were conducted in close proximity to shrines, which were portable and so could be carried to births, marriages, harvest festivals, and occasions of property transfer (1962:390–393). Thus offerings to the ancestors, in the form of blood sacrifice or water libations, tracked the stages of the life cycle.
Goody identified ancestors as agents of social control (1962:407). Like Fortes, he emphasized the relationship between descent, authority, and shrine custody. “A man has the power of life and death over his agnatic descendants not only when he is dead, but also while he is still alive, a power that is reinforced by his position as custodian of his own dead father’s shrine … [this] gives a father’s curse such potency” (1962:408). Ancestors thus served as “standardized projections” of the father’s role, the weight of their authority analogous to his position as shrine custodian and “socializing agent” (1962:408). These hierarchical relations were buttressed by the threat of mystical retribution in the form of sickness or death.
Goody makes it clear that the ancestors are concerned with a specific type of authority—that related to the control of money and livestock and vested in the heir and sacrificer. This man may be the source of considerable tension within the family or lineage as he is “head of the household, master of the shrines, controller of the food supply, upbringer as well as holder” (1962:410). Hostility directed at him could be diffused or managed, then, through ancestor veneration, which supported the authority of the heirs, the senior members of the descent group (1962:412).
Ancestors in China
Though Africa was where the anthropological concept of “ancestor” was initially developed, ancestors found a large measure of their ethnographic variation in Asia. Traditions of ancestor veneration in China, Korea (e.g., Janelli and Janelli 1982; Kendall 1985; Kendall and Dix 1987), and Japan (e.g., Newell 1976a; Smith 1974; Traphagan 2004) have received the most scholarly attention, although anthropologists are increasingly exploring ancestors elsewhere in Asia (e.g., Friesen 2001). Though Asian ancestors share a number of similarities with their African counterparts, major (p.17) geographic, ethnic, and temporal differences structure how, when, where, and by whom they are venerated. Maurice Freedman’s work established the foundation for the study of Chinese ancestors in British and American anthropology in the 1950s and 1960s. He took a structural-functional perspective on family structure, kinship, and marriage among both traditional and mid-twentieth-century Chinese in southeastern coastal provinces.1
Freedman’s work became the paradigm for research on Chinese kinship and lineage organization, but reliance on ethnographic materials derived from the southeast belies the incredible variation in practices and beliefs about ancestors across China (Cohen 1990). Nadeau and Chang (2003:287) neatly summarize Freedman’s idealized Chinese family structure as
a unified, patrilineal organization with wealth in trust, ancestral lands, an ancestral temple and shared cemetery, and carefully maintained genealogies. For Freedman, the common worship of a single ancestor reinforces the conviction that the members of the clan belong to a common group. Ancestor veneration is a reflection of deeper principles of lineage organization, and lineage organization is the basis and model of social organization in general.
Freedman (1958, 1966) was interested in the extent to which asymmetrical lineage segmentation was related to ancestral property. His research showed that internal descent hierarchies and lineage fissioning were marked through ritual practice. The choice of grave site, establishment of ancestral halls, and the transfer of tablets throw “the differentiation of the lineage community into relief” (Freedman 1958:77). Work in other regions in China confirmed his findings. Potter, for example, found that the various branches of a maximal lineage in Hong Kong reflected major differences in wealth, status, control of ancestral property, and concern with ancestral halls. The lineage branches with the most property were also those that were most internally differentiated and concerned with the performance of venerative rites at the graves of ancestors and the preservation and recitation of genealogies. Because both hall construction and sacrificial rites were financed by corporate property, the elaboration of ancestor worship directly reflected wealth (Potter 1970a).
Elsewhere and for other ethnic groups, Freedman’s lineage model was less applicable. Ethnographers suggested that it overemphasized lineage (p.18) fission and that segmentation was offset by diverse aggregative processes (Pasternak 1973; R. S. Watson 1982). In Taiwan, lineage systems differed significantly from the Freedman model, with concomitant differences in the importance of genealogy and ritual practice. Ancestor veneration was often focused on domestic shrines rather than ancestral halls, for example (Nadeau and Chang 2003). In northern China, Myron Cohen (1990:509) described patterning in burial places, ancestral scrolls and tablets, and corporate groups that differed significantly from Freedman’s descriptions of Guangdong and Fujian.
Freedman’s work and that of successive scholars have demonstrated that traditional (twelfth through nineteenth century) forms of ancestor worship in China reflected major ethnic and regional differences and degrees of influence of Confucian, Daoist, and Buddhist beliefs. More recently, these distinctions have been complicated by conflict, urbanization, Christianization, war, communism, and pressures to modernize. Post-1949 funeral reform, in particular, banned ancestral hall rites and mandated compulsory cremation rather than burial. Many halls were destroyed, others abandoned, and still others repurposed (Goossaert and Palmer 2011; Whyte 1988; Zhou 2002). Given internal variation in beliefs and practices, the following section addresses only a few of the most influential studies of ancestor veneration in China, describing how ritual practices in the home, in the ancestral hall, and at the grave reinforce unequal access to prestige and property or present opportunities for display and competition.
