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

A matriline is literally a mother line; one's matriline is one's mother and her mother and her mother and... ad infinitum, one's nearly infinite line of mothers; clearly one's matriline is also a line of descent for one. One's mitochondrial DNA (mtDNA) has descended down this same line from mother to child, whether or not any surname came down with it. One's matriline is thus one's pure female ancestry, and is also sometimes called one's uterine ancestry.

Matrilineal is simply the adjective form of the noun matriline. The corresponding adjective form, mother-line, is easier to use, with only three syllables. Mother-line and matrilineal will be used interchangeably, and similarly father-line and patrilineal.

A matriline, defined above, also may be given a restricted definition closer to Webster's as follows: 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. In a matrilineal descent system an individual is considered to belong to the same descent group as her or his mother. This matrilineal descent is in contrast to the more common modern pattern of patrilineal descent which underlies the whole Family name article, for example.

Mitochondria are cellular organelles involved in metabolism and energy production, and contain DNA (mtDNA) that is normally inherited exclusively from the mother. Thus, human offspring contain both chromosomal DNA, contained within the nucleus and inherited from both parents, and mitochondrial DNA, which is found outside the nucleus and inherited only from the mother. As mitochondria are considered "cellular power plants," one's metabolism and energy conversion are much influenced by these matrilineal genetic materials, and thereby by one's matrilineal descent.

In some cultures, membership in their groups is inherited matrilineally; examples of this cultural practice include many ancient cultures and continues in the contemporary cultures of those ancient origins such as Huron, Cherokee, Iroquois Confederacy (Haudenosaunee), Hopi, Navajo, and Gitksan of North America. In the Old World cultures it is found in Ancient Egypt, the Minangkabau people of West Sumatramarker, (Indonesiamarker); the Ezhava, Nairs, and Kurichiyas of Keralamarker, Indiamarker; Bunts, Billavas and Mogaveeras of Karnatakamarker, Pillai caste in Nagercoilmarker District of Tamil Nadumarker; the Khasi, Jaintia and Garo of Meghalayamarker, Indiamarker; the Nakhi of Chinamarker, the Basque people, the Akan, and the Tuaregs.

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 or 'father-line family names or surnames. Family name or surname are used interchangeably in this article -- and similarly father-line or patrilineal, and mother-line or matrilineal, as already stated in the introduction.

Mother-line surnames or family names have existed since before father-line surnames and since even before 1600 BCE, see China section below.

Note that the term "maternal surname" might be confused with "matrilineal surname" but maternal surname actually means mother's surname, which is a patrilineal (instead of matrilineal) surname for most cultures today -- see the whole Family name article. Note also that one's mother's surname(s) may be inherited from either or both of one's mother's parents, in some patrilineal cultures in the Family name article. Such patrilineal cultures would permit matrilineal surnames to co-exist there, as follows:

In all cultures, mtDNA is handed down (or inherited, or passed) from mother to daughter, and Y-DNA from father to son, whether or not any surname even exists in that society. In patrilineal surname cultures, the father's surname is handed down from father to son with their (built-in) Y-DNA, while in matrilineal surname cultures such as one in China in this article, similarly the mother's surname is handed down from mother to daughter with their built-in mtDNA. Thus, even within a patrilineal culture, if the women of any matriline, see the introduction above, are able to choose a surname and then hand it down (with their built-in mtDNA), by definition that surname would become a matrilineal surname within a patrilineal culture.

The usual lack of mother-line or matrilineal surnames 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. After all, father-line surnames originated partly "to identify individuals clearly" and/or were adopted partly "for administrative reasons," see Family name ; these surnames help now in searching for facts and documentation from centuries ago.

Relatively recently, in its 1979 "Convention on the Elimination of Discrimination Against Women," or CEDAW, the UN officially adopted the following provision: "States ... shall ensure, on a basis of equality of men and women: The same personal rights as husband and wife, including the right to choose a family name, a profession and an occupation." (Italics added.) These three rights are just part of the document's long list of rights which women need to have, the same as men need them. The United States has not yet ratified this UN Convention, or multilateral treaty, see CEDAW.

Thus, in non-discriminating States, women may eventually gain the same right to their own mother-line surname as men have traditionally had (within father-line cultures) to their own father-line surname. And similarly, within mother-line or matrilineal cultures, men may gain the right to their own surname. In other words, the handing down of both mother-line surnames and father-line surnames would co-exist within each culture in order to avoid discriminating against either women or men. (Note that with regard to surnames such a culture would be an ambilineal or both-lines culture.)

This surname symmetry between the two genders – this gender symmetry – will be mentioned again below.

