views updated


Matrilineality refers to the organization of family relationships in societies according to lines of descent from female ancestors. The term derives from the Latin Mater or mother and linea meaning "thread." Matrilineality is one kind of unilineal family organization in which family members belong to the mother's lineage; another term for matrilineal descent is uterine kinship. The other kind of unilineal group is patrilineality in which family relationship is determined according to one's descent from the father's lineage. Amilateral or bilateral kinship systems are those in which both matrilineal and patrilineal lines of descent are relevant to determining family relations, social identity, and the inheritance of property and other privilege.

Different cultures have different principles by which membership in a family or clan is determined. This includes inheritance laws and whether married children will live with the mother's or the father's family. Such organizing principles also usually prohibit incest, or intermarriage between members of the same group. Unilineal systems such as matrilineality resolve these issues around a principle of descent from mother to child.

When a culture defines relation and identity in terms of a female ancestor, then decisions about who is or is not a relative are made in relation to the female line. The senior male relative in a matrilineal system is most often the mother's brother. Women own the group's property; and the essential family bond is between brothers and sisters, especially because the brother's children also inherit from their aunts. In matrilineal cultures, when daughters marry, their husbands become a part of the matrilineal group and live with the wife's family. This is called matrilocal residence.

A few matrilineal cultures exist today, for example, in South India. The conditions that favor matrilineal organizations such as the ability to sustain unchallenged matrilocal residences and property do not persist as populations grow. As long as there is not competition for inheritance of property from women's husbands or as long as there is sufficient new property for expansion, there is little tension between husbands and the wives' brothers. Matrilineal organizations also persist when the matrilineal descent groups have little function other than to determine relationship. The kinds of cultures that sustained matrilineal organization were hunting and agrarian cultures that existed in areas with much space, such as some African tribes and North American Indians. Traces of matrilineal organization still exist in Jewish cultures, where family membership is traced through the female line.

Matrilineality has been misunderstood as a more primitive mode of group organization. According to the Swiss anthropologist Johann Bachofen (1815–1887), the women in ancient matriarchies were promiscuous, making paternity impossible to determine. Because mothers were the only parents whose relation to children could be certain, women were more socially important. As men gained power, sexual relations became more monogamous so as to protect paternity, which eventually resulted in law and civilization. Civilization came in the form of altering matriarchies and matrilineal systems into patrilineal patriarchies.

Although most matrilineal organizations have disappeared or have been modified to permit more marital influence, there is a traceable genetic bond between mothers and children that is unaffected by the father's genetic contribution. The DNA of cell mitochondria, which is passed to children through the mother's egg, does not combine with the father's genes and so remains uncombined and identifiable through many generations.

see also Judaism.


Fox, Robin. 1983. Kinship and Marriage: An Anthropological Perspective. Cambridge, UK: Cambridge University Press. (Orig. pub. 1967.)

Lévi-Strauss, Claude. 2000. Structural Anthropology, trans. Claire Jacobson and Brooke Grundfest Schoepf. New York: Basic.

Parkin, Robert, and Linda Stone. 2004. Kinship and Family: An Anthropological Reader. Malden, MA: Blackwell.

Stone, Linda. 2005. Kinship and Gender: An Introduction. 3rd edition. Boulder, CO: Westview Press.

                                                 Judith Roof