AskDefine | Define matrilineal

Dictionary Definition

matrilineal adj : based on or tracing descent through the female line; "matrilineal inheritance" [syn: matrilinear]

User Contributed Dictionary



  1. Tracing descent only through female lines.
    Kerala traditionally has matrilineal inheritance.


Extensive Definition

Matrilineality is a system in which one belongs to one's mother's lineage.
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 female. In a matrilineal descent system (uterine descent), an individual is considered to belong to the same descent group as his or her mother. This is in contrast to the more currently common pattern of patrilineal descent.
The uterine ancestry of an individual is a person's pure female ancestry, i.e. a matriline leading from a female ancestor to that individual.
Mitochondrial DNA (mt-DNA) is normally inherited exclusively from one's mother - both daughters and sons inherit it all the same. As mt-DNA are sort of "cellular power plants," one's metabolism and energy conversion are much influenced by the matrilineal descent.
In some cultures, membership of a group is inherited matrilineally; examples of this include many ancient cultures such as the Egyptians and contemporary ones such as the Minangkabau culture of West Sumatra, the Ezhava, Nairs, and Kurichiyas of Kerala, India, Bunts, Billavas and Mogaveeras of Karnataka, Pillai caste in Nagercoil District of Tamil Nadu, the Khasi and Garo of Meghalaya, India, the Naxi of China, the Gitksan of British Columbia the Iroquois Confederacy (Haudenosaunee), the Hopi, and the Tuaregs.
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 order of succession to the position of the Rain Queen is a modern example in an African culture of matrilineal primogeniture: not only is dynastic descent reckoned through the female line, but only females, not males are eligible to inherit.

Genetic genealogy

The fact that mitochondrial DNA (mtDNA) is maternally inherited enables matrilineal lines of individuals to be traced through genetic analysis. Mitochondrial Eve (mt-mrca) is the name given by researchers to the woman who is the matrilineal most recent common ancestor for all living humans, from whom all mtDNA in living humans is derived. She is believed by some to have lived about 150,000 years ago in what is now Ethiopia, Kenya or Tanzania. The time she lived is calculated based on the molecular clock technique of correlating elapsed time with observed genetic drift.
All of a woman's children (both boys and girls) normally inherit their mt-DNA heritage from the mother, and it consequently comes from their mother's mother, and so on, up along the family tree in exclusive matriline. As mt-DNA are sort of "cellular power plants," one's metabolism and energy conversion are much influenced by the matrilineal descent.
Already ancient physicians had an inkling about such matrilineal heredity: Galen taught that a child's physical frame will (mostly) be provided by maternal heredity.
Attempts have been made to trace fatness and slimness along matrilines in genealogies of persons whose physical details are well-archived, such as the royally stout queen Victoria of the United Kingdom.
There has been a hypothesis that better and worse suitability to give birth would be a (maternally) hereditary physical characteristic. If so, unsuitable matrilines are highly prone to extinction, whereas suitable matrilines would prosper.

Indian Matrilineality

Several communities in South India, especially in the state of Kerala and region of Tulu Nadu practise matrilineality (notably the Nairs of Kerala and the Tulu Bunt community). The system of inheritance was known as Marumakkathayam. It is exceptional in the sense that it was one of the few traditional systems that gave women liberty, and right to property. Under this system, women enjoyed respect, prestige and power.
In the matrilinear system, the family lived together in a tharavadu which comprised 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 and managed 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 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 are still a few tharavads that pay homage to this system. In some families, the children carry the last name 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.


Biblical Times

Jewish status descending through the mother is not stated explicitly in the Torah, though Jewish oral tradition maintains this was always the rule, and adduces indirect textual evidence (see below). In biblical times, many Israelites (including kings) married foreign women, without any question of the children being anything other than Israelite. The Talmud understands that the women in question converted to Judaism.
Some modern scholars have parted with the traditional position. For example, states Professor Shaye J.D. Cohen of Brown University: Numerous Israelites heroes and kings married foreign women: for example, Judah married a Canaanite, Joseph an Egyptian, Moses a Midianite and an Ethiopian, David a Philistine, and Solomon women of every description. By her marriage with an Israelite man a foreign women joined the clan, people, and religion of her husband. It never occurred to anyone in pre-exilic times to argue that such marriages were null and void, that foreign women must "convert" to Judaism, or that the off-spring of the marriage were not Israelite if the women did not convert.
Ezra commanded his followers to divorce their foreign wives, and this has sometimes been regarded as the foundation of the present rule.

