Kinship is the sum of interpersonal relationships that are generated through matrimony and descent. In other words, it is established between parents and children. In the Caribbean Amerindian cultures, these relationships generally defined the social group, strata or class that an individual belonged to, and therefore the individual’s position in society, where he or she lived, and his or her rights or access to responsibilities, resources and goods. In small communities, it was the element around which social relations were organized. Its importance decreased in the measure that the society reached a higher level of development and complexity.

Although it is difficult to offer a complete picture of the kinship systems among the indigenous communities of the Caribbean with any certainty, experts suggest that when the Europeans arrived in the Americas there were two kinds of settlements based on kinship ties. One of them consisted of settlements in which several nuclear families with no direct blood ties lived together, each one consisting of a married couple and their children. A second kind consisted of communities made up of a single extended family. In other words, several nuclear families that shared a blood relationship or biological kinship lived together in a settlement.

In the indigenous societies of the Greater Antilles, the monogamous form of the family predominated, meaning that each man could have only one wife. The chiefs of the tribes, however, were allowed to have as many wives as they could maintain by providing food and other needs. Marriage was a means for establishing ties or alliances between the different communities or groups of communities. In general, the norm was that the married couple would settle in the village of the wife’s mother (matrilocal residence).

Married men who did not belong to the ruling class had to provide services to the wife’s family for a certain period of time. Married men of high social rank offered compensation to the wife’s family instead of serving her family. These married couples lived in the settlement of the husband’s maternal uncle (avunculocal residence). In these cases, access to the leadership was handed down from the maternal uncle, not the father. This means that a matrilineal system was used in which the role of chief passed to a brother or sister, or to the son of a sister. There are references, however, to situations in which the rank and leadership passed from father to son (patrilineal system).

There is some debate about the truth of this data, and some scholars assert that the matrilineal system could have been implemented as a response to the weakened organizational structures among the elite due to the conquest. It is also possible, however, that the mechanism for handing down power was a flexible one that could be manipulated at the convenience of the ruling class.

In the Lesser Antilles, among the Carib groups, the social structure was more egalitarian. Often, power was not inherited but was obtained through merit. Extended families were the dominant form. According to European chroniclers, many Carib wives had been kidnapped from the Greater Antilles or other islands. These women were in a position of total inferiority within the community and lived in separate houses in their husbands’ settlements.

These patterns of living and kinship are similar to those of Caribs on the continental areas, although they sometimes followed their own particular styles.

Author: Reniel Rodríguez Ramos
Published: December 16, 2011.

Related Entries

This post is also available in: Español


The Puerto Rico Endowment for the Humanities welcomes the constructive comments that the readers of the Encyclopedia of Puerto Rico want to make us. Of course, these comments are entirely the responsibility of their respective authors.