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Matrilineality is a system in which descent is traced through the mother and maternal ancestors. Matrilineality is also a societal system in which one belongs to one's matriline or mother's lineage, which can involve the inheritance of property and/or titles.

A matriline is a line of descent from a female ancestor to a descendant (of either sex) in which the individuals in all intervening generations are mothers – a mother line. In a matrilineal descent system an individual is considered to belong to the same descent group as her or his mother. This matrilineal descent pattern is in contrast to the more common pattern of patrilineal descent from which a Family name is usually derived.

The matriline of historical nobility was also called her or his enatic or uterine ancestry, corresponding to the patrilineal agnatic ancestry.

In some ancient cultures, membership in their groups was (and still is if in bold) inherited matrilineally. Example cultures or societies include the Cherokee, Choctaw, Gitksan, Haida, Hopi, Iroquois, Lenape, Navajo, and Tlingit of North America; the Minangkabau people of West Sumatra, Indonesia and Negeri Sembilan, Malaysia; the Nairs of Kerala and the Bunts of Karnataka in south India; the Khasi, Jaintia and Garo of Meghalaya in northeast India; the Mosuo of China; the Basques of Spain and France; the Akan including the Ashanti of west Africa; the Tuaregs of west and north Africa; and the Serer of Senegal, the Gambia and Mauritania. Some of these examples are discussed in this article, as listed below.

Matrilineal surname

Main article: Matriname

Matrilineal surnames or mother-line surnames are inherited or handed down from mother to daughter (to daughter) in some matrilineal cultures, similar to the more familiar patrilineal surnames which are inherited or handed down from father to son (to son) in some patrilineal cultures (or societies). See Family name for an in-depth treatment of patrilineal (father-line) family names or surnames. The terms family name or surname are used here interchangeably. For clarity and for brevity, the scientific terms patrilineal surname and matrilineal surname are usually abbreviated as patriname and matriname.[1][2]

The test of whether a particular surname is a matriname is to determine whether it is actually being handed down from mother to daughter (to daughter) in a matriline.[1]

The usual lack of matrinames to hand down in patrilineal cultures, see the whole Family name article, makes traditional genealogy more difficult in the mother-line case than in the more typical (father-line) case.[1] After all, father-line surnames originated partly "to identify individuals clearly" and/or were adopted partly "for administrative reasons," see Family name (History); and these patrinames help now in searching for facts and documentation from centuries ago.

Genetic genealogy

The fact that mitochondrial DNA (mtDNA) is inherited maternally enables the matrilineal lines (or lineages) of individuals to be traced scientifically through genetic analysis, see the above "Main article". That is, all members of a matriline, of either sex, have inherited the same mtDNA, proof positive of their membership.[3]

Mitochondrial Eve (mt-mrca) is the name given by researchers to the woman who, by matrilineal reckoning, is the most recent common ancestor (mrca) for all living humans. She is the person from whom all mtDNA in living humans is derived.

She is believed by some to have lived about 150,000 years ago in East Africa, in or near present-day Tanzania. The time she lived is calculated scientifically, based on the molecular clock technique of correlating elapsed time with observed genetic drift of the mtDNA, see Mitochondrial Eve.

Genetic genealogy builds upon (and helps) traditional genealogy[1] – the latter was touched upon in the above section Matrilineal surname. For further information on genetic genealogy, or tracing of matrilineal lines via mtDNA testing, see the article Genealogical DNA test.

In mythology

While Indo-European peoples mainly were patriarchal and patrilineal, certain ancient myths have been argued to expose ancient traces of matrilineal customs that existed before historical records.

The ancient historian Herodotus is cited by Robert Graves in his translations of Greek myths as attesting that the Lycians[4][5] of their times "still reckoned" by matrilineal descent, or were matrilineal, as were the Carians.[6]

In Greek mythology, while the royal function was a male privilege, power devolution often came through women, and the future king inherited power through marrying the queen heiress. This is illustrated in the Homeric myths where all the noblest men in Greece vie for the hand of Helen (and the throne of Sparta), as well as the Oedipian cycle where Oedipus weds the recently widowed queen at the same time he assumes the Theban kingship.