Traditional Chinese ancestor veneration was part of a complex eschatology involving beliefs in souls, supernatural beings, and geomancy (Cohen 1988; Harrell 1979; Jordan 1999; Potter 1970b; Wolf 1974). The archetypal ancestor in China was one who left property to his patriline, was owed gratitude and obeisance, and who, through the auspicious placement of his grave, might favor his descendants with health and good fortune. Ancestors provided for their agnates in the form of heritable wealth and in return expected to be fed, thanked, and honored through periodic rites. Wolf (1974:168) characterized the reciprocal relationship between the ancestors and those responsible for their veneration as one of “common welfare and mutual dependence.”
Shrines to ancestors typically took two forms—one in the home, one in the ancestral hall—though there are regional differences in the presence and elaboration of each form (Freedman 1979 ). Not all lineages (p.19) had ancestral halls, since their construction and maintenance were dependent upon corporate resources. In the Taiwanese village studied by Jordan (1999), ancestral halls were relatively uncommon (see also Cohen 1969). A similar situation existed in Hebei province in northern China, where veneration occurred at graves rather than at shrines (Cohen 1990; see also Naquin 1988). In southeastern China, the domestic shrine contained ancestor tablets representing the most recently deceased (Freedman 1958:84–85). Tablets were wooden plaques about 15 to 30 centimeters tall upon which the name of the deceased was painted or engraved (Jordan 1999:chap. 5). Tablets were inherited on the principle of primogeniture in some regions; elsewhere they might circulate among members of the patriline. In southeastern China, the tablet was either enshrined in the ancestral hall, burned, or buried after three or four generations (Freedman 1958:85–87, 1979:276 ). Emily Ahern (1973:149) noted that making an ancestral tablet was associated specifically with the inheritance of land. While other deceased might receive offerings indicative of some sort of debt or obligation, tablets were not carved in their honor. Freedman’s (1979:275 ) work on the mainland, however, indicated that tablets were made only for those who had attained parenthood, though this could be achieved posthumously or through adoption. Tablets were rare in Hebei and were only found in wealthier families; instead, most people used scrolls (Cohen 1990). Women were the primary caretakers of tablets in the home; worship of ancestors in the hall was the domain of men (Freedman 1958:85–86, 1979:285–286 ).
Ancestral halls were much larger than domestic shrines and contained tablets memorializing ancestors for as many generations as the lineage tracked. The condition of the ancestral hall reflected lineage prosperity (Ahern 1973:100–101; Freedman 1979 ). The construction of a new hall occurred when agnates formed a distinct faction and the lineage segmented (Freedman 1958), although in the Taiwanese villages studied by Ahern (1973:106–115), such segmentation rarely occurred and then only with the settlement of new territory. Ancestral tablets were the locus of veneration within the ancestral hall. Though the physical remains of ancestors were elsewhere, their souls were thought to visit or inhabit the tablets bearing their names. Access to the ancestral hall and its rituals was a marker of status and an expression of the lineage hierarchy (Freedman 1958:90–91). In contrast to the domestic cult, which facilitated a more intimate connection with the dead and permitted all members of the (p.20) household to participate, veneration in the ancestral hall was restricted to specific male agnates in order of seniority (Newell 1976b:23). In communities without household shrines, where veneration occurred exclusively in halls and at grave sites, women might be completely excluded, as Ahern (1973) found in Taiwan. In Freedman’s (1979:285 ) words, “This is a world of men … wives enter the hall only as tablets—a dumb and wooden fate.”
The head of the patrilineal descent group was also the leader of venerative rites by virtue of his seniority and genealogical proximity to the apical ancestor. His privileged status and that of other descent-group elites was reinforced by auspiciously locating the final resting place of each ancestor on geomantic principles. Ideally, standard southern Chinese burial practices were tripartite, involving initial interment in a coffin, exhumation after a period of five to ten years, and entombment of a pot containing the cleaned bones on a hillside (Ahern 1973; Nelson 1974; J. L. Watson 1988b; R. S. Watson 1988). Even in southern China, however, not all the deceased received the full complement of secondary burial rites; those who left substantial property were much more likely to survive in the memory of their descendants, be entombed in a secure location, and receive routine tendance (R. S. Watson 1988:209).
Geomantic concerns influenced the site of the initial grave in Taiwan (Ahern 1973) and of the final tomb made of brick or concrete in southern China (Freedman 1968; R. S. Watson 1988). Freedman emphasized that favorable tomb locations assured descendants of good fortune (1958:77, 1968, 1979:286–288 ; see also R. S. Watson 1988:206n18) and suggested that the bones of the deceased passively facilitated or conducted geomantic benefits. In contrast, Ahern (1973:178–182) found that the comfort of the deceased within the geomantic landscape determined whether the living prospered or suffered misfortune. An ancestor unhappy in tomb placement might bring illness or poor crops; an ancestor who had a comfortable site with a good view and fresh air would be happy and refrain from making trouble. Conditions that might upset the ancestor included a tomb with dripping rainwater or one with an unstable foundation. Such conditions were occasionally remedied by retrieving the pot and moving the site of the tomb (Ahern 1973:183–186), actions that may be identifiable archaeologically.
