What is it?
Matrilineal descent is a kinship system where a descent group traces their ancestral lineages via the maternal (uterine) side of the group. This does not exactly flip patrilineal descent systems on their head, such that women are the more powerful gender, but it can (See: Moso of China). Women often share power equally with men, and occupy some of the more powerful roles in society (often alongside men). Matrilineal groups also pass wealth through the female line, and women often own or control land and production. The wealth stays at their dwelling, which often houses all living females in a matriline as well as many of the brothers, sisters, and, in some societies, husbands of that matriline. Male status and property pass through to their sister's sons, rather than their own. The uncle of the children is who "distributes goods, organizes work, settles disputes, supervises rituals, and administers inheritance and succession rules" in a residence (Human Challenge, p.243).
In a patrilineal system the father of a child is often the most important male member of the extended family, however in matrilineal systems it is often the uncle of the child (the mother's eldest brother) who is the primary male figure. The father of that child is the primary male figure in the lives of his sister's children, instead. This is because the children of any man are considered to be in their mother's descent group, and so the closest male relative to her (the children's uncle) is often the chosen male figure (considered the only male blood-kin of the child). He also manages the house and affairs, though that position can also be a woman, and often serves as the guardian to the matriline (and all its children).
One supposed function of matrilineal systems is that they often "provide continuous female solidarity within the female work group" (Human Challenge, p.243). Matrilineal systems are often found in horticultural societies where work tends to be concentrated inside the house and nearby gardens, often because those societies highly value the women's labor as crop cultivators. The food that horticulturalists (women) cultivate near their dwelling tends to be much more important to their diet than the hunting or fishing that men do (though not always).
The Tuareg People
The Tuareg are a nomadic trading people in northern Africa, occupying parts of Mali, Niger, Algeria, Libya, Burkina Faso, and Nigeria. They are well known for their indigo `Alasho` (turbans), their prowess in war, as well as their artistic skill. They historically have traded all sorts of goods between major cities in the Saharan and sub-Saharan region in northern Africa, including salt, food including dates, and clothing. They have practiced animism for a very long time, and have recently incorporated elements of Islam into their worship due to its influence in the region.
Though the Tuareg practice a form of Islam, women in Tuareg society are not second-class citizens. Women do not wear Burqas, and men wear veils. They practice a form of matrilineal descent (moreso in the northern Tuareg clans), and there is evidence suggesting they have done so for a very long time. Tuareg marriage practices are "[endogamous] to descent groups as well as within the cousin category"; however "inheritance is according to Koranic rule and is accordingly restricted to the patriline" (American Anthropologist, p.555). It is suggested that their matrilineality is why their culture has endured for so long, possibly helping to completely impede Arabization in the 11th century by the Hilalians (one can extend this idea into contemporary times, as conjectured evidence as to why the Tuareg, even in the face of globalization and Islam have managed to retain a large portion of their culture).
On April 6th, 2012 they declared independence from Mali and established the Independent State of Azawad, in northern Mali. Azawad is still unrecognized as a nation internationally.
The Moso People
The Moso are an ethnic group of around 40,000 individuals living in the highlands in southwestern China who practice matrilineal descent. Their primary activities are agriculture and fishing. They have their own religion, Ddaba, which is a mixture of nature worship, spirit worship, and ancestral worship. They speak their own language, Naru, which belongs to the "Yi branch of the Tibeto-Burman subfamily of the Sino-Tibetan family" (Quest for Harmony, p.2). In Moso culture, women are culturally superior to men. The concept of women being culturally superior to men is so engrained in their culture that they do not actually have words for relatives on the male's side of the family (Quest for Harmony, p.137). The household economy is managed by the head of house, which can be from either gender, and property is collectively owned by the (matrilineal) household. They have an interesting sexual access system as well, called `tisese`, wherein partners do not cohabitate (instead living in their matrilineal household) but instead express consent to one another. That consent is easily given and easily revoked, does not affect their social standing, and is not legally binding. Males visit females for a night in this system, and return to their own home the next day. If a child is born it stays with the mother's household, and under no circumstances is a child illegitimate (Quest for Harmony, p.3). A tisese relationship is also not affected by class or income level, meaning leadership level members of society can have a tisese relationship with one of the poorest or lowest class people and it is no problem.
