Matrilineal Puzzle

Essay, 2012
6 Pages, Grade: 65


What is or was the matrilineal puzzle?

The term ‘matrilineal puzzle’ was coined by Richards (Richards, 1950) and treated in a variety of both theoretical and ethnographic studies (e.g. Fuller, 1976; Gough & Schneider, 1961; Needham, 1971; Weiner, 1988). Essentially, the ‘puzzle’ is better described as a conflict arising from the general design of matrilineages: being based on both a principle of female descent and masculine control, a matrilineage generates a direct competition between in-marrying husbands/fathers and maternal brothers. Where is the family to live? Who has authority over the children? As Gough and Schneider (1961:29) claim, the matrilineal group is very unlikely to persist if the husband gains to much authority over wife and children. Several solutions to this dilemma can be found in the literature as well as in ethnographic studies four of which I focus upon in the following. Let me, however, introduce the underlying concepts in the introductory paragraph.

A matrilineal or uterine descent group traces its descent to a common ancestress through a series of female links. The formal difference to patrilineages or cognatic descent groups merely consists of the focus on female links rather than male in the case of patrilineages and male or female for cognatic groups. The complication for matrilineages arises from the fact that a descent group is normally characterised by exogamy (Keesing, 1975:42) and the rule of male-authority. The latter distributes power over discipline, rituals and life-cycle decisions such as marriage among the men rather than the women of a matrilineage. From these presumptions follows a potential conflict over both post-martial residence in particular and authority in general. How is it possible to combine the continuity of the lineage through females with the principle of male control? An instantaneous clash between the husband and the wife’s brothers seems pre-programmed. Fox (Fox, 1984) describes four patterns in which this conflict takes place. Members of a lineage either all live together (natolocal), locality is common for only female (matrilocal) or male (avuncolocal) members or the organisations allows for a complete dispersion of its members.

In the first instance, husbands are only sexual companions that do not live with the women. Both wife and children stay under the authority of the wife’s brothers. This solution is the strongest support for the matrilineal organisation. Richards calls it the matriarchal solution that was most prominent among the Nayar in India. Fuller (1976) provides an account of the latter’s organisation that raises questions about the ‘realness’ of the theoretical argument. Originally, the Nayars were indeed living in matrilineal joint families called taravads. Members of a taravad formed an economic unit that shared its property and a place to live whereas husbands were only visiting. A women could as such have several ‘lover-relationships’, called sambandham.[1] The authority over the children was executed by the head of the taravad, the so-called karanavan. An ideological bias that favoured "the congruence of the household and the property group" (71) was the leading principle that kept the taravad together as a matrilineage. This order gave way to something that much more resembles a patrilineal organisation on the first glance – although still being crucially different. With the abandonment of the Nayar army, the influence of industrialised capitalism and the resulting importance of individual rather than collective property, the relationship between husband and wife began to grow in importance. The husband simply was at home more often. An increased emphasize was put on “stable, monogamous marriage” (ibid.:55) and a second category of property that was hold individually arose (ibid.:65). The modern household is not focused on the taravad any longer, but on the nuclear family. The heavy dependence of the matrilineal system on weak ties between wife and husband had to give way to an decline of importance of kinship ties.[2]


[1] Much debate has been on the matter whether those relationships constitute marriages qualifying the Nayar as a peoples of polygny (see Fuller, 1976:104ff). This does not concern the matter of matrilineages further in the way treated here.

[2] It is important to note, that no single determinant can be made responsible for this change. As I tried to point at, there were several decisive factors – abandonment of the army, industrial revolution, development of private property – but they formed altogether with particular contextual features the context for the change. Similarly, no ‘evolutionary tendency’ should be interpreted into this change. The logical conclusion is not the abolition of family property and the matrilineage. What we saw in the case of the Nayars was solely a thorough weakening of the structures. The importance of matrilineal groups have “not diminished to the level typical in the modern West” (Fuller, 1976:148) and a patrilineal ideology is not in place.

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Matrilineal Puzzle
University of Cambridge
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ISBN (eBook)
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435 KB
Kinship, Matrilineage
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Johannes Lenhard (Author), 2012, Matrilineal Puzzle, Munich, GRIN Verlag,


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