This trend also is evident in many Celtic myths, such as the (Welsh) mabinogi stories of Culhwch and Olwen, or the (Irish) Ulster Cycle, most notably the key facts to the Cúchulainn cycle that Cúchulainn gets his final secret training with a warrior woman, Scáthach, and becomes lover both to her and her daughter; and the root of the Táin Bó Cuailnge, that while Ailill may wear the crown of Connacht, it is his wife Medb who is the real power, and she needs to affirm her equality to her husband by owning chattels as great as he does.

A number of other Breton stories also illustrate the motif. Even the King Arthur legends have been interpreted in this light by some. For example the Round Table, both as a piece of furniture and as concerns the majority of knights belonging to it, was a gift to Arthur from Guinevere's father Leodegrance.

Arguments also have been made that matrilineality lay behind various fairy tale plots which may contain the vestiges of folk traditions not recorded.

For instance, the widespread motif of a father who wishes to marry his own daughter—appearing in such tales as Allerleirauh, Donkeyskin, The King who Wished to Marry His Daughter, and The She-Bear—has been explained as his wish to prolong his reign, which he would lose after his wife's death to his son-in-law.[7] More mildly, the hostility of kings to their daughter's suitors is explained by hostility to their successors. In such tales as The Three May Peaches, Jesper Who Herded the Hares, or The Griffin, kings set dangerous tasks in an attempt to prevent the marriage.[8]

Fairy tales with hostility between the mother-in-law and the heroine—such as Mary's Child, The Six Swans, and Perrault's Sleeping Beauty—have been held to reflect a transition between a matrilineal society, where a man's loyalty was to his mother, and a patrilineal one, where his wife could claim it, although this interpretation is predicated on such a transition being a normal development in societies.[9]

Early human kinship

In the late nineteenth century, almost all prehistorians and anthropologists believed, following Lewis H. Morgan's influential book Ancient Society, that early human kinship was everywhere matrilineal.[10] This idea was taken up by Friedrich Engels in his book The Origin of the Family, Private Property and the State. The Morgan-Engels thesis that humanity's earliest domestic institution was not the family but the matrilineal clan soon became incorporated into communist orthodoxy. In reaction, most twentieth-century social anthropologists considered the theory of matrilineal priority untenable,[11][12] although feminist scholars often attempted to revive it.

In recent years, evolutionary biologists, geneticists and palaeoanthropologists have been reassessing the issues, many citing genetic and other evidence that early human kinship may have been matrilineal after all.[13][14][15][16] One crucial piece of indirect evidence has been genetic data suggesting that over thousands of years, women among sub-Saharan African hunter-gatherers have chosen to reside postmaritally not with their husbands' family but with their own mother and other natal kin.[17]

Various cultural patterns

There appears to be some evidence for the presence of matrilineality in pre-Islamic Arabia, in a very limited number of the Arabian peoples (first of all among the Amirites of Yemen, and among some strata of Nabateans in Northern Arabia);[18] on the other hand, there does not seem to be any reliable evidence for the presence of matrilineality in Islamic Arabia, although the Fatimid Caliphate claimed succession from the Islamic Prophet Mohammad via his daughter Fatima.

A modern example from South Africa is the order of succession to the position of the Rain Queen in a culture of matrilineal primogeniture: Not only is dynastic descent reckoned through the female line, but only females are eligible to inherit.

Clan names vs. surnames

Most of the example cultures in this article are based on (matrilineal) clans. Any clan might possibly contain from one to several or many descent groups or family groups – i.e., any matrilineal clan might be descended from one or several or many unrelated female ancestors. Also, each such descent group might have its own family name or surname, as one possible cultural pattern. The following two example cultures each follow a different pattern, however:

Example 1. Members of the (matrilineal) clan culture Minangkabau do not even have a surname or family name, see this culture's own section below. In contrast, members do have a clan name, which is important in their lives although not included in the member's name. Instead, one's name is just one's given name.

Example 2. Members of the (matrilineal) clan culture Akan, see its own section below, also do not have matrilineal surnames and likewise their important clan name is not included in their name. However, members' names do commonly include second names which are called surnames but which are not routinely passed down from either father or mother to all their children as a family name.[19]

Note well that if a culture did include one's clan name in one's name and routinely handed it down to all children in the descent group then it would automatically be the family name or surname for one's descent group (as well as for all other descent groups in one's clan).

