The Amish are a small and exclusive ethnoreligious organization that is famous in particular for living in places like Lancaster, PA.
The Amish themselves are made of a variety of families, and depending on the location of these families, they may only have a few surnames in the whole community.
When you consider that many Amish live in the same area, almost no one is joining them from outside their communities, and their population is increasing, we have to ask the question: How do the Amish keep from inbreeding?
In this blog post, we’ll offer some answers to that question and discuss their impact on the Amish community at large.
We’ll start with a fairly straightforward answer — communicating family histories.
1. Communicating Family Histories
Knowing and communicating family histories is the first way that the Amish prevent inbreeding.
While this isn’t an exact science by any means, Amish families tend to be large, and they commonly have members who catalog the family tree.
This categorization is often extensive, including not only immediate family members but far extended family as well. It’s not uncommon for Amish individuals to have an idea of who their second or third cousins are in a community — and to refer to them as such!
This means that the Amish have a strong oral history, depending on the area. But it goes beyond oral history as well and enters into written tradition in some ways.
One of these ways is the tradition of the “family Bible.” In this tradition, a family passes a Bible through its generations and records the family tree on its blank pages at the beginning or the end.
A family Bible could pertain to a single nuclear family, and it could also be so extensive that it dates back several generations.
It may even denote owners of other family Bibles that can help supplement the family tree information of the other.
Regardless, this tradition of oral history and family heirloom forms a method of preventing inbreeding among the Amish.
2. Learning from Amish Cemeteries
The Amish tend to their dead in a way that emphasizes family.
Commonly, Amish burial plots are included in areas of community significance, such as the first field that was used after the Amish arrived in an area.
In other areas, the Amish may have burial plots on the private land that has been owned by the same family for several generations.
In still other places, including Lancaster, Amish cemeteries are found surprisingly close to new structure or road construction, as developers build new worldly assets on the land that once belonged to Amish families.
Regardless of where they are, these cemeteries serve as historical landmarks for the Amish where they can see the dates and names of those who came before them.
This allows the Amish to draw some general family correlations among the surnames in their communities, as it’s uncommon for new surnames to join different Amish groups.
As a result, cemeteries show an Amish person their direct family lineage and then the others who may have tangentially been involved as well.
The result is a general understanding of who else may be in an Amish person’s family.
With this in mind, it’s important to discuss perhaps the most common method of preventing inbreeding in the Amish.
That is to say — there is no method.
3. They Don’t
Generations of living in the same area, expanding populations, and declining rates of new families joining the community have all contributed to the inevitability of Amish inbreeding.
So when we say inbreeding, what are we talking about?
Generally, we’re looking at situations of first cousins. We’ve never heard of any Amish community where any closer familial relations are considered okay for intermarriage.
Still, even this guideline gets muddied when you consider how large these families are and how long they’ve lived in the same areas.
So while first cousins may be a guideline, it’s also possible that two first cousins are the byproduct of a previous joining of first cousins.
In that respect, the risk of inbreeding is much higher as the Amish begin families that may be considered uncomfortably close by the rest of the world.
In fact, this is one of the only areas of Amish life to have statistical significance behind it.
The rate of inbreeding-related birth defects is significantly higher among the Amish than conventional society, and it’s been getting more profound over time.
This signifies that the Amish do not have a proficient method of preventing inbreeding, and in some areas it may no longer be possible just based on their histories.
Lancaster, PA is one area where this is coming to light, though there are certainly smaller and more isolated communities of Amish who are not included in these statistics.
This then begs a question that we’re not equipped to answer: If it’s this bad in Lancaster, how much worse could it be in these more isolated communities?
Unfortunately, we don’t know — and we may never.
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