“Discovery to an old batak memorandum”accepted by roy_sianipar


S. Niessen

Toba-Batak matriliny: a deception?

In: Bijdragen tot de Taal-, Land- en Volkenkunde 139 (1983), no: 4, Leiden, 465-469

This PDF-file was downloaded from http://www.kitlv-journals.nl

Korte Mededelingen







During my fieldwork in the Toba country of North Sumatra, I learned

how to weave “Toba-style” from an old woman, Ompung Si Sihol,

boru Situmorang. She lived in an isolated village in the Harian Boho

valley situated on the west shore of Lake Toba. In the course of my

lessons I queried her on where she had obtained her weaving equipment.

She answered that she had inherited it from her mother.

When I asked her if this was regular procedure, she answered in the

affirmative. Another detail for the anthropologist’s notebook, and ari

important detail upon further consideration. It yielded a new insight

into the issue of Toba Batak matriliny which has been controversial

for almost 100 years.

The most recent noteworthy contribution to the controversy appeared






133 (1977) in the form of a Korte Mededeling by D. S. Moyer.

It was entitled ‘Matriliny Among the Toba Batak?’ and contained an

English translation of what Moyer called “one of the anthropologically


most significant aspects” of Vergouwen’s




Het Rechtsleven der Toba





(1933), which had been omitted from the English version of

Vergouwen’s book




The Social Organisation and Customary Law of the

Toba-Batak of Northern Sumatra.

The missing passages contain details about the




hula2 – boru


– wife-taker) relationship, which Vergouwen perceived as anomalous

in a patrilineal society such as the Toba-Batak, and similar to

features characteristic of matrilineal societies. The passages had been

intentionally excluded by the editors of the English version because

thêy were meant to illustrate theories about the evolutionary progress

of society from matriarchy to patriarchy, and these theories had passed

out of fashion in academie circles.

Moyer recovered the banished details because he deemed them

significant if set in the appropriate theoretical framework. He had

an old theme of the “Leidse Richting” in anthropology in mind, which

received its inception when van Wouden (1935) and J. P. B. de Josselin

de Jong (1935) demonstrated with the aid of a diagram (van Wouden

1968:91) that in a kinship system characterized by matrilateral crosscousin

marriage, matrilineal and patrilineal systems are both, theoretically,

equally possible, and it is “absolutely immaterial” to the

system which principle of genealogical grouping is chosen. Later,

P. E. de Josselin de Jong (1951) showed how both modes of reckoning

descent were utilised in Minangkabau, whose social structure rested

upon an ideal of matrilateral cross-cousin marriage. He also suggested

“that Minangkabau should not be considered as a matrilineal island

in the midst of surrounding patrilineally organized societies, but the

various Sumatran social systems may prove to be based on a doubleunilateral

organisation, which assumed a patrilineal stress in the Atjeh

and Batak territories, and a matrilineal stress in Minangkabau, while

the communities in South Sumatra show the slightest preponderance





Korte Mededelingen

of one unilateral principle and the clearest form of doublé descent”

(P. E. de Josselin de Jong 1980:91).

One can sense Moyer’s jubilation in his Korte Mededeling. Here

he had stumbled across very valuable information to support the theory

of doublé unilineality and P. E. de Josselin de Jong’s intuition about

a “Sumatran type” of social organisation, and he had salvaged it from

the fate of out-of-print Dutch books laid on dusty shelves: being

entirely overlooked by the English-speaking world. Of course it is important

that Vergouwen’s “missing passages” were rescued from such

obscurity, but I am not in agreement with the theoretical framework

in which Moyer envisioned them.

In his short but revealing article, ‘Exchange Versus Doublé Descent’

(1976), Moyer discusses how difficult it is for a strongly unilineal

descent group to incorporate a wife from another strongly unilineal

descent group simply because she never entirely loses her membership

in her descent group of birth. It is easy, on the other hand, for her

descent group of birth to “give” her in marriage because it does not

have to relinquish her altogether. In other words, upon her marriage,

possession of and responsibility for the woman becomes shared between

two descent groups in a way that is advantageous for her descent

group of birth, but difficult for her descent group of marriage. Moyer

proposed two axioms to describe this phenomenon:

1) The Paradox of Unilineality, viz.: “the more unilineal a system is

or becomes the less likely it is to remain unilineal”; and

2) “a strong unilineal principle is fundamentally antagonistic to exchange”.

Evidently, according to Moyer, the ties that a woman

maintains with her descent group of birth after her marriage express

a “matrilineal principle”. The stronger the unilineality of the group,

the more emphasis there is on these ties.

Vergouwen’s missing passages support Moyer’s theory.







— this kin term for “sister’s child” means “that which was

continually yielded or ceded”. It points to a “conscious ‘ceding’ of

the woman and her offspring by her male relatives for whom she had

always borne children to the man she married . . .”.


2) The magical support from the





(wife-giving lineage) is a

remnant of the concern formerly shown by a woman’s clan so that

their daughter would successfully perpuate the clan.






Bona ni ari

or the “Beginning of the Days”, is the wife-giving group

which bestowed an ancestress approximately 5 generations back, it is

still hailed by the wife-taking group as its progenitor.






