Descent rules

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Rules of descent ( Latin descendere, "descend, descend") or rules of descent (also: filiation ) denote those social ideas and norms in ethnosociology that determine whether a person derives his or her descent from both parents or only from mother or father , and who accordingly belongs to their relatives and ancestors . In an ( ethnic ) society , the current rule of descent determines the succession of property and social positions as well as the transfer of group affiliations , offices and privileges from one generation to the next. A rule of ancestry is not necessarily based on biological relationship - if it claims this, it does not always have to correspond to the facts, especially with regard to biological paternity (see cuckoo children ) and only orally transmitted ancestor generations (see legends of origin ).

The six common ancestry rules are divided into two groups:

  1. Unilinear : Descent from only one gender ancestral line, maternal or paternal (a total of 68% of the 1,300 ethnic groups and indigenous peoples worldwide )
    This group contains the widespread patrilineal derivation from the fathers (46%) and the less common matrilineal derivation from the mothers (13%), as well as the three parentage
    concepts of bilinearity , ambilinearity and parallelism , in which one or the other line plays a role in different social contexts (together 9%)
  2. Cognatic, bilateral (both sides): Derivation from both lines simultaneously, from mother and father, as is also common in modern societies (28%)

Corresponding marriage rules and residence rules for matrimonial residence are linked to the respective descent rules .

Unilinear descent

With a unilinear rule of ancestry (Latin "one-line") a person is derived from only one gender line of his ancestors , either patrilinearly from the exclusively male line of his forefathers - or matrilinearly from the exclusively female line of the mother, her mother and so on going back . Both lines have a meaning in the bilinear (two-line), the ambilinear (selectable) and the parallel rule of descent, which come into effect in different social contexts. Some ethnosociologists assign ambilinear descent to the second main group, as a form of cognatic-bilateral (bilateral) descent.

Unilinear systems of descent are found in many non-state-forming societies and ethnic groups where important goods need to be shared and bequeathed, especially land and livestock. This is why arable farming and cattle breeding societies (Central Asia, the Near East, East Africa) developed unilinearly organized relationships far more often than hunters and gatherers (hunters). The sedentary way of life promotes territorial identification and the emphasis on group community.

68% of all ethnic groups and indigenous peoples worldwide assign their ancestry and kinship unilinearly (1998: 856 of 1267 ethnic groups in the Ethnographic Atlas ):
....46% patrilinear : exclusively via the paternal line (584)
....13% matrilinear : exclusively via the maternal line (160)
......4% bilinear : double, across both lines, one depending on the social context (52)
......4% ambilinear : a self-selected mixed line adopted by the mother or father (49)
......1% parallel : the mother transfers her line to daughters, the father his to sons (11)


In the patrilineal rule of descent (Latin "in the line of the father": father line), the purely male line of the ancestors of a person decides on their group membership and corresponding rights and duties. The descent and the inheritance runs through the father , his father ( grandfather ), in turn his father ( great-grandfather ) and so on. Evidence of up to four generations of ancestors back to the paternal great-great-grandfather is often expected. It can play an important role here whether the respective paternity is or was determined biologically or legally ( adoption ), and whether the offspring comes from a marriage or a non- institutionalized relationship.

The sole reference to the exclusively paternal descent inevitably means that the "ancestral line " can only be continued through sons - a daughter cannot continue her paternal line because her children ( grandchildren of her father) belong to the family of her husband, they lead his line away and not her mother's.

Patrilinearity is also equated with " agnatic " (Latin "the born / born after"), the term comes from Roman law and describes blood relatives who descend from a common " ancestor " in an uninterrupted male lineage .

Patrilinearity as the only line of descent can be found in 46% of all ethnic groups and indigenous peoples worldwide (1998: 584 of 1267).

The basic requirement for patrilineal kinship relationships is the discovery of human biological paternity , which began around 10,000 BC. In the wake of the " Neolithic Revolution " through cattle breeding and agriculture. With the increasing Neolithization and the spread of new knowledge, societies developed or adopted patrilineal forms of social organization at different times and for different reasons .

Since there is basically no external evidence of paternity that is equivalent to the birth of the child for a husband (a similar appearance is not proof), there is always the possibility that someone other than the husband is the biological father . This fundamental problem of patrilinearity is shown by the 2000 year old Roman legal proverb Pater semper incertus est: "The father is always uncertain", he first has to formally recognize the child as his. From this it followed Pater est, quem nuptiae demonstrant: "Father is [only] someone who has been proven to be such by marriage". For the first time in 1926, an anthropological report in Vienna provided the first scientific evidence of the descent of a child from a certain man.

