Matrilineality is a system in which descent is traced through the mother and maternal ancestors. Matrilineality is also a societal system in which one belongs to one's matriline or mother's lineage, which can involve the inheritance of property and/or titles.

A matriline is a line of descent from a female ancestor to a descendant (of either sex) in which the individuals in all intervening generations are mothers – a mother line. In a matrilineal descent system an individual is considered to belong to the same descent group as her or his mother. This matrilineal descent pattern is in contrast to the more common modern pattern of patrilineal descent from which a Family name is usually derived.

The matriline of historical nobility was also called her or his enatic or uterine ancestry, corresponding to the patrilineal agnatic ancestry treated in depth in the article Patrilineality.

In some ancient cultures, membership in their groups was (and still is if in bold) inherited matrilineally. Example cultures or societies include the Cherokee, Gitksan, Haida, Hopi, Iroquois, Lenape, and Navajo of North America; the Minangkabau people of West Sumatra, Indonesia; the Nairs and the Bunts of Kerala and Karnataka in south India; the Khasi, Jaintia and Garo of Meghalaya in northeast India; the Mosuo of China; the Basques of Spain and France; the Akan including the Ashanti of west Africa; and the Tuaregs of west and north Africa. Some of these examples are discussed in this article, see Contents below.


Matrilineal surname

Matrilineal surnames or mother-line surnames are inherited or handed down from mother to daughter (to daughter) in matrilineal cultures, similar to the more familiar patrilineal surnames which are inherited or handed down from father to son (to son) in patrilineal cultures (or societies). See Family name for an in-depth treatment of patrilineal (father-line) family names or surnames. The terms family name or surname are used here interchangeably. For clarity and for brevity, the scientific terms patrilineal surname and matrilineal surname will usually be abbreviated as patriname and matriname.[1][2]

The test of whether a particular surname is a matriname is to determine whether it is actually being handed down from mother to daughter (to daughter) in a matriline.[1]

The usual lack of matrinames to hand down in patrilineal cultures, see the whole Family name article, makes traditional genealogy more difficult in the mother-line case than in the normal (father-line) case.[1] After all, father-line surnames originated partly "to identify individuals clearly" and/or were adopted partly "for administrative reasons," see Family name (History); and these patrinames help now in searching for facts and documentation from centuries ago.

Genetic genealogy

The fact that mitochondrial DNA (mtDNA) is inherited maternally enables the matrilineal lines (or lineages) of individuals to be traced scientifically through genetic analysis, see main article, above.

Mitochondrial Eve (mt-mrca) is the name given by researchers to the woman who, by matrilineal reckoning, is the most recent common ancestor (mrca) for all living humans. She is the person from whom all mtDNA in living humans is derived.

She is believed by some to have lived about 150,000 years ago in East Africa, in or near present-day Tanzania. The time she lived is calculated scientifically, based on the molecular clock technique of correlating elapsed time with observed genetic drift, see Mitochondrial Eve.

Genetic genealogy builds upon (and helps) traditional genealogy – the latter was touched upon in the above section Matrilineal surname. For further information on genetic genealogy, or tracing of matrilineal lines via mtDNA testing, see the article Genealogical DNA test.

In mythology

While Indo-European peoples mainly were patriarchal and patrilineal, certain ancient myths have been argued to expose ancient traces of matrilineal customs that existed before historical records.

The ancient historian Herodotus is cited by Robert Graves in his translations of Greek myths as attesting that the Lycians[3][4] of their times "still reckoned" by matrilineal descent, or were matrilineal, as were the Carians.[5]

In Greek mythology, while the royal function was a male privilege, power devolution often came through women, and the future king inherited power through marrying the queen heiress. This is illustrated in the Homeric myths where all the noblest men in Greece vie for the hand of Helen (and the throne of Sparta), as well as the Oedipian cycle where Oedipus weds the widow of the late king at the same time he assumes the Theban kingship.

This trend also is evident in many Celtic myths, such as the (Welsh) mabinogi stories of Culhwch and Olwen, or the (Irish) Ulster Cycle, most notably the key facts to the Cúchulainn cycle that Cúchulainn gets his final secret training with a warrior woman, Scáthach, and becomes lover both to her and her daughter; and the root of the Táin Bó Cuailnge, that while Ailill may wear the crown of Connacht, it is his wife Medb who is the real power, and she needs to affirm her equality to her husband by owning chattels as great as he does.

