According to evolutionary theory, the early human society lived in promiscuity. Due to the
biological factors of pregnancy and childbirth, it was easier to trace biological relationship of
children to their mothers, than to their fathers. Hence, human organization at a later stage
revolved around mothers than around fathers. From matriliny there evolved patriliny when
men were able to assert their superiority. This evolutionary theory from promiscuity to
patriliny via matriliny is now discarded (Chacko, 1998). Both patrilineal and matrilineal
systems have developed and flourished independently.
One of the few parts in the world where people rejoice when a girl is born, is a unique
societal structure, which is found among the Khasis, a tribe of Meghalaya, a small
northeastern state of India. It is one of the few areas in the world where a woman proposes
marriage and where houses bear the name of a woman instead of a man. Anthropologists
describe it as a matrilineal society (Rasid, 1982).
Characteristics of Matrilineal System
Early evolutionists have attempted to demonstrate that most societies in this universe have
eventually evolved from matriarchy to their present form. Today assumptions of universal
male dominance, rather than universal female dominance hold the stage (Fox, 1967; Divale
and Harris, 1976). Analyses of the matrilineal system operating in a variety of cultural and
ecological settings and their comparison with kinship systems based on different principals of
descent, inheritance and succession, have contributed to a clearer understanding of certain
distinctive type of social structure.
Most of the anthropologists do not believe in the existence of any true matriarchy.
They, however, suggest that there exist three characteristics of matriarchy, viz., descent
through the mother (family name through mother), matrilocal residential system (husband
lives at the residence of wife after marriage) and inheritance of property by females. Thus,
any society, which follows these three norms, is presently called matrilineal society.
In a matrilineal society, the descent or the family name is through the mother's side,
and is known as ‘matrilineal descent’. This affiliates an individual with kin of both sexes,
related to him or her through women only. Kapadia (1966) has mentioned that all children of
a woman take the family name of their mother. As decent is through female side, only the
children of the female of the family can become members of the family. The children of the
male child cannot be the member of his mother’s family as they cannot take the family name
of their fathers.
Matrilineal societies also exhibit interesting variety of residence patterns, like, ‘a man
residing with his wife's matrilineal kin’, ‘a wife residing with her husband's matrilineal kin’
or ‘with his paternal kin’, ‘couples settling down together in a new residence’, or the ‘two
living with their respective natal groups following the duolocal pattern’ (Richards, 1950;
Dube, 1969). Traditionally, it has been assumed that in those societies where married children
live near or with kin, residence will tend to be patrilocal if males contribute more to the
economy and matrilocal if women contribute more (Ember and Ember, 1971; Divale, 1974).
Ember and Ember (1971) have also mentioned that those cross-cultural evidences also
suggest that in societies where war exists amongst the neighboring communities, residence is
almost always matrilocal.