Descent Systems: Matrilineal, Patrilineal, Unilateral & Bilateral

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  • 0:01 Last Names
  • 0:43 Patrilineal Systems
  • 1:34 Matrilineal Systems
  • 2:23 Unilateral and…
  • 3:30 Lesson Summary
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Lesson Transcript
Instructor: Christopher Muscato

Chris has a master's degree in history and teaches at the University of Northern Colorado.

In this lesson, you will explore some of the different ways to trace lineage, including both patrilineal and matrilineal systems. Then, test your understanding with a brief quiz.

Last Names

What's your last name? Mine's Muscato. It's an Italian name for someone who made wine. As children, we were often fascinated with the history of our last names. But there's something we never really thought about - where our last names really come from. Many of us got our last names from our fathers. But why? Why don't we have our mother's last name? Why not make our own?

A common answer is because that's just the way it is, but this isn't true. There's nothing natural about it. It's not how everybody in history did it. It's just our culture. And there are many other ways for people around the world to keep track of their lineages.

Patrilineal Systems

Let's start with the patrilineal system, since that's what most of us are probably familiar with. In a patrilineal culture, people are identified through the male lineage. So, you get your father's last name, he has his father's last name, and so on. This system, therefore, was a way to record lineage, theoretically from the founder of the family down through every heir. In some patrilineal cultures, children will be much closer to their father's family than their mother's, since the woman may be seen as leaving her family to join the husband's.

Most of Western culture is patrilineal. Ancient Rome used this system, as did the ancient Hebrews as presented in the Bible. This system is fairly well-known to us but in recent years, has been the source of some controversy as more and more people expose it as arbitrary.

Matrilineal Systems

The opposite of patrilineality is the matrilineal system, where lineage is traced through the female line. In this system, a family is seen as descending from the mother's family. Although matrilineal societies may pass down a family name from the mother's side, it is also somewhat common for these cultures to not use family names at all, only personal names.

Many anthropologists believe that most early cultures were matrilineal, based on their patterns of social behavior, such as living with the mother's family. In North America, matrilineal systems were very common before the arrival of the Europeans. The Iroquois, Cherokee, Navajo, Hopi, and Tlingit were all matrilineal cultures. Modern Jewish families pass lineage matrilineally to this day.

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