A number of other Breton stories also illustrate the motif. Even the King Arthur legends have been interpreted in this light by some. For example the Round Table, both as a piece of furniture and as concerns the majority of knights belonging to it, was a gift to Arthur from Guinevere's father Leodegrance.

Arguments also have been made that matrilineality lay behind various fairy tale plots which may contain the vestiges of folk traditions not recorded.

For instance, the widespread motif of a father who wishes to marry his own daughter—appearing in such tales as Allerleirauh, Donkeyskin, The King who Wished to Marry His Daughter, and The She-Bear -- has been explained as his wish to prolong his reign, which he would lose after his wife's death to his son-in-law.[6] More mildly, the hostility of kings to their daughter's suitors is explained by hostility to their successors. In such tales as The Three May Peaches, Jesper Who Herded the Hares, or The Griffin, kings set dangerous tasks in an attempt to prevent the marriage.[7]

Fairy tales with hostility between the mother-in-law and the heroine—such as Mary's Child, The Six Swans, and Perrault's Sleeping Beauty -- have been held to reflect a transition between a matrilineal society, where a man's loyalty was to his mother, and a patrilineal one, where his wife could claim it, although this interpretation is predicated on such a transition being a normal development in societies.[8]

Early human kinship

In the late nineteenth century, almost all prehistorians and anthropologists believed, following Lewis H. Morgan's influential book Ancient Society, that early human kinship was everywhere matrilineal.[9] This idea was taken up by Friedrich Engels in his book The Origin of the Family, Private Property and the State. The Morgan-Engels thesis that humanity's earliest domestic institution was not the family but the matrilineal clan soon became incorporated into communist orthodoxy. In reaction, most twentieth century social anthropologists considered the theory of matrilineal priority untenable[10][11], although feminist scholars often attempted to revive it.

Evolutionary biologists, geneticists and palaeoanthropologists are currently reassessing the issues. [12] [13] [14]

Various cultural patterns

There appears to be some evidence for the presence of matrilineality in pre-Islamic Arabia, in a very limited number of the Arabian peoples (first of all among the Amirites of Yemen, and among some strata of Nabateans in Northern Arabia);[15] on the other hand, there does not seem to be any reliable evidence for the presence of matrilineality in Islamic Arabia, although the Fatimid Caliphate claimed succession from the Islamic Prophet Mohammad via his daughter Fatima.

A modern example from South Africa is the order of succession to the position of the Rain Queen in a culture of matrilineal primogeniture: Not only is dynastic descent reckoned through the female line, but only females are eligible to inherit.

Clan names vs. surnames

In general, a matrilineal clan, including the clans in most of the example cultures in this article, might possibly contain from one to several or many descent groups – i.e., the clan might be descended from one or several or many unrelated female ancestors.

If the clan contains only one descent group, then the clan is a family group and the matrilineal clan name, if used in a person's name, would be a matrilineal surname (or matriname). (But note that in the clan-based Minangkabau example culture below, a person has no surname, only a given name.)

If the clan contains more than one descent group, however, then the clan is not a family group; thus its clan name could not be a family name and therefore is not a matrilineal surname or matriname. Still, an individual or an individual matriline in such a clan within a culture that used surnames might invent and use their own matriname, in addition to their clan name.

Care of children

While a mother normally takes care of her own children in all cultures, in some matrilineal cultures a father will take care of his nieces and nephews instead. In a strictly matrilineal system, especially where residence is also matrilocal, a man will exercise guardianship rights not over the children he fathers but exclusively over his sisters' children, who are viewed as 'his own flesh'. These children's biological father – unlike an uncle who is their mother's brother and thus their caregiver – is in some sense a 'stranger' to them, even when affectionate and emotionally close.[16] This may be true for the traditional Akan culture below, for example.


Occupied for 10,000 years by Native Americans, the land that would become New Jersey was overseen by clans of the Lenape or Lenni Lenape or Delaware, who farmed, fished, and hunted upon it. The pattern of their culture was that of a matrilineal agricultural and mobile hunting society that was sustained with fixed, but not permanent, settlements in their clan territories.