Communal rites conducted at the grave or tomb site included food offerings and veneration; other activities involved routine care and cleaning (p.21) or personal appeals. Communal activities were often highly formalized, with ritual structured in ways that conveyed information about both individual and lineage status. For example, members of different lineage branches assembled around the tomb according to seniority (Nelson 1974:275). Material evidence of such activities may include dishes for offerings and food detritus, in addition to archaeological features representing the original interment and subsequent tomb placement. Tsu (2000) describes in detail the handling of the bones of the deceased after initial disinterment in South Taiwan; defleshing may occur in order to ensure complete skeletonization, as partially decayed corpses are viewed with fear and suspicion (see also J. L. Watson 1982b, 1988a). Furthermore, all teeth of the deceased were extracted and thrown away at the gravesite, apparently to neutralize the danger of the ancestor “consuming” the good fortune of his descendants.
Prosperity of descendants, internal lineage competition, and landscape considerations all influenced frequency and degree of elaboration of graveside rites. Placement and condition of the remains of the deceased therefore represent the intersection of a number of variables, only some of which reflect social persona in a Saxe-Binford sense. In Freedman’s view (1958), the conduct of rites in ancestral halls, in particular, while nominally focused on ancestors, in actuality highlighted and perpetuated descent hierarchies, in which distributions of economic and ritual privileges, including corporate properties, were vested in the lineage head. The inherent conservatism of hall rites, emphasized by Freedman, contrasted with the opportunities presented by graveside ritual to alter existing social relationships. While care and tendance of the ancestor at his grave ensured the well-being of his direct descendants, veneration of the hall tablet benefited the descent group more generally (R. S. Watson 1988:207).
Cohen found that burial patterns, rather than tablets, were the key markers of common descent in northern China where “the common graveyards of lineages contrasted with the dispersed burial characteristics of much of south China.” As a “permanent public display,” the cemetery in northern China expressed genealogical relationships in the positioning of individual graves, with the founding ancestor—in the form of a stone, brick, or board—at the apex of a triangle (Cohen 1990:513). Burton Pasternak (1973:272) observed that burial location and configuration among Hakka of Taiwan reflected processes of lineage fission and aggregation. Changes in burial patterns “signal[ed] departures of relevance to the (p.22) development and structure of … descent groups as well as to the nature of relations within them.”
The tendance of ancestors, whether it occurred at home, at the grave site, or in the ancestral hall, took the form of prayers and offerings (Freedman 1979 ). Incense or pieces of paper representing money (Ahern 1973) or clothing (Cohen 1990:519) might be burned as offerings or rice wine and various sorts of food proffered. Pork was especially valued (Potter 1970b), though dumplings, sweets, or fruit were also used (Cohen 1990:520; see also Thompson 1988; Wolf 1974:177).
In sum, ancestor veneration and burial practices in China are marked by regional, ethnic, and temporal variation—what James L. Watson (1988b:17) has described as “chaotic local diversity” that gives “great scope for regional and subethnic cultural displays.” Major variables include the location of veneration, its scale, and frequency. Recent or apical ancestors were remembered and venerated individually, while more distant ancestors joined an anonymous collectivity. The rites celebrated at the grave, ancestral hall, or shrine created powerful focal points for expressions of lineage unity or exclusivity and reflected multiple social variables, including seniority, status, wealth, and genealogical proximity to the deceased.
Rites minimally differentiated the lineage from other lineages, but could also mark membership in a specific branch, surname association, or household (Feuchtwang 1974:118). Women’s roles in ancestral rites varied across China, but were often limited to domestic contexts (Freedman 1979 ; R. S. Watson 1981) or were completely absent (Ahern 1973; J. L. Watson 1982b:179). Ancestors conferred good fortune on their descendants when pleased by routine rites and tendance and when their graves were well sited. In spite of regular prayer and sacrifice, however, ancestors could be punitive and capricious or their anger roused by misbehavior, bringing illness, misfortune, and death (Ahern 1973; Otake 1980; Wolf 1974). As in West Africa, descent ideology and venerative ritual in China expressed the interests of the patriline, which was constituted at multiple levels of inclusiveness. While the investiture of ritual authority and corporate control in senior males was an implicit feature of studies of Chinese ancestor veneration, Marxist anthropologists and others working in Africa and Madagascar in the 1960s and 1970s made explicit links between descent ideology, elder males, and power.
