Matilineal vs. Patrilineal Descent: Differences & Examples

Caitlin Stephens, Jessica Whittemore
  • Author
    Caitlin Stephens

    Caitlin Stephens has taught English for nine years. She has a Ph.D. in English from the University of Louisiana at Lafayette, an M.F.A. in Creative Writing from Syracuse University, and a B.A. in Philosophy from Colby College. She has published two books and a variety of pieces in magazines.

  • Instructor
    Jessica Whittemore

    Jessica has taught junior high history and college seminar courses. She has an M.A in instructional education.

Study matrilineal vs. patrilineal descent systems. Learn the definition of patrilineal and matrilineal descent and examine how these lineages function. Updated: 04/20/2022

Table of Contents


Matrilineal vs. Patrilineal Descent

Matrilineal descent and patrilineal descent are two different ways of tracing ancestry or creating lineage groups. A lineage group is a group of people who trace their descent to a common ancestor. A lineage group is another word for a clan, a group of people who consider themselves descended from a common ancestor. A clan or a lineage group is similar to a family, but any individual may belong to more than one clan or lineage group, through birth or marriage. People often use the phrase ''my family'' to refer to the total list of clans to which they belong.

What is the difference between matrilineal vs. patrilineal descent? Matrilineal descent traces a lineage through women to a founding female relative or ancestor. Conversely, patrilineal descent traces a lineage through men, to a founding male relative or ancestor. Systems of tracing descent are important because they might determine certain factors in an individual's life, such as their surname, social status, property inheritances, and residence patterns.

Whether a descent system is patrilineal or matrilineal does not depend on the gender of the individual in question, but rather on the gender of the common ancestor who is being used to establish lineage or membership in a particular clan. Either lineage is established through relation to a common male ancestor, traced through a multi-generational line of male relatives, or lineage is established through relation to a common female ancestor, traced through a multi-generational line of female relatives.

Unilineal Descent

Unilineal descent is a system of tracing lineage through a single line of descent. In unilineal descent, an individual can be seen as belonging exclusively to their father's line of male relatives, or exclusively to their mother's side of female relatives. Only one line of descent, traced through a single-gender, can be used in a unilineal descent system.

The three subcategories of unilineal descent are matrilineal descent, patrilineal descent, and ambilineal descent. In an ambilineal descent system, the individual can only inherit property, status, and clan membership through one parent, but the choice of which parent to inherit from is open. Some Polynesian and Micronesian cultures are ambilineal. The choice of which parent or ''side'' of the family to inherit from might be influenced by factors like economics, relationships, and living situations.

On the other hand, a system that does use multiple lines of descent to trace kinship is called a cognatic descent system. A cognatic descent system includes all of an individual's relatives, regardless of gender, within a certain range (for example, three generations). When children make family trees where they are in the center and both ''sides'' of their family are shown, this is a visual depiction of a cognatic descent system. Spanish naming customs are a cultural example of a cognatic descent system. Rather than only being given one last name, children are given two last names, illustrating their kinship with both of their parents.

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  • 0:01 Differences in Descent
  • 1:07 Unilineal Descent
  • 2:07 Patrilineal Descent
  • 4:32 Matrilineal Descent
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Patrilineal Descent

What does patrilineal mean? The patrilineal definition involves tracing lineage through a singular male line of relatives. Within this system, an individual would first of all be seen as belonging to their father. That individual's family would be further traced through their father's bloodline, through male relatives: his father, grandfather, great-grandfather, and so on.

Examples of Patrilineal Descent

There are a variety of societies that follow a patrilineal descent system. In the United States, a patrilineal descent structure is typically used to trace ancestry. Last names, or surnames, are used to signify membership in a particular clan or lineage group. Historically in the United States, most children were given their father's last name, which is a way of marking patrilineal descent. Their fathers had also received those last names from their own fathers, traced back through generations along a male line. A child born to a father with the last name Miller, and a mother with the last name Rodriguez, will most likely be given the surname Miller. The surname Miller would have been traced back through multiple generations of male relatives, all sharing the same surname to represent membership in the Miller clan.

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Frequently Asked Questions

What are matrilineal descent and patrilineal descent?

Matrilineal and patrilineal descent are two different ways of tracing kinship, lineage, or membership in a clan or family group. In matrilineal descent, kinship is determined based on a line of female relatives traced back to a particular female ancestor. In patrilineal descent, kinship is determined based on a line of male relatives traced back to a particular male ancestor.

What is a patrilineal society?

The patrilineal definition is a system that determines kinship based on a male lines of relatives. A patrilineal society is a society that bases lineage or ancestry off a male line, rather than a female line.

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