The Minangkabau People
The Minangkabau are an indigenous ethnic group native to West Sumatra, Indonesia. There are approximately 4 million Minang in West Sumatra, and another 3 million distributed elsewhere. They practice matrilineal descent, and as such, clan material wealth is passed down matrilineally. Each village is organized into a few exogamous matriclans, and when born someone takes the last name of their matriclan. Each descent group has a ceremonially selected male head called the `penghulu`. Each lineage "possesses communally owned properties, including agricultural land, houses, fish ponds, heirlooms, and miscellaneous adat titles" (Change and Continuity, p.3). Each lineage is subdivided into sublineages, each with their own male head as well. Married men participate in duolocal residency, where they stay the night at their wife's house, but must return to their mother's house during the days. The maternal uncle `mamak` (and also the penghulu, which may be different people) has the most authority within a lineage or sublineage.
The Minang's religious beliefs are interesting, in that like the Tuareg, they have mixed a much older animist (`adat`, literally tradition) belief with Islam. Their matrilineal system is based on an old story involving the two founding members of adat, their traditional animist religion. Adat is a series of non-time-descripted stories that describe a utopian society and how it should function. Adat even guides how they are to build their houses, including having a certain number of points on the roof corresponding to the number of bedrooms or `bilik` in an adat house. The Adat house is the basic economic and family unit, and Minang life is very communally centered on it. Adat is also what provides the system of "rights to use ancestral properties" or land-usage rights, called `ganggam bauntuak`, which can be transferred to sublineages for their members' benefit. This should not be confused with ownership rights, as they are not one and the same in Minang culture. The lineage with `ganggam bauntuak` to their adat do not have a "right of disposition", and thus cannot give it to anyone outside their lineage or a sublineage (Change and Continuity, p.5).
As a matrilineal system would imply, the most important structural relationship in the Minang system is that of the mamak (mother's brother) and the kemanakan (the mother's children). This relationship is strongly regulated by the adat. The mamak is positioned as the guardian of the mother's children, and is directly accountable for their well-being (Change and Continuity, p.7).
Once a woman reaches marriageable age or is married, it is her mamak's job to give her a bilik in the house, or if there are not enough he must build an addition to the house or build a new one entirely. Her husband is only allowed to come over at night, and is "sometimes likened to a bull buffalo borrowed for impregnation, and, in many ways, he [is] not much more than that to his wife's relatives" (Change and Continuity, p.6). If the mother of the children dies or the father and mother divorce, the children remain in the mother's household and personal ties between the father and the children are severed. However, the father, or his sublineage must still ceremonially give gifts to the children (Change and Continuity, p.7).
Men in Minang culture do not own property and do not own an adat (though he still `belongs` to his mother's adat). At 6 years of age or so boys are sent to live in the prayer house, where they learn to recite the Koran. They return daily to their mother's house for meals, but not often for other reasons. Only when they are married are men allowed to return to their mother's house full time. Between that time period, his mother's house was his `house of origin` and nothing more. During marriage, he is only a guest in his wife's house. If his wife dies or they get a divorce, he goes back to live in the prayer house. His time is spent mostly at the prayer house, the mosque, the coffee house, the council hall, or a small hut built on the edge of a field for the individual guarding the field (Change and Continuity, p.8).
The Akan People
The Akan people live in Africa, mostly in Ghana and the Ivory Coast, comprise roughly 40 million people, and practice matrilineal descent. Their most recent economic activity is gold mining and trading with neighboring areas. They are well known for their beautiful bronze art. They also have an extremely high incidence rate of deafness, and as such most or all of the population is fluent in a local Sign Language dialect called Adamorobe Sign language.
The Akan live in matrilineal households comprised of all female members of a maternal line, through which all wealth is passed down. The Akan, like other matrilineal cultures, have a head of their individual lineage (abusuapanin) which is often male, but can be female too. The abusuapanin "represents the family in official affairs, manages family property, is finally responsible for the wellbeing of the family, and judges in family matters" (Long Live, p.53). They also intermediate between living and dead members of the family by pouring libations during ceremonies. These heads of lineages come together as a council of elders (with a chief) to form their lowest level political unit. This also means that positions of political power, in addition to land and houses, are handed down matrilines. These councils are grouped together as `abusua` whose member councils all believe their matrilines are descended from the same ancestor. The abusua a person is born into determines "one's individual status and esteem" (Long Live, p.52). This also means that Akan abroad identify with the town and house they originated from. As mmusua (plural abusua, of which there are 8) are the basic political unit in Akan society, they also have responsibilities and obligations to be fulfilled including "providing accommodation for family members, caring for older family members, contributing to family events, and assisting needy relatives" (Long Live, p.53).