The basis of almost all patrilineal groups and societies is therefore an official acknowledgment of paternity for legitimate children in social and, above all, legal terms, usually in the days after the birth. Some groups basically allow the father not to accept the child as his own and to reject paternity or even to have it killed. With increasing social status , the clarity of parentage plays an increasingly important role, and in the event of a dispute, the disputes regarding the legitimacy of descendants and their (illegitimate) marital status become more intense .

In almost all patrilineal groups or societies, a wife has to leave her parental home after her marriage and move to the place of residence of her husband or his family (96%: 563 of 584 ethnic groups). The order of residence (residence rule ) with the husband is referred to as patrilocality (Latin "at the father's place") or more generally as virilocality ("at the man's place"). Viewed the other way round, almost all patri- local clans or ethnic groups are arranged in a patri- linear manner .

In order to rule out the possibility that a married couple's child is from another man, patrilineal cultures develop many and far-reaching social regulations for sexual coexistence. Restricted opportunities to go out, concealment requirements and the harsh punishment in the case of cheating should keep wives away from other sexual contacts. However, all unmarried women of conceptual age are also directly or indirectly affected by such rules . This results in a gender hierarchy in which women are pushed out of the public space, up to and including gender segregation in family meals.

In patrilineal societies, the father is responsible for the social status of his (recognized) children, he also claims their representation to the outside world and the power of disposal over them. In marriages, this can not only affect common children, but also his children of other (former) women as well as the (former) children of his wife (s) who are not descended from him. This family separation also plays a role in marriages, especially in cross-cousin marriage , in which a child of the father sister or mother brother may be married.

Patrilineal clans and societies are almost always organized according to the principle of male seniority : the first-born (or) eldest son stands above his siblings , including older sisters. The reason for the preference of the eldest son lies in the fact that the father can exert influence over a longer period of time; in patrilineal societies, the eldest son is habitually trained in the skills and occupation of the father and thus has the advantage of the longest training period.

The eldest son, with his birthright or elders right, also comes first in the line of succession (in matrilineal clans the last-born daughter).

In cultures with a patrilineal understanding of ancestry, the man's / father's power to procreate is often meaningfully excessive, for example through the wishful image of the sperm as “male seed”, although it is not capable of germination and therefore cannot be compared with plant seeds .

For all monotheistic religions (one-god belief) and also for others, the patrilineal descent of their deities and spiritual beings, their prophets or their priests is of decisive importance, in Christianity starting with the progenitor Abraham up to the idea of ​​a God the Father with his Son of God .


In the case of the matrilineal rule of descent (Latin "in the line of the mother": maternal line), the purely female line of ancestors of a person decides on their group membership and corresponding rights and obligations, the parentage runs through the mother , her mother ( grandmother ), in turn her mother ( Great-grandmother ) and so on ( uterine descent: "offspring from the womb ").

The biological relationship is always beyond doubt, as is recorded in the Roman legal proverb Mater semper certa est : "The mother is always safe", the mother is the woman who gave birth to the child (since 1992 it is also literally in the German Civil Code in § 1591 ). There are almost always eyewitnesses for a birth (in contrast to the male procreation process ).

It is now known from biological genetics that a mother also lets her daughter's egg cells develop in her own uterus as part of embryonic development, thus creating the basis for the next generation herself (while a man's sperm is produced by himself, not from his father, from whom only the ability to generate semen was inherited).

Matrilinearity as the sole line of descent can be found in 13% of all ethnic groups and indigenous peoples worldwide (1998: 160 of 1267).

In one third of all matrilineal societies , a wife stays with her family after marriage and the husband moves to the place of residence of his wife, her mother or her family. This marital order of residence (residence rule ) with the wife is called matrilocality (Latin: “at the place of the mother”) or more generally as uxorilocality (“at the place of the wife”). Only 18% of all matrilineal ethnic groups have a patrilocal , virilocal follow-up rule with a husband, father or family. Viewed the other way around, almost all matrilocal, uxorilocal ethnic groups found are matrilinear . There are other origin rules (see below bilinearity ), according to which a part of society matrilineal and another patrilineal arranges: The women live matrilocal , the men patrilocal , or there is an association of clans , each follow their own living slave control for themselves.