Upa tulang

is a ritual payment for the bride’s mother’s brother on

the occasion of a wedding; this is a survival of an earlier “homage”.

In the first three points above, aspects of the tie between a woman’s

descent group of origin and her husband’s descent group are specified,


and in point four, the same one step removed, viz. between the





and the




hula2 of its


Clearly, Vergouwen failed to realize that these features, which may


resemble features of




descent in matrilineal societies, are not


in patrilineal Toba Batak society because they belong to the realm of

Korte Mededelingen









Moyer was confusing features of descent and exchange in

the same way.

At this stage it is helpful to draw attention to a short exchange

betweeri G. J. Held (1935) and C. Lévi-Strauss (1969). Held stated

that “bilineal characteristics are normal for primitive organization”.

Lévi-Strauss responded to this with a single sentence, the meaning of

which rules out Moyer’s first axiom: “If Held means then that no

human society absolutely ignorés one of the lines, this is nothing new.

If, however, he means that all human groups tracé descent through

both lines in determining marriage rules, nothing is more incorrect,

and numerous examples could be given of groups in which descent

is (with regard to marriage) either entirely patrilineal or entirely

matrilineal, and even of groups in which, where a precise rule of

descent is lacking, a strictly unilateral theory of conception is invoked”


The above quote from Lévi-Strauss is borne out by Toba Batak


ethnography as well.





or patrilineal descent groups are chauvinistic

and proud of their independence and strength. The rule of





exogamy curtails their independence, however. The marga


confronted with the paradox of being dependent on other wife-giving





in order to maintain themselves. The conflict is not, as Moyer

concludes, between descent and exchange, but between two descent

groups which are exogamous and have agreed to exchange. wives. A

matrilineal principle — if it is present — plays absolutely no role in

these relations.

Moyer’s second axiom corrèctly sums up the Toba situation, but

the first could not be farther from the truth. In fact, the ties which a

Toba woman maintains with her father’s descent group have nothing

to do with matriliny. They are an expression of the emphasis which the


Toba kinship structure places on the





descent principle.

Toba descent groups never relinquish members (except under very

extraordinary circumstances), be they male or female.

The tie between wife-givers and wife-takers, two patrilineal groups,

is therefore the source of potential conflict. The antagonism is not

between descent and exchange but between two equivalent descent

groups. In Toba, the tension is partially defused by the institution of a

complementary division of labour between the two groups, giving rise


to mutually complementary relations. The





or wife-giver provides





sahala or spiritual strength to its bom

or wife-taker. The

latter reciprocates and supplicates the former with material support.

The result is that the groups not only tolerate marital relations with

each other, but seek them out and initiate them. They recognize them


ritually — with gifts such as the




upa tulang

— and acclaim them if

they have been particularly fruitful — e.g. the




bona ni, ari.

There is

no sign of a matrilineal principle, only socio-political and religious

ties between patrigroups catalyzed by the exchange of women.

As Lévi-Strauss and Held agreed, “no human society absolutely

ignores one of the [descent] lines”. In a much earlier article, ‘De

Verbreiding van het Matriarchaat op Sumatra’. [The Distribution of





Korte Mededelingen

Matriarchy on Sumatra], Wilken contends as an evolutionist that

women were once the heads of Batak clans instead of men. The term

dongan sabutuha,




meaning “womb companions”, refers to people

belonging to the same




marga or lineage. The term dongan sada


meaning “companions from a single mothér”, refers to members of

the sub-lineages which have split of f from the original lineage (Wilken

1888:191). There is plenty of evidence to support the claim that the

Toba recognize the woman’s role in procreation or perpetuating the

patriclans, but this is not to be confused with a matrilineal principle

of social organisation. It merely draws attention to an aspect of the

woman’s position in the patrilineage.

The only real indication I have ever found of a matrilineal principle

operating in Toba society is far removed from the domains of patrilineal

descént and bridé exchange. I heard it for the first time beside

a textile loom from my old weaving teacher, Ompung Si Sihol. Weaving

equipment and weavings are passed down from mother to daughter…

in a direct matriline. When I tested her statement in other regions

of Toba it was confirmed repeatedly. I have subsequently also

found it in an indigenous book on Toba Adat (H. B. Situmorang,






“Barang2 pusaka ni ama angka anakna do marbagai alai


2 pusaka ni ina (ulos dohot bajuna) sebagian tu bom



2 pusaka ni ina (ulos dohot bajuna) sebagian tu bom

2 pusaka ni ina (ulos dohot bajuna) sebagian tu bom


[Heirloom treasures of the father are divided amongst his sons but

heirloom treasures of the mother (hand-woven textiles and clothing)

are divided amongst the daughters . . . ]

The social division of labour between the two descent principles in

Toba Batak remains to be explored — and this is my own self-assigned

task. Exchange relations are not an area of shared responsibility for

the two descent principles.


Held, G. J.














1 Comment

  1. DISCOVERY AN OLD BATAK MEMORANDUM ACCEPTED “BY ROY_SIANIPAR’ « my radical judgement by roysianipar said,

    […] read more?</strong> […]

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