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Patrilineality refers to the organization of family relationships in societies by lines of descent from a person's male ancestors. The term derives from the Latin words pater ("father") and linea ("thread"). A patriline consists of the generations of male descendants. Both male and female offspring belong to a patriline, but only male children can continue the line. Patrilineality also is called agnatic kinship, a term derived from Roman law. Patrilineality is one version of a unilineal system of descent. The other version is based on descent from the mother: matrilineality. 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 privileges.

There are many ways in which human cultures organize the relationships among their members, but most have certain basic features and prohibitions. The mother-child relation is usually the unquestionable core, whereas the rules and features of marital relations may vary from culture to culture. Groups such as families and clans must have a way to recruit members (a principle by which individuals belong to a specific group) and determine whether their members will live with the mother's or the father's family. They usually also prohibit incest, or intermarriage between members of the same group. Groups also must have a way to define the descendants to whom family property is passed.


Unilineal systems such as patrilineality resolve these issues around a principle of descent from father to son. When a culture defines relationships and identities in terms of male ancestors, decisions about who is or is not a relative are made in relation to the male line. In patrilineal cultures, when sons marry, their wives become a part of the patrilineal group and live with the husband's family. This is called patrilocal residence.

Patrilineal family organization uses the father's line as a way to define naming practices and the inheritance of property, privileges, titles, and social position. In patrilineal family systems children and wives take the father's surname, the patronym. Family property often follows the patrilineal line of descent as well. Sons inherit property from their fathers, but daughters, who are expected to marry outside the family, often inherit nothing. If male ancestors occupy positions of power or prestige, only sons may inherit those positions. Daughters and wives benefit from the family's social status and material wealth but may not participate directly in ownership or power. In some patrilineal cultures only the oldest son can inherit; this practice is called primogeniture. In other cultures, such as the United Kingdom, the line of male heirs will inherit the throne before female members may inherit it, even though that country often has been ruled by hereditary queens.

There is no necessary relationship between patrilineal kinship systems and patriarchal forms of social organization that define the father as the central authority and operate on principles of male dominance and control. Cultures with patrilineal kinship systems are, however, often patriarchal as well. Although many cultures define kinship matrilineally, such as Jewish cultures, those cultures also may be patriarchal in their distributions of power, not allowing women to take a direct part in religious ceremonies, for example. There are no strictly matriarchal cultures.


Systems of descent in cultures have changed through time. Many Western European cultures, such as ancient Greece and Rome, were patrilineal. In medieval Europe, Salic law, which governed the Frankish tribes of the areas that are now Germany and France, codified the patrilineal succession of power in monarchies. China and Japan had patrilineal kinship systems, but many cultures, such as those in Africa, Polynesia, and the Americas, were organized around extended families or clans with variations on one system of descent or the other. Clan systems accompanied unilineal kinship systems that were most often patrilineal, but the Ashanti of Ghana, the Nayar of India, and Native American cultures such as the Crow were matrilineal. Most cultures in North America and Western Europe are currently amilateral in that they determine family relationships on the basis of descent from both mothers and fathers, though their naming and inheritance practices may be patrilineal.

In the past anthropologists thought that patrilineality represented a cultural advance from a more primitive matriarchal matrilineal kinship system. Johann Bachofen (1815–1887) posited that ancient cultures were organized matriarchally. In his view matriarchies operated promiscuously in that women had sexual relations with many men. Because of that promiscuity, paternity could not be ascertained, and so those cultures were also matrilineal. Because mothers were the only parents whose relation to children could be certain, women became more socially important. As men gained power, sexual relations became more monogamous to protect paternity; this eventually resulted in the development of law and civilization. Civilization came in the form of altering matriarchies and matrilineal systems into patrilineal patriarchies.

Bachofen's theories about cultural evolution have been replaced by more complex understandings of early societies that are based on modern archaeological findings. Modern anthropologists understand that families are highly complex organizations whose structure depends on a number of factors, such as the physical environment, the economy, and beliefs about reproduction, among other variables, and that there is no intrinsic superiority of one system over another. Bachofen's ideas did, however, influence Friedrich Engels in his analysis of the relations between families, the state, and private property that undergirded Marxist thinking.


Although patrilineal descent groups were one solution to the basic issues of social organization, research in genetics has shown that there is a specific kind of genetic relationship between fathers and sons that can be traced only through generations of males. Because all males have a Y chromosome and because that chromosome is passed only from fathers and sons, the genes on the Y chromosome are not mingled with any maternal chromosomes and thus can be traced from generation to generation as mutations or changes in male lineages occur. Y chromosomes belonging to Cohen males have been identified, as have genes indicating male descendants of Niall of Ireland and Genghis Khan. Advances in DNA technology also have made possible paternity tests that can determine with nearly absolute certainty that a specific individual is the father of a particular child. That degree of certainty has not been possible until this point in human history.

see also Matrilineality.


Fox, Robin. 1974. Kinship and Marriage: An Anthropological Perspective. Hammondsworth, UK: Penguin.

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

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

Stone, Linda. 2005. Kinship and Gender: An Introduction. Boulder, CO: Westview.

                                               Judith Roof

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