The reference to the exclusively maternal descent inevitably means that the line can only be continued through the daughters, because the children of a son ( grandchildren ) are included in the line of the respective mother of the children and continue her line. This family separation also plays a role in marriages, especially in cross-cousin marriages , in which a child of the mother's brother or father's sister can be married. The transfer of a mother's membership in social groups and the passing on of her property ( inheritance ) and her social positions and offices therefore only take place via her female descendants . The sequence takes place almost exclusively according to the principle of the female ultimagenitur (Latin: "the last-born"): The last-born, youngest daughter succeeds her mother and also inherits the entire family property (in contrast to the first-born son in patrilineal societies).

Almost 40% of all matrilineal ethnic groups (62 out of 160) cultivate the Avunculate (Latin: "mother brother"): A brother of the birth mother ( uncle ) takes on the role of social fatherhood for his sister's children and inherits his property . Often the mother-brother also has authority . The husband or biological father plays no or only a subordinate role in the upbringing and development of the children and has no power of disposal over them. The biological children of the mother brother, in turn, belong to the line of their respective mother, not to his line or his sister, whose children he looks after.

Matrilineal cultures also refer to ancestral generations that have only been passed down orally , but which presumably always have a biological ancestry via an old maternal line as a basis. It happened again and again that daughters emigrated with others in order to establish new settlements. After many generations, contact with the original relatives was lost, but the relationships between ancestry were still passed on orally. In contrast to this, it is relatively easy for patrilinearly oriented cultures, because of the lack of (external) evidence of fatherhood, to refer to any orally transmitted generation of ancestors in order to construct group affiliations derived from it (examples can be found in the Christian Bible ).

See also: Iroquois , Trobriander , list of matrilineal societies in the article Matriarchy


The bilinear derivation rule (Latin "zweilinig"; also: dulinear, duolateral) is formed from two parental lines, and can each produce different group memberships Thus specific social contexts such as the inheritance of property are patrician linearly ordered, other along the Matri- linear Maternal line. The worldwide distribution of the bilinear rule of descent is 4% (52 of 1267  ethnic groups and indigenous peoples ).

A practical example:

The small people of the Ngaing in Papua New Guinea have two origins: In one village, the patrilineal groups of ancestry (Patri- Lineages ) have a depth of 3 to 5 ancestor generations and form patri- clans , which make up the basic unit of the settlement. The rules of exogamy (important for marriage ), land rights (important for horticulture and hunting) and ritual rights (important for men's cult ceremonies) are passed on and inherited through them . The matrilineal descent groups (Matri- Lineages ), who are entitled parallel to the men, are organized in a similar manner. They unite the totem right and exercise spiritual beings # protective spirit functions. The groups live scattered in the settlement area because they follow the marital succession rule of the patriotic locality : A married couple's residence is set up with the husband who lives with his father. Meetings for joint activities do not take place.

Another people with a bilinear rule of ancestry are the Brazilian Canela (compare the social dual system with two moieties ).

In Judaism as a whole , belonging to the single family is ordered patrilinearly via the father line , in conservative and Orthodox Judaism , however, the mother is decisive for belonging to the Jewish religion: A Jew is who is the child of a Jewish mother. In the State of Israel , too, is officially a Jew whose ancestors were Jewish up to four generations back, i.e. in a purely maternal line up to their own great-great-grandmother .


With the ambilinear rule of parentage (Latin ambi "from two sides"; also: optional "chosen"), the child of a married couple can freely choose whether it wants to refer to its mother with her line or to his father with his line. This can result in a mixed generation sequence such as father-mother-mother-father , according to the child's personal preferences or based on the relative wealth and influence of the respective parent families. After the election, the child takes over the entire previous (mixed) line of the parent, this cannot be changed afterwards. The child therefore only refers to one line (unilinear) , which is built up from one mother or one father for generations . If a line is not chosen by any offspring, it is no longer inherited and simply ends without any practical consequences. Ambilinearity is widespread in Polynesia (as with the Māori in New Zealand), but also occurs on the continents (as with the Yoruba in Nigeria). The worldwide spread of the ambilinear rule of descent is 4% (1998: 49 of 1267  ethnic groups and indigenous peoples ).


In the parallel rule of parentage (Latin for “next to each other”), two sexually separated lines are used: the father transfers his lineage and social position to the sons, the mother transfers her matrilineal lineage and position to the daughters. Each person relates to only one line of ancestors: daughters to those of their mother, sons to those of their father. This unusual rule is particularly found in the South American Amazon basin , where a total of more than 150 indigenous peoples are counted. The worldwide distribution of the parallel rule of descent is less than 1% (1998: 11 of 1267  ethnic groups and indigenous peoples ).