Villages were established and relocated as the clans farmed new sections of the land when soil fertility lessened and when they moved among their fishing and hunting grounds by seasons. The area was claimed as a part of the Dutch New Netherland province dating from 1614, where active trading in furs took advantage of the natural pass west, but the Lenape prevented permanent settlement beyond what is now Jersey City.

"Early Europeans who first wrote about these Indians found matrilineal social organization to be unfamiliar and perplexing. ... As a result, the early records are full of 'clues' about early Lenape society, but were usually written by observers who did not fully understand what they were seeing."[17]


In the Minangkabau matrilineal clan culture in Indonesia, a person's clan name is important in their marriage and their other cultural-related events.[18][19][20] Two totally unrelated people who share the same clan name can never be married because they are considered to be from the same clan mother (unless they come from distant villages). Likewise, when Minangs meet total strangers who share the same clan name, anywhere in Indonesia, they could theoretically expect to feel that they are distant relatives.[21] Minang people do not have a family name or surname; neither is one's important clan name included in one's name; instead one's name is only one's given name.[22]

The Minangs are one of the world's largest matrilineal societies/cultures/ethnic groups, with a population of 4 million in their home province West Sumatra in Indonesia and about 4 million elsewhere, mostly in Indonesia. The Minang people are well-known within their country for their tradition of matrilineality and for their "dedication to Islam" — despite Islam being "supposedly patrilineal".[18] This well-known accommodation, between their traditional complex of customs, called adat, and their religion, was actually worked out to help end the Minangkabau 1821-37 Padri War.[18] This source is available online.[18]

As further described in the same online source, their (matrilineal) adat and their Islam religion each help the other to avoid the extremes of some modern global trends: Their strong belief in and practice of adat helps their Islam religion to not adopt a "simplistic anti-Western" version of Islam, while their strong belief in and practice of both Islam and adat helps the Minangs to limit or avoid some undesired effects of modern global capitalism.[18] (A version of this paragraph can also be found in a different context, in the Minangkabau article's Adat and religion section.)

A 2009 update on Minangkabau culture is available online.[20] In brief, the traditional matrilineal customs have started to erode or to change. The traditional merantau is changing to include teenage women, in addition to teenage men, leaving their hometown for a few years of school and/or work before returning to start a family; nowadays fewer young adults return except for an annual visit. Now the traditional clan bighouse often falls into disuse as its families feel freer to live in their own smaller modern house built next door. This erosion is due partly to the high upkeep on the old houses and partly to the desire for a modern lifestyle. To assure the continuation of the famous bighouse curved roof, the "government" has mandated that public buildings, such as banks and filling stations, must have a "Minangkabau roof".[20] (A version of this paragraph can also be found in a different context, in the Minangkabau article's A 2009 update subsection.)


Several communities in South India practiced matrilineality, especially the Nair in the state of Kerala and the Bunts in the states of Kerala and Karnataka. The system of inheritance was known as Marumakkathayam in the Nair community or Aliya Kattu in the Bunt community, and both communities were subdivided into clans. This system was exceptional in the sense that it was one of the few traditional systems in western historical records of India that gave women some liberty and the right to property.

In the matrilineal system, the family lived together in a tharavadu which was composed of a mother, her brothers and younger sisters, and her children. The oldest male member was known as the karanavar and was the head of the household, managing the family estate. Lineage was traced through the mother, and the children belonged to the mother's family. All family property was jointly owned. In the event of a partition, the shares of the children were clubbed with that of the mother. The karanavar's property was inherited by his sisters' sons rather than his own sons. For further information see the articles Nair and Bunts.

The Marumakkathayam system is not very common in Kerala and Karnataka these days for many reasons. Society has become much more cosmopolitan and modern. Men seek jobs away from their hometown and take their wives and children along with them. In this scenario, a joint-family system is no longer viable. But conceivably, there might still be a few tharavads that pay homage to this system.


