Weregild and the Price of People

Among the Yurok Tribe of Northern California, every male tribe member has a legal and property interest in every one of his kin.

Beginning with the practice of bride purchase:

An average bride might cost about 8 strings of dentalia. The husband then has full claim over the wife and any offspring she bears. If the wife dies before bearing at least three children, then her kinsmen must either supply a replacement wife, or provide a pro-rated refund of the bride price depending on the number of children she produced. If the husband dies first, the wife marries one of his brothers. If they don’t need any more wives, they can sell her.

If a prospective bridegroom is poor, he can choose to buy a half-marriage. In that case, he is only paying for mating rights — The wife still belongs to the father-in-law, as do any offspring. Half-married men can buy ownership of their children – 5 dentalia strings for the first child, 3 for each additional kid.

Indians wearing dentalia shells

These price schedules also apply in the case of weregild, or blood money. If a person is killed or injured, the guilty party must pay the same dentalia amounts to the plaintiff’s kinsmen.

An adult male is valued at 10 strings of dentalia. Bastards are worth 5. Prices vary depending on a person’s social status.

When every human has an absolute value, creditors can seize debtors as slaves, and parents can use their children to pay off loans. Disputes can be settled without litigation.

Reference: The California Indians: A Source Book, 1970.

Weregild stops making sense when the cost of injury exceeds the value of a life.

Here’s an article from China about an unofficial traffic rule, “Better dead than bruised.” If a driver hits someone with a car, they’re responsible for the victim’s medical care, loss of work, disability compensation, and any other associated expenses. This can add up to millions of yuan.

However, if a driver causes a death, there is a fixed death fee that varies by city. Beijing’s death fee is 353,060 yuan, or about $50,000. That was the highest in the country in 2006. As a result, there are numerous accounts of drivers who hit a pedestrian, and then back over them again and again to make sure the victim is really dead.

Here are a couple of cute red pandas to offset that depressing story:

3 thoughts on “Weregild and the Price of People

  1. this is a great story. i think sometimes, people glorify pre-industrial/pre-technological societies without realizing that the tools and structure being used by a given society conforms to the intentions and conscious level of that society, not the other way around. another thing about indigenous societies is that they show us that some of the current “problems” we see with human behavior are more or less natural social instincts that would persist even without the “ills” of modern civilization

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