Cognatic, bilateral ancestry

With the cognatic ( Latin “co-born”) or bilateral ancestry rule ( bi “two”, lateralis “sided”), both parents are of equal importance for deriving the ancestry of a person: mother and father, as well as their mothers and fathers. A person is considered to be the descendant of all of their ancestors , without highlighting any of the two lines. All eight great-grandparents are seen as ancestors and members of their own family, children always belong to the two families of their parents and the succession runs equally across both lines.

The kinship names in bilateral cultures usually do not differentiate between relatives on the paternal and maternal side ( patrilateral or matrilateral ) and thus correspond to the ethno-sociological " Eskimo system " (like the German kinship names). The equivalent assignment to the ancestors of both lines means that not very many generations can be remembered , and the number of side relatives is very large ( collateral relationship ). From this it follows that the members of the parents, grandparents and perhaps great-grandparents generation are known, but in contrast to unilinear cultures, more than five generations of an ancestral list are rarely remembered by name.

The bilateral rule of descent is found in groups and societies whose social cohesion is not based primarily on permanent and cohabiting groups of descent ( lineages , clans ) or on a network of relatives ( kindred ), as well as in highly industrialized societies in which the child-centered nuclear family forms the smallest social unit .

The worldwide distribution of the cognatic-bilateral ancestry rule is 28% (1998: 349 of 1267  ethnic groups and indigenous peoples ); it is also the rule in most of the western world .

Criticism of the concept of descent

The Austrian social anthropologist Gabriele Rasuly-Paleczek notes: “In this context, however, it should be pointed out that there are numerous societies in which descent does not play a particular role or does not play a role at all. The term Deszendenz itself has found quite different meanings and uses in ethnology, depending on the theoretical orientation, although it […] was often not clearly delimited from other terms. "

The German ethnologist Gabriele Herzog-Schröder pointed out in her doctoral thesis from 1999 that the basic idea of ​​descent (descent) in its forms matrilinearity and patrilinearity came from a time “when anthropology was dominated by assumptions about the evolution of relations between the sexes became. “The social structure of a society is not necessarily dependent on a descent model.

See also



  • Harold W. Scheffler: Filiation and Affiliation . Westview Press, Michigan 2001, ISBN 978-0-8133-3761-6 (English; excerpt from Google book search).
  • Wolfgang Kraus: On the concept of descent. A selective overview. In: Anthropos. Volume 92, 1997, pp. 139-163 ( doi: /10.2307/40465363 ).
  • Alan Barnard , Anthony Good: Research Practices in the Study of Kinship. Academic Press, London 1984, ISBN 0-12-078980-9 (English).
  • Roger Keesing: Kin Groups and Social Structure. Holt, Rinehart and Winston, New York 1975, ISBN 0-03-012846-3 (English; new edition 2005).