Some 20 million Akan live in Africa, particularly in Ghana and Côte d'Ivoire. (See as well their subgroup, the Ashanti, also called Asante.) Many but not all of the Akan still (2001)[23] practice their traditional matrilineal customs, living in their traditional extended family households, as follows. The traditional Akan economic, political and social organization is based on matrilineal lineages, which are the basis of inheritance and succession. A lineage is defined as all those related by matrilineal descent from a particular ancestress. Several lineages are grouped into a political unit headed by a chief and a council of elders, each of whom is the elected head of a lineage — which itself may include multiple extended-family households. Public offices are thus vested in the lineage, as are land tenure and other lineage property. In other words, lineage property is inherited only by matrilineal kin.[23][24]

Each lineage controls the lineage land farmed by its members, functions together in the veneration of its ancestors, supervises marriages of its members, and settles internal disputes among its members.[25]

The political units above are likewise grouped into eight larger groups called abusua (similar to clans): Aduana, Agona, Asakyiri, Asenie, Asona, Bretuo, Ekuona and Oyoko. The members of each abusua are united by their belief that they are all descended from the same ancient ancestress. Marriage between members of the same abusua is forbidden. One inherits or is a lifelong member of the lineage, the political unit, and the abusua of one's mother, regardless of one's gender and/or marriage. Note that members and their spouses thus belong to different abusuas, mother and children living and working in one household and their husband/father living and working in a different household.[23][24]

According to this source[26] of further information about the Akan, "A man is strongly related to his mother's brother (wɔfa) but only weakly related to his father's brother. This must be viewed in the context of a polygamous society in which the mother/child bond is likely to be much stronger than the father/child bond. As a result, in inheritance, a man's nephew (sister's son) will have priority over his own son. Uncle-nephew relationships therefore assume a dominant position."[26]

"The principles governing inheritance stress sex, generation and age — that is to say, men come before women and seniors before juniors." When a woman’s brothers are available, a consideration of generational seniority stipulates that the line of brothers be exhausted before the right to inherit lineage property passes down to the next senior genealogical generation of sisters' sons. Finally, "it is when all possible male heirs have been exhausted that the females" may inherit.[26]

Certain other aspects of the Akan culture are determined patrilineally rather than matrilineally. There are 12 patrilineal Ntoro (which means spirit) groups, and everyone belongs to their father's Ntoro group but not to his (matrilineal) family lineage and abusua. Each Ntoro group has its own surnames,[27] taboos, ritual purifications, and etiquette.[24]

A recent (2001) book[23] provides this update on the Akan: Some families are changing from the above abusua structure to the nuclear family.[28] Housing, childcare, education, daily work, and elder care etc. are then handled by that individual family rather than by the abusua or clan, especially in the city.[29] The above taboo on marriage within one's abusua is sometimes ignored, but "clan membership" is still important,[30] with many people still living in the abusua framework presented above.[23]


Originally, Chinese surnames were derived matrilineally, although by the time of the Shang Dynasty (1600 to 1046 BCE) they had become patrilineal.[31] The Chinese character for "surname" (姓) still contains a female radical, suggesting its matrilineal etymology.

Archaeological data supports the theory that during the Neolithic period, Chinese matrilineal clans evolved into the usual patrilineal families by passing through a transitional patrilineal clan phase. Evidence includes elaborate and highly adorned burials for young women in early Neolithic Yangshao culture cemeteries, but increasing elaboration of male burials toward the late Neolithic period. [1]

Relatively isolated ethnic minorities such as the Mosuo (Na) in southwestern China are highly matrilineal, and use matrilineal household/family names (see the General practice section of the Mosuo article).


The Tuareg (Arabic:طوارق, sometimes spelled Touareg in French, or Twareg in English) are a Berber ethnic group found across several nations in north Africa, including Niger, Mali and Algeria. The Tuareg are clan-based,[32] and are (still, in 2007) "largely matrilineal".[32][33][34]

Tuareg women enjoy high status within their society, compared with their Arab counterparts and with other Berber tribes: Tuareg social status is transmitted through women, with residence often matrilocal.[33] Most women could read and write, while most men were illiterate, concerning themselves mainly with herding livestock and other male activities.[33] The livestock and other movable property were owned by the women, whereas personal property is owned and inherited regardless of gender.[33] Remarkably, men wear veils but women do not.[32][34] This custom is discussed in more detail in the Tuareg article's clothing section, which mentions it may be the protection needed against the blowing sand while traversing the Sahara desert.[35]

The Tuareg are Islamic, in their own fashion.[32][34]


Matrilineality in Judaism is the view that people born of a Jewish mother are themselves Jewish.[36] The conferring of Jewish status through matrilineality is not stated explicitly in the Torah, though Jewish oral tradition maintains this was always the rule, and adduces indirect textual evidence. In biblical times, many Israelites married foreign women, and their children appear to have been accepted as Israelite without question; the Talmud understands that the women in question converted to Judaism. (See the above-mentioned main article for more information. This section, Judaism, is simply a shortened version of that main article.)