In the late 1960s and early 1970s, anthropologists influenced by Marxist perspectives increasingly viewed ancestors and venerative ritual as components of ideologies that naturalized inequalities within hierarchical social systems. One approach viewed ancestors as a way to legitimize the privileged position of elders in agricultural societies. Meillassoux (1981:82) noted that the “sublimation” of the father and the ancestors he represented is the primary ideological resource for an elder, who controlled both production (surplus) and reproduction (access to women). The annual growth cycle of crops and the need to store produce and seed from year to year meant that younger farmers were indebted to earlier generations—the elders and their ancestors—who had previously harvested and stored seed and surplus. Agrarian life therefore fostered an ideology of descent and a cult of the ancestors that privileged age and senior social rank. Meillassoux thereby linked the emergence of ancestor veneration with domestication (1972:99–100).
An alternative approach was provided by Friedman’s reevaluation of Leach’s (1954) study of the shift from an egalitarian to stratified social system among the Kachin of Burma (Myanmar). Friedman suggested that lineage heads leveraged access to ancestors in order to naturalize unequal access to resources, thereby institutionalizing social hierarchies. In short, acquisition of surplus revealed that the lineage head was descended from spirits, who favored him as descendant kin. Supernatural validation bolstered the positions of some lineage leaders and enabled them to become chiefs (Friedman 1975:172). The chief received tribute and corvée, allowing him to reinforce his authority and descent claims through redistributive feasts. Chiefs become responsible for communicating with ancestral spirits, ensuring growth and prosperity for the community. Increasing surpluses justified claims, leading, in some cases, to the development of small, stratified states on the Assam plains (1975:172–194).
The association between ideology, ancestors, and land has perhaps been most successfully articulated in Maurice Bloch’s influential work on the Merina of Madagascar. The Merina built megalithic communal tombs and practiced a secondary burial ritual, the famadihana, that established the deceased as an ancestor. Bloch identified Merina ancestors as “some past, long dead, unspecified forebear” (1968:100) and described the process through which the Merina transformed named individuals (p.24) into a “common substance” (Bloch 1982:213). This substance consisted of the collectivity of ancestors, their living descendants, and the agricultural land associated with the tomb. The famadihana and other rituals were part of a legitimating “ideology of descent” (1968:100) that promoted a durable, unchanging social order (Bloch 1971, 1982). That order was underpinned by the authority of elders, who acted as critical intermediaries between the living and the ancestors. Elders alone transmitted the blessings of the dead to their living descendants—without which descendants were “impotent in all senses of the word” (Bloch 1982:212).
To the Merina, blessings such as children, crops, wealth, and strength were tied to the integrity of the social group, which in turn was conceptually merged with the land and the ancestors. The monumental tomb served as the central symbol of the Merina kinship community. Located on and defining ancestral lands, the tombs represent shared substance and the regrouping, in death, of dispersed members of the kin group. Although the Merina reside throughout Madagascar, upon death, their remains are returned to their natal villages and installed in the tombs. Rituals accompany both the removal of the body from its location of temporary burial and its interment on ancestral lands, effectively reconstituting the kin group in death and symbolically expressing the antithesis of social division (Bloch 1982:213). Bloch observes that where one’s ancestors are entombed is a more significant social marker than where one resides, since the tombs establish group membership and corporate rights. In sum, the Merina ideology of descent is profoundly territorial in nature; it is signaled through ritual acts and in construction of and access to communal tombs. Elders serve as intercessors in ritual between ancestors and their living descendants. By transmitting blessings, elders reinforce an ideology that links well-being with kinship and land and legitimates their authority as critical mediators between past and present (Bloch 1968, 1971).
Like Bloch, Victor Turner sought a nuanced understanding of how ritual worked within the context of sociopolitical transformations. Two issues are especially relevant to the study of ancestors: ancestor cults as markers of social difference and ritual as a means of reconstituting social structure. First, Turner understood that ritual could operate at multiple levels of inclusiveness. He suggested that ancestor cults in West and Central Africa were vehicles for identifying and highlighting the distinctiveness of a lineage or kin group. They represented sectional divisions within society and were associated with “lineage segmentation, local history, (p.25) [and] factional conflict” (Turner 1974:185). In contrast, earth cults facilitated the creation of social bonds between groups; they expressed shared values and inclusiveness.
In addition to showing how ancestor cults marked social divisions, Turner’s (1969, 1974) work suggests how ritual functions within ancestor cults. Communitas, a sense of solidarity and shared experience, created through ritual enables integration of group members. In this sense, Bloch’s work and Turner’s are very similar: both emphasize the role of ritual in creating community and reinforcing the group membership of ritual participants. Further, the liminal feature of ritual enabled the dissolution of social relations and their reconstitution in new form. Ritual made the creation of ancestors possible and facilitated the transition of ritual practitioners from one social status to another—for example, from dependent son to lineage head. While Marxist anthropologists were studying ideologies and inequalities, other Africanists were questioning whether “ancestor” was a meaningful category and scrutinizing emic distinctions between ancestors and elders. These issues fostered a decade of debate in African anthropology.