Care of children

While a mother normally takes care of her own children in all cultures, in some matrilineal cultures a father will take care of his nieces and nephews instead. In a strictly matrilineal system, especially where residence is also matrilocal, a man will exercise guardianship rights not over the children he fathers but exclusively over his sisters' children, who are viewed as 'his own flesh'. These children's biological father – unlike an uncle who is their mother's brother and thus their caregiver – is in some sense a 'stranger' to them, even when affectionate and emotionally close.[20] This may be true for the traditional Akan culture below, for example.

Matrilineality in specific ethnic groups

In America


Main article: Lenape

Occupied for 10,000 years by Native Americans, the land that would become New Jersey was overseen by clans of the Lenape or Lenni Lenape or Delaware, who farmed, fished, and hunted upon it. The pattern of their culture was that of a matrilineal agricultural and mobile hunting society that was sustained with fixed, but not permanent, settlements in their clan territories.

Villages were established and relocated as the clans farmed new sections of the land when soil fertility lessened and when they moved among their fishing and hunting grounds by seasons. The area was claimed as a part of the Dutch New Netherland province dating from 1614, where active trading in furs took advantage of the natural pass west, but the Lenape prevented permanent settlement beyond what is now Jersey City.

"Early Europeans who first wrote about these Indians found matrilineal social organization to be unfamiliar and perplexing. ... As a result, the early records are full of 'clues' about early Lenape society, but were usually written by observers who did not fully understand what they were seeing."[21]


Main article: Hopi people

The Hopi (in what is now the Hopi Reservation in northeastern Arizona), according to Alice Schlegel, had as its "gender ideology ... one of female superiority, and it operated within a social actuality of sexual equality."[22] According to LeBow (based on Schlegel's work), in the Hopi, "gender roles ... are egalitarian .... [and] [n]either sex is inferior."[23] LeBow concluded that Hopi women "participate fully in ... political decision-making."[24] According to Schlegel, "the Hopi no longer live as they are described here"[25] and "the attitude of female superiority is fading".[25] Schlegel said the Hopi "were and still are matrilinial"[26] and "the household ... was matrilocal".[26]

Schlegel explains why there was female superiority as that the Hopi believed in "life as the highest good ... [with] the female principle ... activated in women and in Mother Earth ... as its source"[27] and that the Hopi "were not in a state of continual war with equally matched neighbors"[28] and "had no standing army"[28] so that "the Hopi lacked the spur to masculine superiority"[28] and, within that, as that women were central to institutions of clan and household and predominated "within the economic and social systems (in contrast to male predominance within the political and ceremonial systems)",[28] the Clan Mother, for example, being empowered to overturn land distribution by men if she felt it was unfair,[27] since there was no "countervailing ... strongly centralized, male-centered political structure".[27]


Main article: Iroquois

The Iroquois Confederacy or League, combining five to six Native American Haudenosaunee nations or tribes before the U.S. became a nation, operated by The Great Binding Law of Peace, a constitution by which women retained matrilineal-rights and participated in the League's political decision-making, including deciding whether to proceed to war,[29] through what may have been a matriarchy[30] or "'gyneocracy'".[31] The dates of this constitution's operation are unknown: the League was formed in approximately 1000–1450, but the constitution was oral until written in about 1880.[32] The League still exists.

In Africa


Main articles: Akan people and Abusua

Some 20 million Akan live in Africa, particularly in Ghana and Côte d'Ivoire. (See as well their subgroup, the Ashanti, also called Asante.) Many but not all of the Akan still (2001)[33] practice their traditional matrilineal customs, living in their traditional extended family households, as follows. The traditional Akan economic, political and social organization is based on matrilineal lineages, which are the basis of inheritance and succession. A lineage is defined as all those related by matrilineal descent from a particular ancestress. Several lineages are grouped into a political unit headed by a chief and a council of elders, each of whom is the elected head of a lineage — which itself may include multiple extended-family households. Public offices are thus vested in the lineage, as are land tenure and other lineage property. In other words, lineage property is inherited only by matrilineal kin.[33][34]

Each lineage controls the lineage land farmed by its members, functions together in the veneration of its ancestors, supervises marriages of its members, and settles internal disputes among its members.[35]