In the Hellenistic period, some evidence indicates that the offspring of intermarriages between Jewish men and non-Jewish women were considered Jewish;[37] as is usual in prerabbinic texts, there is no mention of conversion on the part of the Gentile spouse. On the other hand, Philo of Alexandria calls the child of a Jew and a non-Jew a nothos (bastard), regardless of whether the non-Jewish parent is the father or the mother.[38]

The Mishnah (Kiddushin 3:12) states that, to be a Jew, one must be either the child of a Jewish mother or a convert to Judaism. The Talmud (Kiddushin 68b) derives this law from the Torah. The relevant Torah passage (Deut. 7:3-4) reads: "Thy daughter thou shalt not give to his son, nor shalt thou take his daughter to thy son. For they will turn away thy son from following me, that they may serve other gods."

With the emergence of Jewish denominations and the modern rise in Jewish intermarriage in the 20th century, questions about the law of matrilineal descent have assumed greater importance to the Jewish community at large. The heterogeneous Jewish community is divided on the issue of "Who is a Jew?" via descent; matrilineal descent still is the rule within Orthodox Judaism, which also holds that anyone with a Jewish mother has an irrevocable Jewish status, and matrilineal descent is the norm in the Conservative movement. Since 1983, Reform Judaism in the United States of America officially adopted a bilineal policy: one is a Jew if either of one's parents is Jewish, provided that either (a) one is raised as a Jew, by Reform standards, or (b) one engages in an appropriate act of public identification, formalizing a practice that had been common in Reform synagogues for at least a generation. Karaite Judaism, which includes only the Tanakh in its canon, interprets the Torah to indicate that Jewishness passes exclusively through the father's line. See the above-mentioned main article Matrilineality in Judaism for more-complete context and sources.