Elders as Ancestors
On the basis of his work among the Suku of Congo, Igor Kopytoff argued that the term “ancestor” was an ethnocentric imposition by Western anthropologists on African cultures. The Suku had no word for “ancestor.” Deceased lineage members were bambuta, which refers not only to the select deceased but to all members of the lineage older than ego, whether living or dead (Kopytoff 1971:131). Power and authority among the Suku were based on age and generation rather than strictly on descent from an ancestor. Because of their state, the dead were approached differently than the living, but “they remain in the same structural positions vis-à-vis their juniors” (1971:134). In his study of the term “ancestor” in Bantu languages, Kopytoff (1971:135–136) found that the word may also mean “elder,” “aged,” “antecedent,” “long ago,” “forebear,” and so on. From an emic perspective, Kopytoff argued, there were no significant differences between ancestors and elders; what is perceived as “ancestral” by ethnographers is really a generational distinction.
Brain contested Kopytoff’s semantic analysis. While most Bantu languages do not have words for “ancestor,” they do have words for “ancestral (p.26) spirit” (Brain 1973:123). While some support for Kopytoff’s position existed, in that there may be semantic overlap between the categories of “ancestor” and “elder,” ancestors can do things elders cannot. Deceased ancestors were aware of people’s thoughts as well as their actions. Additionally, gifts to elders differed qualitatively from sacrifices to ancestors. To Brain, significant, though subtle, differences existed between “ancestors” and “elders” in practice, though those differences were not always linguistically elaborated.
Also critical of the elders-as-ancestors argument was Victor Uchendu (1976:285), who charged that, by equating the world of living elders with that of the deceased ancestors, Kopytoff “asserts a ‘structural fusion’ that represents the highest level of reductionism.” To illustrate the issue, Uchendu described the relationship of living descendants to deceased ancestors among the Ibo of Nigeria. Ancestors were “creatures of society,” subject to manipulation by the living, but also agents of moral authority who facilitated the articulation of Ibo ontology (1976:283).
Based on his study of the Sisala of northern Ghana, Eugene Mendonsa agreed with Kopytoff that “worship” as applied to activities surrounding select deceased was an inadequate term. On the other hand, he supported the use of “cult” and “sacrifice.” Mendonsa pointed to a conceptual separation between the world of the living and the world of the dead ancestors, as well as a “subtle comprehension of the similarities between the two spheres” (Mendonsa 1976:63).
C. J. Calhoun (1980) responded to the linguistic analysis and called for a more comparative perspective on ancestors based on authority and power. He suggested not only that the distinction between ancestors and elders reflected the actions taken by the living, but that patterns of descent and postmarital residence affected the extent to which ancestors had power over the living. The Tallensi, for example, practiced patrilineal descent and patrilocal residence; for them, descent and residence were congruent with parental and ancestral authority. The Suku, studied by Kopytoff, practiced matrilineal descent and patrilocal residence. Residential affiliation, rather than descent, was more strongly linked with authority, and hence genealogy was of less significance. Furthermore, among the Tallensi, no living person wielded final authority. Instead, divination and other ritual practices represented collective decision-making rather than a system based simply on authority by age. To Calhoun (1980:312–313), the Tale case warranted the maintenance of the term “ancestor.”
(p.27) In response, Kopytoff (1981:135) noted that Tale terms, similar to those in other sub-Saharan languages, failed to distinguish between living and deceased elders. In some cases, the term for an elder spanned the living/dead divide. Comparative linguistic analysis indicated that terms translated as “living elders” and “dead ancestors” are often cognate and belong to the same semantic field (1981:136). In reply, Fortes (1981) agreed with Calhoun, noting that no ambiguity existed between living elders and deceased ancestors among the Tallensi.
This debate recalls Newell’s (1976b) discussion of the variability of ancestors: not all ancestors are like Tale ancestors; the roles of ancestors vary cross-culturally and are influenced by principles of descent, postmarital residence, and degree of political centralization (e.g., Drucker-Brown 1981). The elders-as-ancestors debate highlighted the tension between the twin concepts of ancestor and elder among anthropologists and their informants, as well as the ambiguity that existed between the ancestors and elders themselves (e.g., Helms 1998).
Marginalization and Decline of African Ancestors
During the 1980s and 1990s, the number of studies focusing on ancestors in African anthropology dropped precipitously (Cole and Middleton 2001). First, there was no need to study ancestors if they were, as Kopytoff (1971) suggested, a Western fiction. On the other end of the spectrum was the idea that ancestors were universal, their omnipresence obscured by semantic distinctions between ghosts, shades, souls, spirits, and totems. According to Lyle Steadman and Craig Palmer (1996), attention to the exotic led anthropologists to create distinctions among the dead that masked broader patterns, one of which was the universality of ancestor worship. Using cross-cultural data compiled in the 1960s, they identified ancestor worship as “claims of communication between the dead and their descendants” (Steadman and Palmer 1996:63), basically a conflation of ancestors and the deceased more generally.