Hellenistic Times

Flavius Josephus refers to marriages between Jewish men and Gentile women without much commentary, and seems to assume that the offspring is Jewish (or, according to one of his statements, "half-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 . In the same vein, the Mishnah raises the possibility that the child of a Gentile father and a Jewish mother is a mamzer, though this is dismissed in the later stratum of the Talmud.

Talmudic Times

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."
Chazal point out that only the child born to your daughter, though fathered by a non-Jew, is called your son (i.e., the child is Jewish). A child born to your son by a non-Jewish mother would not be called your son, but rather her son (i.e., the child is not Jewish).
Furthermore, the Torah is only concerned with the non-Jewish father turning away the Jewish child from Judaism, whereas there is no concern for the non-Jewish mother turning away the child from Judaism for the simple reason that the child is not Jewish.
This rule was clearly accepted by the 2nd century CE. While Orthodox opinion regards the rule as going back to Sinai, most non-Orthodox scholars regard it as originating either at the time of Ezra or during the period of Roman rule in the 1st and 2nd centuries CE: see the historical debate, below.
In the Middle Ages, there was a minority stream of rabbinic opinion arguing in theoretical terms for a rule that, to be Jewish by descent, both one's parents must be Jewish. In practical terms, however, the matrilineal rule remained unchallenged from Talmudic times till the twentieth century.

Modern Times

With the birth of alternative branches of Judaism and the rise in intermarriage in the 20th century, questions about the law of matrilineal descent arose. Children born to Jewish fathers and non-Jewish mothers, in particular, were asking why they were not accepted as Jews. As of today, Judaism is divided on the issue of "Who is a Jew?" via descent.

Orthodox Judaism

Matrilineal descent is still the rule within Orthodox Judaism. Orthodox Judaism also holds that anyone with a Jewish mother has irrevocable Jewish status; in other words, even if someone with a Jewish mother converts to another religion, that person is still considered Jewish.

Conservative Judaism

The view of matrilineal descent as originating at the time of Yavneh is openly held by many scholars affiliated with the Conservative movement: see the views of Shaye J. D. Cohen, below.
At the same time, matrilineal descent remains the norm in Conservative halakha. In 1986, the Conservative Movement's Rabbinical Assembly reiterated the commitment of the Conservative movement to the law of matrilineal descent. Furthermore, the movement stated that any rabbi who accepts the principle of patrilineal descent will be subject to expulsion from the Rabbinical Assembly. At the same time, it affirmed that "sincere Jews by choice" should be warmly welcomed into the community and that "sensitivity should be shown to Jews who have intermarried and their families." The Conservative movement actively reaches out to intermarried families by offering them opportunities for Jewish growth and enrichment.
Polls conducted by the Conservative movement show that 68% of all regular attenders at Conservative synagogues would support changing the law to allow Jewish identity by patrilineal descent. However, there is little rabbinic support for such a change (and, if Cohen's argument is correct, such a change could not be made without also recognising the legality of mixed marriages.)

Reform Judaism

Reform Judaism in the U.S. officially adopted a bilineal policy in 1983: 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. This declaration formalized what had been Reform policy in practice for at least a generation. Clause (b) has been generally interpreted as making any form of public self-identification sufficient, though some congregations may make more formal requirements - especially if the individual in question has been raised as a Christian. In addition, the movement decided to accept people who were raised as Jews, such as adopted children, even if it was not certain that either of their parents were Jewish.
The Central Conference of American Rabbis declares that the child of one Jewish parent is under the presumption of Jewish descent. This presumption of the Jewish status of the offspring of any mixed marriage is to be established through appropriate and timely public and formal acts of identification with the Jewish faith and people. The performance of these mitzvot serves to commit those who participate in them, both parent and child, to Jewish life.
Other movements within the World Union for Progressive Judaism have adopted essentially the same position as U.S. Reform Judaism. These include: Liberal Judaism in England; Reconstructionist Judaism in the US, Canada and elsewhere; Progressive Judaism in Australia; one congregation in Austria; some congregations in Eastern Europe. Note that Reform Judaism in Canada and England adopts a different position, similar to that of Conservative Judaism (though there may be an accelerated conversion process for the children of Jewish fathers).

Reconstructionist Judaism

Reconstructionist Judaism, which values equity and inclusivity, also adopted the idea of patrilineal descent. According to Reconstructionist Judaism, children of one Jewish parent, of either gender, are considered Jewish if raised as Jews.

