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, and is thus a line of descent for one. One's matriline is one's purely female 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.

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

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 Sumatra, (Indonesia); some Ezhavas, Nairs including Royal clans, and Kurichiyas of Kerala, India; Bunts, Billavas and Mogaveeras of Karnataka, Pillai caste in Nagercoil District of Tamil Nadu; the Khasi, Jaintia and Garo of Meghalaya, India; the Nakhi of China, 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.

For clarity and for brevity, the scientific terms patrilineal surname and matrilineal surname will usually be abbreviated as patriname and matriname,[1] used interchangeably with fathername and mothername.

Matrinames have existed since before patrinames and since even before 1600 BCE, see China section below.

Note that the term "maternal surname" might be confused with "matriname" but maternal surname actually means mother's surname, which is a patriname (instead of matriname) for most cultures today[1] –– see the whole Family name article. Note also that one's mother's patriname(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 matrinames to co-exist with patrinames there, as follows:

In all cultures, the mitochondrial DNA or mtDNA is handed down (or inherited, or passed) from mother to child, and the Y chromosome or Y-DNA from father to son, whether or not any surname even exists in that society. In patrilineal cultures, the patriname is handed down from father to son with their (built-in) Y-DNA, while in matrilineal cultures such as one in China in this article, similarly the matriname is handed down from mother to daughter with their built-in mtDNA. Thus, even within a patrilineal culture, if any women who thus share the same built-in mtDNA are able to choose a surname and then hand it down to successive generations, by definition that surname would become a matrilineal surname or matriname within a patrilineal culture.

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); these patrinames 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." [2] (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 matriname as men have traditionally had (within father-line cultures) to their own patriname. And similarly, within mother-line or matrilineal cultures, men may gain the right to their own patriname. In other words, the handing down of both matrinames and patrinames 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 [mother-line and father-line] culture.)

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

Actual use of a matriname would involve, first, the women who share one's built-in mtDNA choosing their new matriname (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 the mother's matriname would be parallel to and symmetric with the normal use of the father's patriname in each new son's birth record. Note well, this is the above-mentioned "handing down of both" the matriname and the patriname.

It should be mentioned that the patriname 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 matriname would always be a single surname, never a double surname. In contrast, the birth surname, in the birth record, may be either the matriname or the patriname, or else a double surname – containing one or even both of these, the matriname and/or patriname.

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 matriname replacing that French mother's patriname. In particular, that (French name) subsection presents the concept of a "usage" surname used by family members in their daily social lives – whereas the two 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.

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

Double surname

Double surnames may combine the above matriname with a normal patriname – thus providing the desired gender symmetry. The following double surname system does combine them, as proposed[1] in a book The Seven Daughters of Eve, and proposed and discussed in a "feature" article which is available online.[3] As an example of this double surname system, let the matrinames be "Mamaname" and Momline and let the patrinames be Smith and Jones. The mother (with birth surname Mamaname-Jones, say) and the father (with birth surname Momline-Smith, say) keep their legal or birth surnames unchanged throughout their lives, with their daughters and sons receiving the gender-symmetric birth surname, Mamaname-Smith : The mother hands down the matriname part of her birth surname while, symmetrically, the father hands down the patriname part of his birth surname. In this example the order is matriname-patriname, but the reverse order patriname-matriname could equally well be used. The family in this example could choose to handle its three coexisting double surnames by using a single "usage" name in daily life, just as for single surnames above. (Note, in patrilineal cultures today the mother would normally hand down a patriname instead, giving the children the birth surname Jones-Smith in this example.)[3]

Rather than keeping their birth surnames, other parents might prefer, at marriage, to change their legal surnames to Mamaname-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 the matriname Mamaname or the patriname 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 enjoy the advantage of being simpler and briefer, these double surnames do display (and record on legal documents) both matriname and patriname, and have the advantage of being shared by all of one's children as in this example.[1] [3] [4]


The longterm consequences, of having matrinames as well as patrinames within any culture, might unfold over decades if not centuries – but some short-term consequences may be stated now. Fortunately a thoughtful and well-written article on the topic of matriname is available online which develops this topic all the way up to and including some short-term consequences, which are quoted here in order to provide the clearest possible wording here:[5]

"Names are important. They influence how we perceive our world and ourselves. Their influence runs deep within us, infusing our view of things so completely that we rarely think to notice their effect. Names represent what we consider the 'givens,' and this is precisely where the potential of a mothername lies: to make it a given that both women and men are indispensable to the story – to our story."[5]

"The history of our men is valuable and worth knowing : so is the history of our women."[5]

In summary, having matrinames added to patrinames would influence how each of us perceives our world – and ourself.