Actual use of a mother-line surname would involve, first, the women of one's matriline choosing it (perhaps like men choosing their surnames, originally) and then, one's using it in each new daughter's birth record (or birth certificate). This use of one's mother-line surname would be parallel to and symmetric with the normal use of the father's surname in each new son's birth record. N.B., this is the above-mentioned "handing down of both" the mother-line surname from mother to daughter, and the father-line surname from father to son.

It should be mentioned that the father-line surname is always a single surname, like Smith or Jones, never a double surname like Smith-Jones or Smith Jones, see Family name – and similarly the mother-line surname would always be a single surname, never a double surname. In contrast, the birth surname, in the birth record, may be either the mother-line surname or the father-line surname, or else a double surname – containing one or even both of these mother-line and/or father-line surnames.

Note that one's birth surname is one's legal surname – unless one changes the latter, such as at marriage (see Name change).

Actual use of the two parents' coexisting surnames within a nuclear family is handled in the article French name in its subsection Changes of names — of course with this mother-line surname replacing that French mother's patrilineal surname. In particular, that (French name) subsection presents the concept of a "usage" surname used by family members in their daily social lives – whereas the coexisting legal surnames (from the two parents) must be used in legal documents and may also be used in the members' professional/vocational lives.

This "Matrilineal surname" section has focused on the single surname, for simplicity and clarity, but then covers the double surname in its own subsection, which follows.

Double surname

Double surnames may combine the above mother-line surname with a normal father-line surname – thus providing the desired gender symmetry. The following double surname system does combine them, as first proposed in a "feature" article which is available online. To illustrate this double surname system, let's say the chosen Mother-line surname is "Momline" and let's use the father-line surnames Smith and Jones. The mother (with birth surname Momline-Jones, say) and the father (with birth surname Matriname-Smith, say) keep their legal or birth surnames unchanged throughout their lives, with their daughters and sons receiving the gender-symmetric birth surname, Momline-Smith, obtained as follows: The mother hands down the mother-line part (the first part) of her birth surname while, symmetrically, the father hands down the father-line part (the last part) of his birth surname. The family in this example could choose to handle its three coexisting double surnames by using a single "usage" name in daily life, as described above. (Note, in patrilineal cultures one of the mother's patrilineal surnames would be handed down instead, giving the children the birth surname Jones-Smith in this example.)

Rather than keeping their birth surnames, other parents might prefer, at marriage, to change their legal surnames to Momline-Smith the same as their children-to-be, so that their nuclear family would all share this one legal surname. These latter parents might continue using their birth surnames as usage names, however. And one's single surname (such as Momline or Smith) is permanently available (within one's birth record), if one wishes a simpler usage name such as in a profession.

Note that while single surnames have the advantage of being simpler and briefer, these double surnames do display (and record) both mother-line and father-line surnames, and are shared by all of one's children as in this example.

Some current use of matrilineal surnames, in China and possibly India, is described later in the sections for China and India within this article.

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.

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 patrilinear, certain ancient myths have been argued to expose ancient traces of matrilineal customs that existed before historical records.

Two ancient historians, Herodotus and Strabo are cited by Robert Graves in his translations of Greek myths as attesting that the Lycians of their times "still reckoned by matrilinear descent" as did the Carians. Namely, the fact that while the royal function was a male privilege, power devolution 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 Spartamarker), 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 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. 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.

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 is predicated on such a transition being a normal development in societies.

Cultural patterns

In the ancient kingdom of Elammarker, the succession to the throne was matrilineal, and a nephew would succeed his maternal uncle to the throne. The royalty of Ancient Egyptian dynasties was carried by its women as well. There appears to be some evidence for the presence of matrilineality in pre-Islamic Arabia, but it turns out to have been present 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) ; 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 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.

Occupied for 10,000 years by Native Americans, the land that would become New Jersey was overseen by clans of the Lenni-Lenape, 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. Although the women were the leaders of the clans, the Dutch were oblivious of that and preferred to deal with "the chiefs" who had to act as liaisons between the Dutch and the clans.


Several communities in South India, especially in the state of Keralamarker and region of Tulu Nadu practice matrilineality. The system of inheritance is known as Marumakkathayam. It is exceptional in the sense that it was one of the few traditional systems in western historical records of India that gave women liberty and right to property. Under this system, women enjoyed respect, prestige, and power similar to that recorded for the women of Ancient Egypt.

In the matrilineal system, the family lives together in a tharavadu which is composed of a mother, her brothers and younger sisters, and her children. The oldest male member is known as the karanavar and is the head of the household, managing the family estate. Lineage is traced through the mother, and the children belong to the mother's family. All family property is jointly owned. In the event of a partition, the shares of the children are clubbed with that of the mother. The karanavar's property is inherited by his nephews and not his sons.