The political units above are likewise grouped into eight larger groups called abusua (similar to clans), named Aduana, Agona, Asakyiri, Asenie, Asona, Bretuo, Ekuona and Oyoko. The members of each abusua are united by their belief that they are all descended from the same ancient ancestress. Marriage between members of the same abusua is forbidden. One inherits or is a lifelong member of the lineage, the political unit, and the abusua of one's mother, regardless of one's gender and/or marriage. Note that members and their spouses thus belong to different abusuas, mother and children living and working in one household and their husband/father living and working in a different household.[33][34]

According to this source[36] of further information about the Akan, "A man is strongly related to his mother's brother (wɔfa) but only weakly related to his father's brother. This must be viewed in the context of a polygamous society in which the mother/child bond is likely to be much stronger than the father/child bond. As a result, in inheritance, a man's nephew (sister's son) will have priority over his own son. Uncle-nephew relationships therefore assume a dominant position."[36]

"The principles governing inheritance stress sex, generation and age — that is to say, men come before women and seniors before juniors." When a woman’s brothers are available, a consideration of generational seniority stipulates that the line of brothers be exhausted before the right to inherit lineage property passes down to the next senior genealogical generation of sisters' sons. Finally, "it is when all possible male heirs have been exhausted that the females" may inherit.[36]

Certain other aspects of the Akan culture are determined patrilineally rather than matrilineally. There are 12 patrilineal Ntoro (which means spirit) groups, and everyone belongs to their father's Ntoro group but not to his (matrilineal) family lineage and abusua. Each patrilineal Ntoro group has its own surnames,[37] taboos, ritual purifications, and etiquette.[34]

A recent (2001) book[33] provides this update on the Akan: Some families are changing from the above abusua structure to the nuclear family.[38] Housing, childcare, education, daily work, and elder care etc. are then handled by that individual family rather than by the abusua or clan, especially in the city.[39] The above taboo on marriage within one's abusua is sometimes ignored, but "clan membership" is still important,[38] with many people still living in the abusua framework presented above.[33]


Main article: Tuareg people

The Tuareg (Arabic:طوارق, sometimes spelled Touareg in French, or Twareg in English) are a Berber ethnic group found across several nations in north Africa, including Niger, Mali and Algeria. The Tuareg are clan-based,[40] and are (still, in 2007) "largely matrilineal".[40][41][42] The Tuareg are Islamic, but mixed with a "heavy dose" of their pre-existing beliefs including matrilineality.[40][42]

Tuareg women enjoy high status within their society, compared with their Arab counterparts and with other Berber tribes: Tuareg social status is transmitted through women, with residence often matrilocal.[41] Most women could read and write, while most men were illiterate, concerning themselves mainly with herding livestock and other male activities.[41] The livestock and other movable property were owned by the women, whereas personal property is owned and inherited regardless of gender.[41] In contrast to most other Muslim cultural groups, men wear veils but women do not.[40][42] This custom is discussed in more detail in the Tuareg article's clothing section, which mentions it may be the protection needed against the blowing sand while traversing the Sahara desert.[43]


Main article: Serer maternal clans

The Serer people of Senegal, the Gambia and Mauritania are patrilineal (simanGol in Serer language[44]) as well as matrilineal (tim [45]). There are several Serer matriclans and matriarchs. Some of these matriarchs include Fatim Beye (1335) and Ndoye Demba (1367) — matriarchs of the Joos matriclan which also became a dynasty in Waalo (Senegal). Some matriclans or maternal clans form part of Serer medieval and dynastic history, such as the Guelowars. The most revered clans tend to be rather ancient and form part of Serer ancient history. These proto-Serer clans hold great significance in Serer religion and mythology. Some of these proto-Serer matriclans include the Cegandum and Kagaw, whose historical account is enshrined in Serer religion, mythology and traditions.[46]

In Serer culture, inheritance is both matrilineal and patrilineal.[47] It all depends on the asset being inherited — i.e. whether the asset is a paternal asset — requiring paternal inheritance (kucarla [47]) or a maternal asset — requiring maternal inheritance (den yaay [45] or ƭeen yaay [47]). The actual handling of these maternal assets (such as jewelry, land, livestock, equipment or furniture, etc.) is discussed in the subsection Role of the Tokoor of one of the above-listed main articles.