See also


  1. ^ a b c Sykes, Bryan (2001). The Seven Daughters of Eve. W.W. Norton. ISBN 0393020185; pp. 291-2. Bryan Sykes uses "matriname" and states that women adding their own matriname to men's patriname (or "surname" as Sykes calls it) would really help in future genealogy work and historical-record searches. Professor Sykes also states on p. 292 that a woman's matriname will be handed down with her mtDNA.
  2. ^ Both of the words matriname and patriname also are used in scientific literature many years before Professor Sykes' 2001 book.
  3. ^ Herodotus, before 425 BCE., "History of Herodotus". Graves's notation is "i.173" meaning in Book 1 – Scroll down to paragraph 173 to find the (matrilineal) Lycians.
  4. ^ Graves, Robert (1955, 1960). The Greek Myths, Vol. 1. Penguin Books. ISBN 014020508X; p. 296 (myth #88, comment #2).
  5. ^ Graves 1955,1960; p. 256 (myth #75, comment #5).
  6. ^ Schlauch, Margaret (1969). Chaucer's Constance and Accused Queens. New York: Gordian Press. ISBN 0877520976; p. 43.
  7. ^ Schlauch 1969, p. 45.
  8. ^ Schlauch 1969, p. 34.
  9. ^ Murdock, G. P. 1949. Social Structure. London and New York: Macmillan, p. 185.
  10. ^ Malinowski, B. 1956. Marriage: Past and Present. A debate between Robert Briffault and Bronislaw Malinowski, ed. M. F. Ashley Montagu. Boston: Porter Sargent.
  11. ^ Harris, M. 1969. The Rise of Anthropological Theory. London: Routledge, p. 305.
  12. ^ Hrdy, S. B. 2009. Mothers and others. The evolutionary origins of mutual understanding. London and Cambridge, MA: Belknap Press of Harvard University Press.
  13. ^ Knight, C. 2008. Early human kinship was matrilineal. In N. J. Allen, H. Callan, R. Dunbar and W. James (eds.), Early Human Kinship. Oxford: Blackwell, pp. 61-82.
  14. ^ Opie, K. and C. Power, 2009. Grandmothering and Female Coalitions. A basis for matrilineal priority? In N. J. Allen, H. Callan, R. Dunbar and W. James (eds.), Early Human Kinship. Oxford: Blackwell, pp. 168-186.
  15. ^ Korotayev,  A. V. (1995), "Were There Any Truly Matrilineal Lineages in the Arabian Peninsula?" Proceedings of the Seminar for Arabian Studies 25 (1995); pp. 83-98.
  16. ^ Schneider, D. M. 1961. The distinctive features of matrilineal descent groups. Introduction. In Schneider, D. M. and K. Gough (eds) Matrilineal Kinship. Berkeley: University of California Press, pp. 1-29.
  17. ^ This quote is from Lenni-Lenape's Society section.
  18. ^ a b c d e Sanday, Peggy Reeves (Dec2002)., "Report from Indonesia". Archived by WebCite® at on 23May11.
  19. ^ Sanday, Peggy Reeves (2004). Women at the Center: Life in a Modern Matriarchy. Cornell University Press. ISBN 0801489067. Parts of this book are available online at .
  20. ^ a b c Fitzsimmons, Caitlin (21Oct09)., "A matrilineal, Islamic society in Sumatra". Archived by WebCite at on 23May11.
  21. ^ Sanday 2004, p.67
  22. ^ Sanday 2004, p.241
  23. ^ a b c d e de Witte, Marleen (2001). Long live the dead!: changing funeral celebrations in Asante, Ghana. Published by Het Spinhuis. ISBN 9052600031. All de Witte (2001) pages referenced below, and many more pages, are available online via Google Books at .
  24. ^ a b c Busia, Kofi Abrefa (1970). Encyclopaedia Brittanica, 1970. William Benton, publisher, The University of Chicago. ISBN 0852291353, Vol. 1, p. 477. (This Akan article was written by Kofi Abrefa Busia, formerly professor of Sociology and Culture of Africa at the University of Leiden, Netherlands.)
  25. ^ Owusu-Ansah, David (November 1994)., "Ghana: The Akan Group". This source, "Ghana", is one of the Country Studies available from the US Library of Congress. Archived by WebCite® at on 31Aug11.
  26. ^ a b c (before 2010)., "Ashanti Home Page: The Ashanti Family unit" Archived at WebCite on 28 March 2011.
  27. ^ de Witte (2001), p. 55 shows such surnames in a family tree, which provides a useful example of names.
  28. ^ de Witte (2001), p. 53.
  29. ^ de Witte (2001), p. 73.
  30. ^ de Witte (2001), p. 53.
  31. ^ (2004)., "Naming practices". A PDF file with a section on Chinese naming practices. Archived at WebCite on 1Apr11.
  32. ^ a b c d Haven, Cynthia (23 May 07)., "New exhibition highlights the 'artful' Tuareg of the Sahara," Stanford University. Archived at WebCite on 1Apr11.
  33. ^ a b c d Spain, Daphne (1992). Gendered Spaces. University of North Carolina Press. ISBN 0807820121; p. 57.
  34. ^ a b c Murphy, Robert F. (April 1966). Untitled review of a 1963 major ethnographic study of the Tuareg. American Anthropologist, New Series, 68 (1966), No. 2, 554-556. (The main part of this review is available online at, a JSTOR-archive Permalink.)
  35. ^ Bradshaw Foundation (2007 or later)., "The Tuareg of the Sahara". Archived by WebCite® at on 15Jun2011.
  36. ^ Apple, Raymond (Rabbi Dr.) (2009)., "Matrilineality is still best for Jewish Identity". Archived at WebCite on 2Apr11. See this article for the origins of the matrilineality principle in Judaism.
  37. ^ Flavius Josephus, Antiquities of the Jews 16.225, 18.109, 18.139, 18.141, 14.8-10, 14.121, 14.403, or, according to one of his statements, "half-Jewish"
  38. ^ On the Life of Moses 2.36.193, On the Virtues 40.224, On the Life of Moses 1.27.147


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