For the Akan, kinship is much larger than just the person's matriline; it includes all members of their abusua, even if they don't know them. All members in their abusua are considered to be blood relatives. Marriage in Akan culture is exogamous to the abusua they are a part of. Marriage bonds are weak, as a person's primary obligations are to their family (read: matriline). Residency patters are duolocal, with the mother and children staying in her house and the husband staying at his. Finances are kept separate, and women work to earn their own living (Long Live, p.53). It seems that (at least some women) view marriage as a path to children and once the children are grown, and perhaps earlier, the couple may divorce so that the mother can be completely independent. Elderly, divorced women are often proud "that they could mind their own business without being harassed by a man" (Long Live, p.53). "The main duty of the father is to pay his children's school fees; most other expenses rest on the shoulder of the mother and her family" (Long Live, p.53). This, however, does not decrease the important role of the father in the children's lives; if he is not present, the children will not care for him in his old age and his funeral will not be grand or fitting of his possible accomplishments.
A person is always a member of their mother's abusua, even if married. Married men live with their mothers, while the children live with his wife in their matriline's house. As with other matrilineal systems, the uncle of a child is the most important male figure, and the father of the children passes his wealth down to his sister's eldest son, not his own children. However, some parts of Akan culture are patrilineal as well. For example, every individual is a member of their father's Ntoro (literally spirit) group but not his matriline. Each Ntoro has its own inherited surnames, taboos, and rituals.
The Lenape Indians
The Lenape Indians (also known as the Delaware Indians) are a Native American tribe currently occupying parts of the US and Canada. Originally they resided in the northeastern woodlands of the US farming corn, beans, and squash, but now the primary concentrations are in Ontario, Canada and Oklahoma and Wisconsin in the US. When Caucasians from Europe first made landfall in America, there were around two-dozen individual nations that comprised the `Lenape` Indians. Though they have survived intact into modern times, the Lenape are struggling to keep their native languages and the land given to them by the US Government.
The Lenape people practice exogamous matrilineal descent in clans, with matrilocal residency. They also had language-based phratries. Like other groups, the uncle is the most important male in a child's immediate family. Leadership of the clans was hereditary and passed matrilineally, but if the person was not supported by the eldest woman, she could remove the person. Clan membership was matrilineal and inherited based on birth. Divorce in Lenape culture was simple and quick. Once the terms were decided upon, the man left his wife's house. The children stayed with the mother's household always, being `more closely related` to her and her family than to the father's. Remarriage after divorce was common, and had no stigma associated with it.
Similar to the Minang people, the Lenape have a system of land usage, but not ownership (as we would describe it). The land was managed and allotted by women, by need. Land was collectively `owned` by the clan during the time they inhabited it; when the land was depleted, they moved elsewhere within their claimed territory. They moved seasonally, taking advantage of game and farming in the area. They practiced large-scale agriculture and hunter-gatherer-type food procurement.
Modern Effects on Matrilineal Systems
Globalization is quickly changing cultures still using matrilineal systems, as they are not the dominant descent system, and indeed are directly counter to many of the major world religions currently being worshipped. It's absolutely fascinating how in the face of globalization and particularly the spread of Islam, many matrilineal animist cultures are just adapting to the new systems and incorporating parts of Islam and popular culture into their beliefs and rituals without entirely losing their old way of life. It's very cool and shows a strong adaptability (especially in the Tuareg and Minang peoples). The ethnography of the Moso people has a story in it when prefacing their matrilineal system outline, because the author faced immediate and strong opposition to their work because many previous ethnographers in China had characterized their culture as backwards and stupid for being matrilineal. As noted in that text, that popular pressure has started to pressure their system to change, for better or worse. The same is true of the Akan, where a majority, but no longer every single person, follow the matrilineal system. More and more often they are living in a nuclear family home.
One cannot say whether this change prompted by globalization is good or bad, but one can hope that these cultures take advantage of globalization to share their culture, traditions, and values on the world stage; perhaps someone else someplace in the world will adopt a practice of theirs and in some small way perpetuate their culture into the future. This massive level quick change of culture also shows how crucial anthropology is to our history. If nobody documents these cultures, they cannot be revived in the future, or even reincorporated into global culture at some future point. I think that if at some point down the road we have a fairly homogenous global culture, there will be an attempt at revival of older cultures such as these, as a response to the homogeneity. One can only hope that ethnographies of these cultures will be around when or if that time comes.