The Paliyan, a peaceful society of southern India, sometimes practice pedogamy—marriage between adults and children. A recent journal article by Peter M. Gardner analyzing the practice, based on his field notes from the early 1960s and late 1970s, is freely available in PDF format on the Internet.

Gardner begins by briefly reviewing Paliyan culture, at least as it existed while he was studying them. He points out that, while they have gender biases in some economic tasks, they are not enforced. Both sexes will collect wild foods, fish, hunt for small game, and live alone if they wish. Individuals, and even whole families, can subsist on the collecting and hunting efforts of a single adult.

The basic organizational principle of their lives is that individuals must make their own decisions about what they will do. The Paliyan will not do something because they feel they must, and only at times will they do things because they are customary. Usually they will act based on their own perceptions of what is appropriate at the moment.

A third of all Paliyans who live in the forests form households that include more than nuclear families. Such families might include aged grandparents, young married couples, or younger siblings. Except in cases where an adult is clearly helpless, such as a very elderly person, extra individuals in a household will coordinate their work and play efforts with the rest of the family, but normally they will try to be self-reliant.

Except for toddlers, even young children are expected to make their own decisions. No one acts as head of a household. Spouses have no authority over one another, and adults have virtually none over their children, except when they are very young. “No one ‘owns’ anyone else or has a right to define that person’s behavior,” Gardner writes (p.49).

The heart of the article is a description of Paliyan marriages. While first time marital unions are often celebrated by exchanging betel leaves, all public liaisons are considered to be legitimate marriages. The Paliyan make a clear distinction between publicly-known liaisons—marriages—and furtive affairs that are kept quite private. While some unions are life-long, many are fragile and serial in nature. Whenever conflicts break out, marriages quickly dissolve and the partners separate. Sometimes the unions are resumed after a few days or after a conciliator intervenes.

Plural unions are common among the Paliyan, particularly polygyny. Gardner also writes about instances of polyandry and linear group marriages. One man adopted a young girl and later married her. Some years after that, she brought a man eight years younger than herself into their home, and, though the older man was not happy, he tolerated the situation because he didn’t want to lose her. The woman cooked for the three of them at times and the younger man brought in food for all three. The situation seemed to be stable and to work.

The author describes another family situation where two couples lived side by side, the women and men sleeping with the others’ spouses, the women bearing children by both men. While the men did not cooperate in economic activities, their relationships were all peaceful.

The basic point is that the Paliyan accept these social arrangements, so long as no one is directly offended and the individual rights of all the affected parties have been respected. These kinds of plural unions require diplomacy and conciliatory skills to maintain.

A common feature of many of the pedogamous arrangements was that the young people were raised by much older adults, who then married them when they matured. The young partners remained in the marriages, though they frequently enjoyed liaisons with people more their own ages. The older people may have resented these new arrangements, but they tolerated them in order to retain their marriages with their younger spouses.

Gardner’s sampling of forest Paliyans showed that 18 out of 153 marriages were pedogamous in nature. Of those 18, 13 involved girls and 5, boys. People sometimes raised girls or boys, usually orphans, with the clear intention of someday marrying them. Most of the children were adopted between the ages of five and ten. They normally made gradual transitions from son or daughter into husband or wife. Pedogamous unions also occurred when adults married the children of former spouses.

Gardner compares these pedogamous relationships with the Nabokov novels, but a comparison to Woody Allen’s marriage to Mia Farrow’s adopted daughter might also be appropriate. Morally repulsive to many Westerners, these kinds of relationships appear to be accepted by the Paliyan, as long as the individuals themselves also accept them.

For Paliyan adults, pedogamous marriages were viewed as an appropriate way of building harmonious unions with malleable partners. Gardner’s study shows that the unions lasted longer than many others, and his investigation supports the judgment of the partners themselves—that the unusual nature of their relationships may have had advantages over more normal marriages.

Gardner dismisses any notion that pedogamy among the Paliyan was a way of insuring old age economic security. The Paliyan would never plan to be dependent on anyone else. Instead, he argues, they have pedogamous relationships because they highly value order and stability, which pedogamy seems, to them, to support.

These Paliyan marriages were never forced. The younger partners, even if they had been orphans, had the full authority to deny that a relationship would become sexual. They were entitled to the same full respect as anyone else. Since social relationships were public anyway, abuse or coercion could not be hidden and was absolutely forbidden.

Gardner devotes the second half of his article to reviewing pedogamous relationships in the anthropological literature on nine other societies in order to develop some comparisons and cross-cultural reasons for such marriages.

Gardner, Peter M. 2009. “Quasi-Incestuous Paliyan Marriage in Comparative Perspective.” The Open Anthropology Journal 2: p.48-57