Humans are unique among primates in our ability to maintain ties to kin whom we do not see every day. Kin provide an answer to the existential question, “who are we?” They show where we come from, whether we would choose it or not; they help us feel like we are part of something bigger. They provide us a history and a geography, they fill in the gaps. Through our kin, we can extend and compress our social networks; we know that we need not be a stranger when we arrive in a strange land. Ever since our ancestors rapidly migrated across the globe, kin have allowed us to return to who we are. When we meet with our kin, we talk about about how we are related and about those who are no longer here. We offer a meal and a place to rest, we tell our old stories and exchange our new ones, we invite them to join us on the next stage.
We often squeeze these rich relationships into a single metaphor: the family tree, the line stretching back through parents and grandparents with ourselves squarely planted at the bottom. But for the childless person, the tree metaphor places us at the end of the line.
Some flexibility and imagination is in order, then, when we contemplate the family tree of the childless. After all, humans have developed many systems for managing kin—through male lines, through female lines, through male and female simultaneously, back and forth across gender lines. For some—including English speakers, the Khoisan of southern Africa and the Eskimos of the Arctic—nearness of kin depends more rigorously on the linear tree. Parents, siblings and children are near; aunts and uncles, cousins, and nieces and nephews are further out. But many societies around the world sort relations into a pattern called crossness, with parallel and cross kin. The rules—who is close and who is far—apply differently. For the Iroquois, the father’s brothers are called father and the mother’s sisters are called mother; their children are our sisters and brothers. And the children of our brothers (whether they’d be considered brothers or male cousins to English speakers)—well, they are our sons and daughters, too.
So we do not need to focus on lineage and descent. Our kin extend laterally, through siblings and cousins, not just through a generational chain. The childless person entwines with brothers, sisters, cousins, nieces and nephews, embraced in a sinuous vine with no beginning and no end.
For more, see the following chapters from Andrew Shryock and Daniel Lord Smail, Deep History: The Architecture of Past and Present (Berkeley: University of California Press, 2011):
Andrew Shryock, Thomas R. Trautmann and Clive Gamble, "Imagining the Human in Deep Time," 21-52 (especially 39-46).
Thomas R. Trautmann, Gillian Feeley-Harnik, and John C. Mitani, "Deep Kinship," 160-188 (especially 174-176 and 186).