Ancestors were also marginalized because structural-functional approaches, which gave them primacy, were in decline. Adam Kuper’s (1982) polemic against the lineage model, which up to that point had framed analyses of ancestor veneration in Africa, is cited by McCall (1995:257) as a watershed moment, as ancestors were swept away with lineages. Social structure had previously been seen as a manifestation of the ancestor (p.28) cult. The shift away from structural-functionalism effectively sidelined ancestors from studies of African religion and consigned a large body of ethnographic data to the theoretical dustbin. Finally, interest in African ancestors declined as the discipline shifted toward studies of postcolonialism and change that were grounded more in history and practice than in structure and function (see also Campbell, this volume).
The ethnography of African postcolonialism focused on topics such as witchcraft, spirit possession, and Protestant Christianity (Cole and Middleton 2001:1). In many of these works, the word “ancestor” is absent, though there are a handful of exceptions. In his study of religion in Zambia, for example, George Bond (1987) described the maintenance of an ancestral cult amid Presbyterian missionization. He noted that individuals and groups used “the religious ideologies of the ancestor cult and the Free Church to promote their interests, obscuring the social changes their actions are producing in the social field” (Bond 1987:56).
In contrast, Birgit Meyer (1999) attributed the decline of ancestors among the Peki of Ghana to the effects of Christian missionaries and the attractions of capitalism. Prior to 1876, ancestor veneration by the patrilineal and patrilocal Peki was “the most common feature of people’s religious life” (Meyer 1999:72). Ritual practices included prayers, libations, and the annual yam festival in honor of the ancestors. Between 1876 and 1918, however, evangelizing Protestant groups prohibited “idol-worship” and participation in “heathen ceremonies” (1999:9). Christian Peki no longer made offerings of clothing, jewelry, and cowries at the deceased’s grave (1999:10). Instead, material goods became emblematic of prosperity and status in colonial society as capitalism and Christianity supplanted the Peki ancestral dead.
Glazier’s investigation of changing mortuary practices among the Mbeere of Kenya linked land tenure and colonial edicts to the “domestication of death” and the emerging importance of named forebears. The Mbeere abandoned corpse exposure in the bush in favor of formal burial, Glazier suggested, because ancestors facilitated the establishment of property rights: the graves of deceased kin forged “new and socially valued links between the land and its claimants,” allowing descendants in litigation to “assert continuity in a particular line of descent and the territorial embodiment of that line” (Glazier 1984:144). As products of economic change, the Mbeere ways of death that Glazier documented in the 1970s (p.29) marked “a new fixity in relationships between social groups and territories” (1984:145).
Return of the Ancestors: Agency, Landscape, and Power
In spite of shifts in research priorities within African anthropology, interest in African ancestors began to reemerge in the late 1990s and early 2000s. New studies integrated the historical and practice-based insights of the 1980s and 1990s, but also recognized that ancestors were alive and well in Africa, albeit often in new or altered forms. Ancestors affirmed group identity and fostered solidarity and emerged as critical variables in studies of agency, space, and power relationships.
McCall (1995), for example, highlighted the role of ancestors in memory practices among the Ibo of Nigeria. Ancestors originally cleared agricultural land and created cultural spaces from the bush. Male ancestors received sacrifices in shrines, while female ancestors were memorialized with pots embedded in the kitchen hearth. Space, material culture, and ritual acts inscribed ancestors in the household, on the landscape, and in the memories of their descendants (McCall 1995:259–262). While profoundly conscious of the importance of history, McCall recognized that the work of Fortes and other early twentieth-century African anthropologists represented part of the daily reality of many sub-Saharan Africans. Privileging one theoretical approach over the other for the sake of argument, he suggested, “diminishes our understanding of the whole” (1995:267).
The relationship between ancestors and the domestication of landscape is also a central theme in Mather’s (2003, this volume) study of the patrilineal Kusasi of northern Ghana. Shrines representing founding ancestors demarcate lineage territory and signal descent and group membership (Mather 2003:35); they are maintained by senior males, responsible for sacrifices and libations. Shrine tendance may reify social norms, but the desires of ancestors are also subject to interpretation and manipulation, enabling the living to deploy them in sometimes surprising ways—for example, in support of local political candidates. Ancestors are also implicated in status and power negotiations among the Tuareg of Niger, where offerings and gift-giving establish and maintain links between the living and the dead, present and past, youth and elders (Rasmussen 2000).
(p.30) In a return to Madagascar, where Bloch’s (1968, 1971, 1982) influential work established the Merina in the anthropological imagination, Cole and Middleton (2001) situated ancestors within the context of twentieth-century French imperialism (see also Feely-Harnik 1991). They suggested that the appropriation of colonial symbols revived local ritual practices focused on ancestors. Ambivalent attitudes toward colonial administrators paralleled concerns with ancestors—both were dangerous beings requiring appeasement. In contrast to Bloch, who emphasized the integrative role of ancestors, Cole and Middleton (2001:31) viewed them as points of contention between indigenous groups and foreigners “precisely because they are multi-voiced, permeable, and ambivalent.” In concluding this section, we find that, like Malagasy ritual, ancestors embody “multiple, mutable, and contradictory meanings” (2001:31), both to anthropologists and the people they study.