Web links

Individual evidence

  1. a b Note: In this Wikipedia article the following subdivision of the rules of descent is used:
    Frank Robert Vivelo: Handbuch der Kulturanthropologie. A basic introduction. Klett-Cotta, Stuttgart 1981, ISBN 978-3-12-938320-9 , pp. 222-223 (first published USA 1978).
    Quoted in: Gabriele Rasuly-Paleczek: Various classifications of descent forms. In: Introduction to the forms of social organization (part 2/5). (PDF; 1.9 MB) Lecture notes, Institute for Cultural and Social Anthropology, University of Vienna, 2011, p. 52 , archived from the original on October 21, 2013 ; accessed on March 13, 2020 (58 pages: 33–90).
  2. Hans-Rudolf Wicker: Deszendenz. In: Guide to Introductory Lecture in Social Anthropology, 1995–2012. (PDF; 387 kB) Lecture notes, Institute for Social Anthropology, University of Bern, July 31, 2012, p. 11–12, here p. 12 , accessed on March 13, 2020 (47 pages: here p. 12): “Unilineare Deszendenz represents a limitation to the paternal (patrilinear or agnatic) or maternal (matrilinear) line. […] In accentuated form, unilinear descent can be found in many societies in which important goods (land, cattle) have to be divided up and bequeathed . Agricultural societies (e.g. China and Japan) or cattle breeding societies (Central Asia, the Near East, East Africa) therefore produced unilinearly organized relationships far more frequently than hunters. The sedentary way of life promotes territorial identification and the emphasis on group unity and solidarity. For example, the Nuer in southern Sudan (Evans-Pritchard 1940) and the Tallensi of Ghana (Fortes 1945) are patrilinearly organized. The Nayar in South India, Navajo, Trobriander, Iroquois, Tonga, Munduruku […] ”are organized in a matrilineal way .
  3. The Ethnographic Atlas by George P. Murdock now contains data sets on 1300 ethnic groups (as of December 2012 in the InterSciWiki ), of which often only samples were evaluated, for example in the HRAF project , a large-scale database for holistic cultural comparisons of 400 recorded peoples.
  4. a b c d e f g J. Patrick Gray: Ethnographic Atlas Codebook. (PDF; 2.4 MB; 52 pages) In: World Cultures. Volume 10, No. 1, 1998, pp. 86–136, here p. 104: Table 43 Descent: Major Type : "584 Patrilineal […] 160 Matrilineal […] 52 Duolateral (bilinear) […] 49 Ambilineal […] ] 11 Quasi-lineages (parallel) […] 349 bilateral […] 45 Mixed […] 17 Missing data “(from 1267 ethnic groups recorded worldwide at that time; percentages: 46.1% patrilineal - 12.6% matrilineal - 4.1 % duolateral, bilinear - 3.9% ambilinear - 0.9% parallel, quasi-lines - 27.6% bilateral, cognatic - 3.6% mixed - 1.6% missing data).
  5. ^ A b c Hans-Rudolf Wicker: Post-maritime housing rules. In: Guide to Introductory Lecture in Social Anthropology, 1995–2012. (PDF: 387 kB) Lecture notes, Institute for Social Anthropology, University of Berne, July 31, 2012, pp 13-14 , accessed March 13, 2020 (47 pages; Wicker is professor emeritus of anthropology ). The numbers in the table on page 14: 589 patrilineal ethnic groups (46%) - their place of residence after marriage ( residence rule ): 563 (95.6%) live viri / patrician locally at the husband, whose father, family, ethnic group ( Lineage ) or clan 25 (4.2%) live mainly neo- local (“at the new place”) 1 (0.2%) lives matri- locally with the mother of the wife 164 matrilineal ethnic groups (13%) - you marital partners Residence after marriage: 62 (37.8%) live avunku- local with the wife's mother's brother 53 (32.3%) live uxori / matri- local with the wife or her mother 30 (18.3%) live viri / patriotic with husband or father 19 (11.6%) live primarily in nato- local ( staying separately “at the place of birth”) or neo- local


  6. ^ Karl Lenz , Marina Adler: Introduction to gender research in the social sciences. Volume 1: Gender Relations , Beltz Juventa, Weinheim u. a. 2010, ISBN 978-3-7799-2301-5 , p. 68 ( page preview in the Google book search).
  7. Ruth Zeifert: Identity Dilemma: If the father is Jewish and the mother is not. In: Jüdische Allgemeine . August 17, 2006, accessed on March 24, 2018 (copy in ; Zeifert was working on a doctoral project on German children of Jewish fathers in 2006): “A person who is a child of a Jewish mother is Jewish. The law of religion, the Halacha, is clear there. It all depends on the mother. The father's origin and beliefs are irrelevant. That is why people with a Jewish father and non-Jewish mother - »father Jews«, according to a term coined by Andreas Burnier in 1995 - are not considered to be the same. Even Reform Judaism adheres to this rule. "
  8. ^ Gabriele Rasuly-Paleczek: Meaning of descent. In: Introduction to the forms of social organization (part 2/5). (PDF; 1.9 MB) Lecture notes, Institute for Cultural and Social Anthropology, University of Vienna, 2011, p. 46 , archived from the original on October 21, 2013 ; accessed on March 13, 2020 (58 pages: 33–90).
  9. ^ Gabriele Herzog-Schröder: Okoyoma - The cancer hunters. About the life of the Yanomamï women in southern Venezuela. Doctoral thesis Freie Universität Berlin 1999. 2nd, revised edition. Lit, Münster 2003, ISBN 3-8258-5082-X , p. 61 ( page preview in the Google book search); Quotation: “The basic idea of ​​descent in its manifestations of patrilinearity and matrilinearity comes from a time when anthropology was dominated by conjectures about the evolution of relationships between the sexes. In the 1960s and 1970s there was increasing evidence that the transfer of the model of descent, which British social anthropologists had further developed for African societies, to other societies, such as those of the highlands of Papua New Guinea, was not transferable (cf. Barnes 1962; Langness 1964; Lepervanche 1967-68). This shattered the conviction that the social structure was necessarily dependent on the form of descent. [...] On the other hand, newer ideas developed according to which societies can structure themselves using symbolic idioms. "