7/2/13 - eight-year-old wives

In today's selection -- isolated for thousands of years deep in the western Amazon rain forests is the small tribe of the Cinta Larga. Though their technology is primitive, the Cinta Larga are masters of hunting, fishing, and trailblazing, with an extraordinary ability to see, hear and smell game. Cinta Larga men will take women to be their wives when they are eight to ten years old, and if there are none eligible, will take a wife from a man who already has three or more -- or take one from a neighboring village. And if a Cinta Larga woman is unhappy in her marriage she can dissolve it -- or stay in it and take a lover:

"Each Cinta Larga village, which had one or two large houses that each held three to five families, was almost completely autonomous from the larger tribe, and everyone had its own chief. The chief had to exhibit strong leadership qualities, such as taking the initiative in building a house or clearing a garden, but he was not their commander in the traditional sense. The Cinta Larga would not allow their village chief to tell them how to live their lives. Instead, the chief's job was to oversee the tribal ceremonies -- an important role, because the Cinta Larga did not have a written language. Their only ceremonial guides were their own memories and the stories that they had heard their parents and grandparents tell.

"Not only did the chief not command the village as a whole, he did not have power over any family within it but his own. Each man was the chief of his own family, which consisted of as many wives as he could convince to marry him and as many children as his wives could bear. A Cinta Larga man usually chose a new wife as soon as his first wife began to age. Girls were considered to be ready for marriage when they were between eight and ten years old, and they often married their mother's brother. In such small communities, a young man ready to take his first wife often found that there were no eligible girls left in his village. He was then allowed to take a wife from a man who had three or more, or, failing that, he had to look for a wife in a neighboring village. It was not unusual for villages to trade women. The women, however, usually consented to the switch.

"Like women in most early cultures, the Cinta Larga women did not have a voice in tribal or even family decisions. However, the Indian women did have a surprising amount of control over their own lives. For instance, if a Cinta Larga woman was unsatisfied in her marriage, she was free to do something about it. She could dissolve the marriage. She could marry another man. Or she could even stay with her husband and take a lover. In such circumstances, a husband would usually look the other way, unless he became the object of derision within his village.

"As important as children were to the future of a village, they were far from coddled, and they were expected to take on the role of an adult by the time they turned twelve years old. Also, although the Indians lived together in one or two large huts, they did not appear to feel any particular responsibility for anyone outside their own immediate family. Each family had its own corner of the hut and its own fire, and when a man had been out hunting and returned with game, his neighbors rarely benefited from his good fortune. The hunter ate first, then his wives, children, and other relatives -- in that order."


Candice Millard


The River of Doubt: Theordore Roosevelt's Darkest Journey


Anchor Books a division of Random House


Copyright 2005 by Candice Millard


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