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

The ancient historian Herodotus[6] is cited by Robert Graves in his translations of Greek myths as attesting that the Lycians[7] of their times "still reckoned by matrilinear descent" as did the Carians.[8]

In his two-volume work The Greek Myths, Robert Graves notices that in Greek mythology, while the royal function was a male privilege, power devolution came through women, and the future king inherited power through marrying the queen heiress.[9]

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.[10] 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.[11]

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.[12]

Cultural patterns

In the ancient kingdom of Elam, 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)[13] ; 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.

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.

"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." [14]


Several communities in South India, especially in the state of Kerala and the region of Tulu Nadu practiced matrilineality. The system of inheritance was known as Marumakkathayam. It 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 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 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 nephews and not his sons.

The Kerala rulers also followed the 'Marumakkathayam' system, where the ruler was succeeded by his 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 no longer viable. But conceivably, there might still be a few tharavads that pay homage to this system.


Among most Akan people, such as in Ghana, the family line was traditionally matrilineal - in that it passed through the mother to her children. See also their subgroup, the Ashanti. A man was 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 was likely to be much stronger than the father/child bond. As a result, in inheritance, a man's nephew (sister's son) (wɔfase) had priority over his own son. Uncle-nephew relationships therefore assumed a dominant position.

The successor also inherited the deceased’s social and political status. Although men inherited from fellow men and women from fellow women, a woman might also inherit from a man if she was the only suitable candidate. Inheritance by women was not as complex as that of men, for rarely did men inherit from women. An elderly woman informant was asked, Is there any reason behind this? She 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 had to be inherited only by matrilineal kin; in contrast, self-acquired property could be given as a gift to anyone the deceased so wished. The Akan inheritance and succession system stipulated that property and status be transferred from the mother’s brother to sister’s son. It was, however, a more complex principle than the usual examples given in anthropological explanations. When a man’s brothers were available, a consideration of generational seniority stipulated that the line of brothers be exhausted before the right to succeed passed down to the next senior genealogical generation of sister’s sons.


Originally, Chinese surnames were derived matrilineally, although by the time of the Shang Dynasty they had become patrilineal. [1] 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. [2]

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 were traditionally matriarchal, and still (2007) are "largely matrilineal".[15][16] 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 Tuareg 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. [17]. 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[18]; 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 [19].

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, maintaining the system of patrilineality that many scholars believe was the practice of ancient Israel.


  1. 1.0 1.1 1.2 1.3 1.4 Sykes, Bryan (2001). The Seven Daughters of Eve. W.W. Norton. ISBN 0-393-02018-5, pp. 291-2 –– Bryan Sykes uses "matriname" and explains why women adding their own matriname to men's patriname (or "surname" as Sykes calls it) is "the best solution for future generations of genealogists", effectively suggesting the double surname presented in this article.
  2. "Convention on the Elimination of Discrimination Against Women", or CEDAW. This quote comes from CEDAW's Article 16 including the latter's item (g).
  3. 3.0 3.1 3.2 , a feature article by Sarah Louisa Phythian-Adams, 20Aug08. (To find this system, search for the word "proposal".)
  4. Stannard, Una (1977). Mrs Man. Germainbooks. ISBN 0-914142-02-X. pp. 84-88.
  5. 5.0 5.1 5.2 Fortunately, the source article Matriname, by Elisabeth McCumber, can be found on the web. A search for the two words together, matriname McCumber, yields a link to click on, to then receive the source article as a .pdf file. The author permitted these two quotations on 16Feb2010.
  6. Graves's notation i.173 means Book 1 – Scroll down to paragraph 173.
  7. Graves, Robert (1955, 1960). The Greek Myths, Vol. 1. Penguin Books. ISBN 0-14-020508-X; p. 296 (myth #88, comment #2).
  8. Same source; p. 256 (myth #75, comment #5).
  9. Graves, Robert (1955, 1960). The Greek Myths, Vol. 1 and Vol.2. Penguin Books or other editions.
  10. Margaret Schlauch, Chaucer's Constance and Accused Queens, New York: Gordian Press 1969 p 43
  11. Margaret Schlauch, Chaucer's Constance and Accused Queens, New York: Gordian Press 1969 p 45
  12. Margaret Schlauch, Chaucer's Constance and Accused Queens, New York: Gordian Press 1969 p 34
  13. 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.
  14. This quote is from Lenni-Lenape's Society section.
  15., A Stanford Univ. news article of 23May07.
  16. Spain, Daphne (1992). Gendered Spaces. Univ. of North Carolina Press. ISBN 0807820121, p. 57. Or, available online at : by scrolling down to p. 57.
  17. See Matrilineality is still best for Jewish identity for the origins of the matrilineality principle in Judaism
  18. 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"
  19. On the Life of Moses 2.36.193, On the Virtues 40.224, On the Life of Moses 1.27.147


See also

Template:Western kinshipcs:Matrilinearitaid:Matrilinealja:母系制pt:Matrilinearidade ru:Матрилинейность fi:Matrilineaarisuus sv:Matrilinjär härstamning zh:母系社会

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