In Asia


Main article: Minangkabau people

In the Minangkabau matrilineal clan culture in Indonesia, a person's clan name is important in their marriage and their other cultural-related events.[48][49][50] Two totally unrelated people who share the same clan name can never be married because they are considered to be from the same clan mother (unless they come from distant villages). Likewise, when Minangs meet total strangers who share the same clan name, anywhere in Indonesia, they could theoretically expect to feel that they are distant relatives.[51] Minang people do not have a family name or surname; neither is one's important clan name included in one's name; instead one's name is only one's given name.[52]

The Minangs are one of the world's largest matrilineal societies/cultures/ethnic groups, with a population of 4 million in their home province West Sumatra in Indonesia and about 4 million elsewhere, mostly in Indonesia. The Minang people are well-known within their country for their tradition of matrilineality and for their "dedication to Islam" — despite Islam being "supposedly patrilineal".[48] This well-known accommodation, between their traditional complex of customs, called adat, and their religion, was actually worked out to help end the Minangkabau 1821-37 Padri War.[48] This source is available online.[48]

As further described in the same online source, their (matrilineal) adat and their Islam religion each help the other to avoid the extremes of some modern global trends: Their strong belief in and practice of adat helps their Islam religion to not adopt a "simplistic anti-Western" version of Islam, while their strong belief in and practice of both Islam and adat helps the Minangs to limit or avoid some undesired effects of modern global capitalism.[48] (A version of this paragraph can also be found in a different context, in the Minangkabau article's Adat and religion section.)

The Minagkabau are a prime example of a matrilineal culture with female inheritance: the youngest daughter inherits from her mother in exclusion to all her siblings.


Originally, Chinese surnames were derived matrilineally,[53] although by the time of the Shang Dynasty (1600 to 1046 BCE) they had become patrilineal.[53][54] The Chinese character for "surname" (姓) still contains a female radical (女), suggesting its matrilineal etymology.

Archaeological data supports the theory that during the Neolithic period (7000 to 2000 BCE) in China, Chinese matrilineal clans evolved into the usual patrilineal families by passing through a transitional patrilineal clan phase.[54] Evidence includes some "richly furnished" tombs for young women in the early Neolithic Yangshao culture, whose multiple other collective burials imply a matrilineal clan culture.[54] Toward the late Neolithic period, when burials were apparently of couples – "a reflection of patriarchy" – an increasing elaboration of presumed chiefs' burials is reported.[54]

Relatively isolated ethnic minorities such as the Mosuo (Na) in southwestern China are highly matrilineal, and use matrilineal family names, i.e., matrinames. (See the General practice section of the Mosuo article.)

Việt Nam

Most ethnic groups classified as "Montagnards" are matrilineal.[55]


Main articles: Marumakkathayam and Aliyasantana

Several communities in South India practiced matrilineality, especially the Tiyyas[56] and Nair[57][58] (or Nayar) in the state of Kerala, and the Bunts in the states of Kerala and Karnataka. The system of inheritance was known as Marumakkathayam in the Nair community or Aliyasantana in the Bunt community, and both communities were subdivided into clans. This system was exceptional in the sense that it was one of the few traditional systems in western historical records of India that gave women some liberty and the right to property.

In the matrilineal system, the family lived together in a tharavadu which was composed of a mother, her brothers and younger sisters, and her children. The oldest male member was known as the karanavar and was the head of the household, managing the family estate. Lineage was traced through the mother, and the children belonged to the mother's family. All family property was jointly owned. In the event of a partition, the shares of the children were clubbed with that of the mother. The karanavar's property was inherited by his sisters' sons rather than his own sons. (For further information see the articles Nair and Bunts.) Amitav Ghosh has stated that, although there were numerous other matrilineal succession systems in communities of the south Indian coast, the Nairs "achieved an unparalleled eminence in the anthropological literature on matrilineality".[59]

The Marumakkathayam system is not very common in Kerala and Karnataka these days for many reasons. Society has become much more cosmopolitan and modern. Men seek jobs away from their hometown and take their wives and children along with them. In this scenario, a joint-family system is no longer viable. But conceivably, there might still be a few tharavads that pay homage to this system.


A culture similar to the Minangkabau's, above, is present in Negeri Sembilan, Malaysia, ever since West Sumatrans settled there in the 14th century.