Marginalized in the 1980s and 1990s, the study of ancestors has proven to be extremely relevant to twenty-first-century anthropology. Elements of recent studies would be familiar to ethnographers of the last century, including the links among ancestors, social solidarity, and group identification. Recent studies have also provided a broader perspective on ancestors, including more nuanced interpretations that appreciate variables such as age, sex or gender, and relative status within a lineage. Postcolonial research has shown how ancestors are used to resist and reinterpret power relations and demonstrates that ancestors, often in new, hybrid forms, have strong opinions about politics and modernities. In defining ancestors and outlining their history in anthropology, some major themes emerge:
1. Ancestors are about power, whether social, political, religious, or economic, whether based in a single household or encompassing an entire ethnic group.
2. Ancestors are bulwarks of conservatism and resistance, yet they also shift and hybridize amid the forces of colonialism, Christianity, Islam, the state, and modernity itself.
3. Ancestors reinforce status and authority within the social group, usually that of senior members.
5. Ancestors are the conceptual domain through which elders or lineages compete, strategize, and negotiate.
6. Ancestors are conceptually tied to the landscape and reference fundamental dichotomies, such as wild/domestic or nature/culture.
7. Ancestors are directly implicated in issues of descent, inheritance, property, and access to resources.
8. Ancestors are fundamental components of individual and group identities, referencing kin groups at multiple scales (e.g., household, family, clan, lineage), as well as age and sex.
9. Ancestors are venerated at multiple scales (e.g., individual, household, lineage) within societies and cross-culturally; their routine care and tendance generate material residues.
10. Ancestors are repositories and reference points for the origins, genealogies, and memories of kin groups.
The rich ethnographic records of Africa and East Asia illustrate the extraordinary variation that exists in beliefs about ancestors and in venerative practices. In chapter 2, we address the ways in which archaeologists have approached ancestors, specifically as they relate to the above themes. In closing, we hope that both the introduction and the volume as a whole will encourage archaeologists to take ancient ancestors more seriously. Clearly not all societies peopled their universe with ancestral “ex-humans” like the Bronze Age Shang (Keightley 2001, 2004). Those that did, however, leveraged ancestors in myriad ways. Ancestors are implicated in politics, social organization, economics, ideology, religion, mortuary practices, architecture, and material culture. In short, the revered dead are critical components of the ethnographic present and archaeological past. Ancestors have a great deal to tell us, and we ignore them at our peril.
The Structure of This Volume
In part 1, we “revisit” world regions in which anthropologists have conducted particularly influential studies of ancestors: China, ancient Greece, and sub-Saharan Africa. Now-classic works on societies in these areas have provided a foundation upon which later studies on ancestors have (p.32) been built. By returning to these regions and taking a fresh look at the evidence, which has been supplemented with nearly a century of subsequent research, contributors to this volume provide sophisticated interpretations of architecture, cultural landscapes, iconography, and texts.
Chapter 2 focuses on identifying ancestors in the archaeological record. We begin by reviewing the contributions of two landmark studies: Living with the Ancestors (McAnany 1995) and Access to Origins (Helms 1998). We then provide an overview of the lines of evidence that archaeologists have used to argue for the presence of ancestors in the archaeological record, including architecture and landscape, structured deposits, human remains, art and iconography, and documentary sources.
In chapter 3, Roderick Campbell looks at China, the site of some of the most influential studies of ancestors in cultural anthropology (e.g., Ahern 1973; Freedman 1958, 1966, 1967; Newell 1976a; Watson and Rawski 1988). He demonstrates the contingent nature of Chinese ancestors, showing how their meaning and use have shifted over time—from being inhabitants of a complex medieval thanatological system that involved any number of spectral threats, to the enshrinement of Mao Tse-tung’s body in a postrevolutionary version of ancestor veneration. Questioning the utility of an overarching definition of ancestors, Campbell notes that the term “is a translocal placeholder for a variable set of locally constituted [social] relations.”
In a case study from the Late Shang site of Anyang, Campbell examines the massive ritual deposits at the royal cemetery, which include bronze vessels, jade weapons, and thousands of human sacrificial victims. Combining the archaeological evidence with oracle bone inscriptions, Campbell suggests that Shang death ritual located ancestors within a politicized and hierarchical kinship system. Ancestors mediated the social landscape where power, status, and memory were constantly under negotiation by the living.
Carla Antonaccio’s contribution (chapter 4) deals with the concept of ancestorhood among the ancient Greeks. In addition to a “shadowy collectivity” of dead just beyond the limits of human memory, Greeks of the fifth and sixth centuries BC venerated mythic heroes. In some cases, they visited and reentered ancient Bronze Age tombs in order to establish links with the past. As Antonaccio observes, mythic ancestors were “the ultimate referents for communal and regional identity.”
