Genealogical Kin Types & Terminology

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  • 0:02 Kinship Lineage
  • 0:34 Clans
  • 1:39 Totems
  • 2:43 Phratry
  • 3:11 Moiety
  • 4:13 Lesson Summary
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Lesson Transcript
Instructor: Jessica Whittemore

Jessica has taught junior high history and college seminar courses. She has a master's degree in education.

This lesson will seek to explain the different kinship systems that exist in the non-industrialized world. In doing so, it will highlight the concepts of clans, as well as phratries and moieties.

Kinship Lineage

My uncle is the self-proclaimed family historian. He has spent hours upon hours researching our ancestors all the way back to medieval times. Although his mounds of paperwork can get a bit boring after a few hours, I'm thankful for the job he has done because it helps me feel linked to my past.

This is especially neat considering many in the world have no written record of where they've come from. Today, we'll be discussing this sort of nebulous kinship lineage as we take on the concepts of clans, phratries, and moieties.


Since the word 'clan' is probably the most familiar of these terms, we'll start with it and then move on. However, before we get to its definition, there is one thing we should note. When speaking of clans, and throughout this lesson, we're not going to be talking about the Westernized version of clans, like when old cowboy movies show two families fighting over cattle and the word 'clan' is thrown around. Instead, we'll be talking about these terms in a more anthropological sense, mainly discussing their use in the non-industrialized world.

With this disclaimer of sorts, let's get going.

A clan, also known as a sib, is a set of kin who identify themselves as being descended from the same ancestor; however, the links to this common ancestor are unclear. In some cases, the common ancestor isn't really even known; it's sort of just assumed there was one.

When speaking of clans, there are usually two types. One is a patriclan, a clan in which lineage is traced through the men, or to make it easy, traced through the papas. Then there is a matriclan, in which lineage is traced through the women, or simply the mamas.


When speaking of clans, do not be fooled by the members' rather murky biological affiliation to one another. Despite the fact that they usually can't pinpoint the one ancestor they all descended from, most clans are tightly knit groups that take their membership quite seriously. In fact, anthropologists tell us that many clans solidify their identity by aligning themselves with a totem, an animal or a part of nature used as a means of group identification. As in 'totem pole,' on which these animals are usually carved, clans choose things like lions, tigers, and even bears to associate themselves to each other. In short, totems help to form a bond between the members, giving them a tangible link to one another.

Although the use of a totem sounds a bit weird to those of us in the West, when you think about it, we sort of have them, too. For instance, have you ever noticed how many sports teams are named after animals? We've got the Eagles, the Bears, the Seahawks, and the Cardinals, just to name a few. No, we don't call them totems, but these animal names sure do a pretty good job of binding people together on any given Sunday!


Branching out from a clan or a sib, we now come to a phratry. Sort of thinking of it as just a step up from a clan, a phratry is very simply a descent group composed of a number of different clans or sibs. With this rather clear-cut definition in mind, we won't spend much more time on this one. However, giving that it is an unfamiliar word to many of us, we could sort of think of it like this: just like a group of words can make up a PHRase, a group of clans can make up a PHRatry.

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