The Kerala rulers also followed the 'Marumakkathayam' system, where the throne is succeeded by the King's sister's children, rather than his own.

The Marumakkathayam system is not very common in Kerala these days for many reasons. Kerala 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 not viable. However, there still are a few tharavads that pay homage to this system. In some families(Nair/Nayar), the children carry the last name or surname of their mother instead of the father and are considered part of the mother's family, and not the father's. Tharavadu names are quite an important element of social standing.


Among most Akan of Ghanamarker, the family line is matrilineal - in that it passes through the mother to her children. 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) (wɔfase) will have priority over his own son. Uncle-nephew relationships therefore assume a dominant position.

The successor also inherits the deceased’s social and political status. Although men inherit from fellow men and women from fellow women, a woman may inherit from a man if she is the only suitable candidate. Inheritance by women is not as complex as that of men, for rarely do men inherit from women. Is there any reason behind this? An elderly woman informant asked back: “How would the man take the woman’s place among other women in the community, or how would he wear or use her clothes and other possessions?”

Lineage property has to be inherited only by a member of the matrikin; in contrast, self-acquired property can be given as a gift to anyone the deceased so wishes. The Akan inheritance and succession system stipulates that property and status are transferred from the mother’s brother to sister’s son. It is, however, a more complex principle than the usual examples given in anthropological explanations. When a man’s brothers are available, a consideration of generational seniority stipulates that the line of brothers must be exhausted before the right to succeed passes down to the next senior genealogical generation of sister’s sons.


Originally, Chinesemarker surnames were derived matrilineally, although by the time of the Shang Dynasty they had become patrilineal. 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 a patrilineal property-owning 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. [12614]

Relatively isolated ethnic minorities such as the Mosuo (Na) in southern China are highly matrilineal, and use matrilineal surnames or family names (see the Matrilineality section of the Mosuo article).


The Tuareg (Arabic:طوارق, sometimes spelled Touareg in French, or Twareg in English) are a Berber ethnic group or nation in Africa. The Tuareg are matrilineal, though not matriarchal. Tuareg is a name that was applied to them by early explorers and historians (since Leo Africanus), but they call themselves variously Kel Tamasheq, Kel Tamajaq "Speakers of Tamasheq", and Imouhar, Imuhagh, Imazaghan, or Imashaghen "the Free people".

The meaning of the word Twareg long has been discussed, since it does not seem Berber. Probably it is Twārəg, the "broken plural" of Tārgi, a Ḥassānīya Arabic word whose former meaning was "inhabitant of Targa" (the Tuareg name of the Libyan region commonly known as Fezzan; targa in Berber means "[drainage] channel"). The Tuareg people also identify themselves with the concept Tamust, "The Nation".

The Tuareg today are found mostly in West Africa, but, as were many in Northern Africa, they once were nomads throughout the Sahara. They have a little-used, but ancient script known as Tifinagh. Some evidence indicates that a climatic change in northern Africa disrupted prehistoric Berber cultures that predated the Ancient Egyptians and they relocated, becoming nomads.


Matrilineality in Judaism is the view that people born of a Jewish mother are themselves Jewish. . 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.

In the Hellenistic period, some evidence indicates that the offspring of intermarriages between Jewish men and non-Jewish women were considered Jewish; 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 .

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 heterogenous 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 Americamarker 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, maintaining the system of patrilineality that many scholars believe was the practice of ancient Israelmarker.


  1. "Convention on the Elimination of Discrimination Against Women", or CEDAW. This quote comes from CEDAW's Article 16 including the latter's item (g).
  2. , a feature article by Sarah Louisa Phythian-Adams, 20Aug08. (To find this system, search for the word "proposal".)
  3. Stannard, Una (1977). Mrs Man. Germainbooks. ISBN 0-914142-02-X. pp. 84-88.
  4. Herodotus: i. 173
  5. Strabo : xii. 8. 5
  6. Graves, Robert. The Greek Myths, 88.1
  7. Graves, R., The Greek Myths
  8. Margaret Schlauch, Chaucer's Constance and Accused Queens, New York: Gordian Press 1969 p 43
  9. Margaret Schlauch, Chaucer's Constance and Accused Queens, New York: Gordian Press 1969 p 45
  10. Margaret Schlauch, Chaucer's Constance and Accused Queens, New York: Gordian Press 1969 p 34
  11. See, e.g., Korotayev A. V. Were There Any Truly Matrilineal Lineages in the Arabian Peninsula? Proceedings of the Seminar for Arabian Studies 25 (1995): 83-98.
  12. See Matrilineality is still best for Jewish identity for the origins of the matrilineality principle in Judaism
  13. 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"
  14. 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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