In Oceania

Some oceanic societies, such as the Marshallese, the Trobrianders, the Palauans, the Yapese and the Siuai, are characterized by matrilineal descent. The sister's sons or the brothers of the decedent are commonly the successors in these societies.

Matrilineal identification within Judaism

Matrilineality in Judaism is the view that people born of a Jewish mother are themselves Jewish.[60] The conferring of Jewish status through matrilineality is not stated explicitly in the Torah, though Jewish oral tradition maintains this was always the rule, and adduces indirect textual evidence. In biblical times, many Israelites married foreign women, and their children appear to have been accepted as Israelite without question; the Talmud understands that the women in question converted to Judaism. (See the above-mentioned main article for more information. This section, "Matrilineal identification within Judaism", is simply a shortened version of that main article.)

In the Hellenistic period, some evidence indicates that the offspring of intermarriages between Jewish men and non-Jewish women were considered Jewish;[61] as is usual in prerabbinic texts, there is no mention of conversion on the part of the Gentile spouse. On the other hand, Philo of Alexandria calls the child of a Jew and a non-Jew a nothos (bastard), regardless of whether the non-Jewish parent is the father or the mother.[62]

The Mishnah (Kiddushin 3:12) states that, to be a Jew, one must be either the child of a Jewish mother or a convert to Judaism. The Talmud (Kiddushin 68b) derives this law from the Torah. The relevant Torah passage (Deut. 7:3-4) reads: "Thy daughter thou shalt not give to his son, nor shalt thou take his daughter to thy son. For they will turn away thy son from following me, that they may serve other gods."

With the emergence of Jewish denominations and the modern rise in Jewish intermarriage in the 20th century, questions about the law of matrilineal descent have assumed greater importance to the Jewish community at large. The heterogeneous Jewish community is divided on the issue of "Who is a Jew?" via descent; matrilineal descent still is the rule within Orthodox Judaism, which also holds that anyone with a Jewish mother has an irrevocable Jewish status, and matrilineal descent is the norm in the Conservative movement. Since 1983, Reform Judaism in the United States of America officially adopted a bilineal policy: one is a Jew if either of one's parents is Jewish, provided that either (a) one is raised as a Jew, by Reform standards, or (b) one engages in an appropriate act of public identification, formalizing a practice that had been common in Reform synagogues for at least a generation. Karaite Judaism, which includes only the Tanakh in its canon, interprets the Torah to indicate that Jewishness passes exclusively through the father's line. See the above-mentioned main article Matrilineality in Judaism for more-complete context and sources.

Some matrilineal resemblance in animals

Female dominance hierarchies in some primate species, such as wedge-capped capuchins, tend to be established following matrilines. In these instances, the dominant female's daughters, but also sometimes her sons, tend to establish a high social position. This behavior somewhat resembles matrilineal inheritance of position but clearly is not actual matrilineal inheritance.

See also


References & further reading

  • Schlegel, Alice (1972) Male dominance and female autonomy: domestic authority in matrilineal societies. HRAF Press. (review)
  • The origin of Matrilineal Descent in Judaism
  • Why is Judaism passed on through the mother?
  • Louis Jacobs, "There is No Problem of Descent"
  • Matrilineal or Patrilineal Descent Lisa Katz
  • Professor Shaye J. D. Cohen, "The origin of the Matrilineal rule in Rabbinical Judaism"
  • Holden, C. J. & Mace, R. (2003). Spread of cattle led to the loss of matrilineal descent in Africa: a coevolutionary analysis. The Royal Society Full text
  • Holden, C.J., Sear, R. & Mace, R. (2003) Matriliny as daughter-biased investment. Evolution & Human Behavior 24: 99-112. Full text
  • Knight, C. 2008. Early human kinship was matrilineal. In N. J. Allen, H. Callan, R. Dunbar and W. James (eds.), Early Human Kinship. Oxford: Blackwell, pp. 61–82.Full text
  • Sear, R. (2008). Kin and child survival in rural Malawi: Are matrilineal kin always beneficial in a matrilineal society? Human Nature, 19, 277-293. Full text
  • Mattison, S.M. (2011). Evolutionary contributions to solving the "Matrilineal Puzzle": A test of Holden, Sear, and Mace's model. Human Nature, 22, 64-88. Full text

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