Ancestry and Kinship: Rules of Descent

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Ancestry and Kinship: Rules of Descent


Lineage. In its most basic form lineage is a multigenerational grouping of people related through bloodline or descent from a common ancestor (consanguinity). The main function of establishing lineage was enforcing the rules of consanguinity regarding inheritance and marriage. In West Africa some ethnic groups are patrilineal and others matrilineal in establishing their rules of descent.

Matrilinealism. Among most ethnic groups in ancient West Africa, lines of descent were traced through the female side of the family. In fact, before modernization and the rise of private property, matrilinealism was far more common than patrilinealism, the tracing of descent through the male side of the family. Even in patrilineal systems there were pockets of matrilineal rule. Matrilinealism was found among the Ashanti people in what is now the modern nation of Ghana, as well as in some parts of southeastern Nigeria and the old kingdom of Dahomey (in the southern part of present-day Benin). In these cultures, daughters inherited from either their father’s or mother’s side of the family.

Matrilineal Inheritance. West Africans of this period had a concept of ownership that differed from that of Asian or European cultures. In West African matrilineal cultures, a person who inherited property gained control of it, not outright ownership. The eldest daughter had the rights to all property left by her parents, and she in turn could distribute

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it among her younger siblings. A daughter of the matriarch who chose to marry outside the clan automatically lost control of whatever property she inherited. By traditional law, her inheritance could not be transferred to her husband’s family, where she automatically became subordinate to her husband’s sisters, even if they were younger. If there were no other eligible female child, a maternal uncle inherited the property on behalf of the eldest daughter. Despite her lack of standing in her husband’s family, she still retained her status within her father’s compound whenever she returned home. For example, she still had the major say as to how inherited property was used or distributed within her birth family, and she presided over meetings where such decisions were made.

Patrilinealism. In certain parts of West Africa, bloodline and inheritance were traced through the father’s side of the family. All male children were entitled to inherit from their father, and in some instances from their maternal grandfather and uncles. In a patrilineal society, such as that of the Yoruba, sons were considered essential to the family as they stood to inherit all the family land. The eldest male child enjoyed tremendous influence in the family, and he was most likely to inherit the bulk of the family property. Female offspring were excluded from property inheritance, and the eldest son was obligated to take care of his mother and unmarried sisters, while married sisters took up residency in their husband’s compounds. The Vai people of the Senegambian region, the Idoo people of western Ivory Coast, and the ethnic Igbo of southeast Nigeria were all rigidly patrilineal societies.

Unilinealism and Bilinealism. Some ethnic groups in Africa were unilineal, that is, they reckoned lineage from only one side of the family, usually the father’s, while others were bilineal, tracing descent from both the mother’s and the father’s sides. The Kanuri people (of northeastern Nigeria and southeastern Niger) are an example of a people who practiced paternal unilinealism. Any boy born under this rule of descent took the name of his father or the oldest male in the line. Children born in societies that practiced bilinealism could inherit from both sides of the family and could also choose either the name of the mother’s father or the name of the grandmother’s father on either side of the family. Among the Akan people in Ghana, men can inherit from both sides of the family, and a female member of the same family loses inheritance rights when she marries.


George Ellis, Negro Culture in West Africa: A Social Study of the Negro Group of Vai-Speaking People (New York: Neale, 1914).

Meyer Fortes, “The Structure of Unilineal Descent Groups,” American Anthropologist, 55 (January-March 1953): 17-41.

P. A. Owiredu, “The Akan System of Inheritance today and tomorrow,” African Affairs, 58 (April 1959): 161-165.

A. R. Radcliffe-Brown and Daryll Forde, eds., African Systems of Kinship and Marriage (London: Oxford University Press, 1950).

Niara Sudarkasa, “Interpreting the African Heritage in Afro-American Family Organization,” in Black Families, edited by Harriette Pipes McAdoo (Beverly Hills, Cal.: Sage, 1981), pp. 37-53.