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This lesson explores the differences between matrilineal and patrilineal descent systems. You’ll also learn about unilineal descent and the concept of clans.

Differences in Descent

Due to the fact that my parents both came from large, tight-knit families, most of my childhood summers were spent traveling to family reunions or impromptu family get-togethers.

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One weekend we’d go to see my mom’s brother, the next weekend we’d go to see my dad’s mom. Although I don’t think it was ever done on purpose, looking back, it seems that the time we spent between my mom’s family and my dad’s family seemed pretty equal. Whether from my mom’s side or my dad’s side, they were all part of my clan!On the other hand, if I had grown up in a patrilineal or matrilineal descent system, in which my kin group would only be traced through my mom or my dad, this would probably not have been the case.Knowing that the terms ‘patrilineal’ and ‘matrilineal’ are probably pretty foreign to most of us, today’s lesson will be all about explaining them. However, before we get to defining patrilineal and matrilineal descent, we should probably explain the overarching concept of unilineal descent.

Unilineal Descent

As the name ‘unilineal’ implies, with ‘uni’ meaning ‘one’ as in ‘unicycle,’ unilineal descent is a kinship, or family system, in which descent is traced through only one gender. To sort of oversimplify it, it’s a family tree that is only tracked through the men or the women of the family but not both.Putting this in very Western terms, I’ll use my family. Most Western families are not traced unilineally. For instance, I consider my cousins from my mom’s side to be just as much a part of my family, or kin group, as my cousins from my dad’s side.

Now, we don’t have the same last name, but they’re still my family. However, if I lived under a unilineal descent system, one side or the other would be not be considered part of my kin group.With the definition of unilineal descent under our belts, let’s get to its two sub-categories, patrilineal and matrilineal descent.

Since it’s the more common of the two, we’ll start with patrilineal.

Patrilineal Descent

Patrilineal descent is a system of descent in which an individual’s kin group, or clan membership, is traced through men. Again, really oversimplifying and using some alliteration for sake of remembering, patrilineal descent traces descent through the papas!For this one, we’ll use the handy tool of a family tree showing patrilineal descent through names that begin with the same letter. In other words, the people with the names beginning with the same first letter will be part of the same kin group.

Obviously, naming kids by the same letter isn’t really how it works in the real world; we’re just going to use it to make things a bit easier to follow. With that little disclaimer, here we go.Let’s say Peter and Mary get married. After about nine months of wedded bliss, Peter and Mary have twins named Paul and Patti. Paul and Patti then grow up and get married.

Paul marries a girl named Kathy, and Patti marries a guy named John. After another year or so of bliss, both of these couples have children. Paul and his wife have three children named Percy, Patrick, and Petunia. Patti and John have three kids named Jennifer, Josie, and Jack.

Now, Paul married Kathy, but because they live in a patrilineal descent group, their kids’ descent will be traced through their dad, Paul, and their grandpa, Peter. They will not be considered part of Kathy’s clan, a set of kin who consider themselves descended from a common ancestor. Hence, we’ve given them the names Percy, Patrick, and Petunia.

On the other hand, because Patti was born into a patrilineal descent system, she is part of her dad, Peter’s, kin group. However, since she stuck around in this patrilineal system and married a guy named John, her kids’ descent will be traced through him, not her dad. Therefore, we’ve given these kids the names Jennifer, Josie and Jack, since they will all be considered part of their dad’s clan and not the clan of their maternal grandpa, Peter.In other words, where we in the West would call Peter and Patti’s kids cousins and therefore all one big family, under a patrilineal system, they would not be linked to the same descent group and would therefore not consider themselves part of the same clan.

Matrilineal Descent

Opposite of a patrilineal descent system is a matrilineal descent system, or a system of descent in which an individual’s kin membership is traced through women.

Again oversimplifying with some alliteration, it’s one in which family descent is traced through the mamas! To make this a bit more concrete, we’ll again use some first names and a family tree starting with the same characters of Peter and Mary. However, in this matrilineal system, Mary gets to be the star of the show. Here we go again.Peter and Mary get married. Again, after about a year or so, they have twins.

However, because it’s a matrilineal system this time, we’re naming the twins Matt and Martha. In other words, their descent kin group is that of their mother’s.Again, Matt and Martha grow up and get married. Matt marries Kathy, and Martha marries Tom. Because it’s a matrilineal system, Matt’s kids don’t get M names.

Instead, they are named Karl, Karly, and Kris, with Ks just like their mom, Kathy. They will be considered part of her clan, not the clan of their dad, Matt.On the other hand, because it’s a matrilineal system, Martha’s kids get to be named Maddie, Max, and Marley, just like their mom, Martha, and their grandma, Mary! In other words, their matrilineal system traces their descent through the women in their family and makes them part of their mom and their grandma’s kin group or clan.

Lesson Summary

Unilineal descent is defined as a kinship, or family system, in which descent is traced through only one gender.

Simply stated, it’s when a clan, a set of kin who considered themselves descended from a common ancestor, only trace their lineage through either their men or their women but never both.There are two main types of unilineal descent systems: patrilineal and matrilineal. A patrilineal descent system is one in which an individual’s kin group, or clan membership, is traced through men.

Making it easy to remember, patrilineal descent systems trace through the papas. This is the most common form of unilineal descent.A matrilineal descent system traces descent through the women of the clan. Again, making things simple, the matrilineal system traces descent through the mamas.

Learning Outcomes

Test your understanding of this lesson by doing the following:

  • Recite the definitions of ‘unilineal descent’ and ‘clan’
  • Provide a description of the two types of unilineal descent systems

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