Other views

Many secular and non-religious Jews in America, Israel and elsewhere adopt a bilineal view similar to that detailed above. In Israel, the status quo is that the Orthodox definition is followed: the child of a Jewish father and a non-Jewish mother may immigrate to Israel (and may claim rights under the Law of Return), but will be registered in official documents as a non-Jew. The consequences are various: he/she may not be wedded inside the state to anybody considered to be officially a Jew, and he/she may not be buried in a military cemetery if he/she dies in battle.
Some groups of Jews have historically recognized only patrilineal descent, e.g. the Juhurim of the Northern Caucasus, and other Jewish groups of Central Asia. This is also the majority view in Karaite Judaism, though some require both parents to be Jewish.

The historical debate

The law of descent as currently accepted by Orthodox Judaism appears to be an exception to a generally patriarchal system of family law. For example, laws of inheritance and the descent of the monarchy follow the father. A Jew also belongs to the tribe of his or her father, so a Kohen or Levi must be the son of a Kohen or Levi. The child of a mixed Sephardi-Ashkenazi marriage generally adopts the communal identity of the father.
For this reason, many scholars suggest that the original rule of Jewish descent must have been patrilineal, and that it was changed around the time of Ezra, or even later, at the time of Yavneh, possibly under the influence of Roman law. There are several instances in the Bible where Israelite men marry Gentile women without direct mention of the women converting. For example, many of the Israelite kings married foreign princesses, and this does not seem to have prevented the children of these marriages succeeding to the throne. An example is Rehoboam, who was the son of Solomon by the Ammonite princess Naamah. Another example is the Book of Ruth, which seems to claim such ancestry for King David himself.
The Orthodox answer is that both Ruth and Naamah were converts to Judaism: the Talmud derives the laws of proselytes from the exchange between Naomi and Ruth.
Historians, however, believe that the very notion of conversion with a mikvah is postbiblical. It must also be pointed out that, even if Ruth never became Jewish, this would not affect the Jewishness of King David on either a pure patrilineal or a pure matrilineal rule, as Ruth was King David's paternal great-grandmother.
A reconciliation of the evidence has been offered by Professor Shaye J.D. Cohen. The original rule was patrilineal, but only applied to cases where the parents were legally married, or could lawfully have married, as it is only in these cases that the child legally has a father at all. So in the case of an all-Jewish or all-Gentile marriage, the child inherits its Jewish or Gentile status from the father. In Biblical times, the same rule would have applied to mixed unions, as such marriages were frowned upon but not regarded as legally impossible. However, since the time of Ezra, Jewish law has held that mixed marriages are not only forbidden but void. Accordingly, the child of such a union has no legal father, and takes the status of the mother by default; just as in English custom a legitimate child takes its father’s surname but an illegitimate child takes its mother’s. In the result, it is only in the case of a mixed marriage that the child inherits its Jewish status from the mother; in the normal case of two Jewish parents it inherits its status from the father, but the Jewishness of the mother is a necessary condition for this to happen. The practical result of this is the same as that of a purely matrilineal rule.

Indo-European Myths

While Indo-European peoples are mainly patriarchal and patrilinear, certain ancient myths have been shown to expose ancient traces of matrilineal customs. 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 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 is also 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 to both 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, and even the Arthurian 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.

Chinese Civilization

Chinese surnames were originally matrilineally passed, 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 patrilineal clan transitional phase. Evidence include elaborate and highly adorned burials for young women in early Neolithic Yangshao culture cemeteries, and increasing elaboration of male burials toward the late Neolithic period. [ Relatively isolated ethnic minorities such as the Mosuo clan of the Naxi tribe in southern China are still highly matriarchal today.


The Tuareg (Arabic:طوارق, sometimes spelled Touareg in French, or Twareg in English) are a Berber ethnic group or nation. 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 has been long 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, like many in Northern Africa, were once nomads throughout the Sahara. They have a little-used but ancient script known as Tifinagh.
The Tuareg are matrilineal, though not matriarchal.



matrilineal in Czech: Matrilinearita
matrilineal in German: Matrilinearität
matrilineal in Spanish: Matrilinaje
matrilineal in French: Famille matrilinéaire
matrilineal in Indonesian: Matrilineal
matrilineal in Italian: Matrilinearità
matrilineal in Dutch: Matrilineariteit
matrilineal in Japanese: 母系制
matrilineal in Polish: Matrylinearny system pokrewieństwa
matrilineal in Russian: Матрилинейность
matrilineal in Finnish: Matrilineaarinen
matrilineal in Swedish: Matrilinjär härstamning
matrilineal in Chinese: 母系社会
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