Returning to West Africa, where British social anthropologists such (p.33) as Meyer Fortes, Jack Goody, and Igor Kopytoff did so much work on ancestors in the mid-twentieth century, Charles Mather (chapter 5) contributes a sophisticated ethnoarchaeological study of ancestor shrines and domestic space among the Kusasi of northern Ghana. Mather argues that the composition and location of ancestor shrines within Kusasi residential compounds reflect and reinforce social organization and the often ambivalent nature of patrilineal and matrilineal relationships.
In part 2, four contributors explore ancestors using data derived from European, Mesoamerican, and Peruvian contexts—places not traditionally associated with ancestors in nineteenth- and twentieth-century anthropological thought. In chapter 6, Murray argues that ancestors were fundamental structuring structures in the landscapes of central Europe during the Iron Age. Taking a phenomenological approach, Murray suggests that Iron Age ancestors reinforced social norms and helped materialize kin relationships. Burial sites, tombs, and their associated features were imbued with agency and functioned as spaces in which performance and discourse occurred between ancestors and their descendants.
Following Alfred Gell, Murray proposes that landscapes existed within a sort of “ancestor time” that melded past, present, and future. He suggests that two sites in Germany, the Heuneburg and the Glauberg, functioned as “landscapes of ancestors” in which movement was choreographed to focus attention on specific tombs and monuments. Variation in grave goods and type of interments are used in conjunction with spatial analysis to identify changes in the nature of political power in Iron Age Europe.
Weiss-Krejci (chapter 7) explores how the central European House of Habsburg deployed ancestors as part of a political strategy to link both the dynasty as a whole and its individual members with the illustrious dead. Taking a liberal view of ancestorhood, Habsburgs such as Rudolph I and Maximilian I publicly visited and reused ancient burial places, intermarried with members of other dynasties in order to increase the prestige of their own, and occasionally manufactured the required genealogical documentation to bolster their kinship-based claims to royal status.
In chapter 8, Hill deals with Moche iconography from northern Peru, suggesting that women may have facilitated the transformation of sacrificial victims into offerings to the ancestral dead. She relates painted and modeled representations to archaeological evidence, arguing that ancestor veneration was a practice employed by elites to access origins and so validate their position in Moche society.
(p.34) Hageman (chapter 9) identifies the creation of ancestors in imagery and changing burial patterns in Preclassic Maya farming villages. Referencing the large corpus of Maya art and epigraphy, Hageman traces the use of symbols by Classic Maya kings to appropriate ancestral powers and institutionalize and legitimize their rule through communication and physical contact with previous kings. Commoner subjects continued to revere ancestors absent a written record, but commoner ancestral symbols differed in meaning from their royal counterparts, a point with implications for our understanding of ancient Maya gender.
We thank our contributors first and foremost; without their patience and consideration, this book would not have been possible. We thank Patricia McAnany for writing the foreword. We were honored to have Tricia and Mary Helms participate in the original Society for American Archaeology (SAA) session that initiated this project. Miguel Astor-Aguilera generously shared his enthusiasm and insights on ancestors, which have informed our own work. We would also like to express our sincere appreciation to three anonymous reviewers, whose constructive recommendations strengthened the volume. Meredith Morris-Babb, former editor-in-chief John Byram, and the team at University Press of Florida have our thanks for supporting this project from the beginning and guiding us through every stage of production.
J. Hageman: Though not part of the SAA session, Charles Mather and Rod Campbell graciously agreed to represent Africa and China for this volume. Timothy Insoll kindly provided several offprints. I would also like to acknowledge the work of Patricia McAnany, which sparked my early interest in ancestors.
E. Hill: I thank Carla Antonaccio, Matthew Murray, and Estella Weiss-Krejci for their generosity and encouragement. Liz Kurtulik Mercuri, Art Resource, assisted with permissions for the cover image of “Twenty-One Ancestors.” Many people kindly provided offprints or references, among them George Lau, Andy Jones, and Tim Pauketat. I am fortunate to work among such superb scholars and excellent colleagues. I am especially indebted to Jane Buikstra, who first introduced me to ancestors.
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(1.) Freedman’s ethnographic work was conducted on materials from the provinces of Fujian (Fukien) and Guangdong (Kwangtung). Members of the lineages that he described identified themselves as descendants of the Tang Dynasty rather than as Han Chinese. In Guangdong, Tang is associated with Yue ethnicity and use of Cantonese.
Southeastern China experienced an influx of Han in the eighth and ninth centuries AD following the collapse of the Han dynasty and centuries of political unrest. The ongoing process of “sinicization” in the region has led to the integration of local ethnic traditions with those of the Han majority. In this chapter, we use “Chinese” in a very general sense to refer to the people in a number of different ethnic groups living in China, Taiwan, and Hong Kong.