Answer by Raakhee V. Menon:
I belong to a community in India that is still matrilineal. There’s a basic difference between matrilineal and matriarchal. Many people tend to confuse between both or use one as a synonym for the other. They’re both different.
A matriarchy is one where the head of the family is always a woman. A matrilineal society is one where the bloodline of the family is carried on through the women.
In our community, for instance, the default ‘head of the family’ was (and still largely is) always the eldest living member. It didn’t matter if it is a man or a woman. Back in the days, women of the family and their children inherited almost all the family wealth. The men also inherited shares of their mother’s property, but after their death, their property would be inherited by their sisters’ children. Their children or wife had no rights over them. The wife and children of the men belonged to their family. This arrangement ensured that the family property never changed hands and remained in the possession of one single family for centuries. The family home was always inherited by the eldest female daughter. The birth of a girl child is still celebrated with a lot of fanfare as it is through the girls that the family lives on. Having a boy or two is fine, but they’re useless when it comes to carrying forward the family name. So everyone tries to have the maximum number of daughters. My mom is quite a star for having two girls. If we had more sisters, it would have been even more celebratory.
I think this was mainly to ensure that the family stayed together… the property stayed in their hands… the heirloom jewelry stayed in the family… there were multiple benefits. Women are naturally inclined to pull in those they love and keep them close. There’s always a tendency to stick to the roots. Women are a binding force in any family. They believe in strengthening and reinforcing their roots. Whereas men are more of the adventurous kind. They usually believe in moving away in search of fresh pastures, new opportunities, a new life… they believe in starting small and then growing bigger. It gives them a thrill of having achieved something. When men are given the reins of a family, they branch out and they encourage spreading out. This could, in the long run, lead to extensive partition of the family wealth and if a family had, say, a 100 plots of land with them, with every passing generation, it would become smaller and smaller and smaller… some would sell their land, some would keep them, some would give it to their children, or whatever. Women attach sentiments to such things, whereas men seldom do. Now I know that we have several pieces of heirloom jewelry that are hundreds of years old. It has been passed down to us through the generations. It belonged to my grandmother and her mother before that and to her mother even before that, and I don’t know how back I’d have to go. Each of them are priceless and I’d rather give up my life than even think about doing anything destructive with them. But imagine if they were handed down through the males. Each daughter-in-law would get some pieces. They know nothing about its history or the stories behind it. They have only married and come into the family. A daughter-in-law will not be able to understand the value of a piece of heirloom as much as a daughter who has grown up listening to stories of its glory can. This is just one example. This can be applied to all aspects.
By this arrangement, the women in the family were immensely powerful and did not depend on men much… especially when it came to money. They were financially independent… something not very commonly seen among other communities during the same period. People stayed in the maternal home with was usually an enormous mansion with a large number of people in one huge joint family. Even now, we are not permitted to marry anyone who bears the same family name as us… no matter how distantly they are related. They are our own blood… like a brother or sister. You can read more about this system here →
I’m not entirely sure about the 35,000 years thing. But my community in Kerala followed the matrilineal system for centuries. In 1975, the government ruled that the property of men should go to their children and not to their sisters’ children, and that property division should be equal and fair. This is the only major change that has been brought about. My sister and I carry our mother’s family name, and have no blood relation to anyone on our dad’s side (except with Dad). We don’t observe mourning for anyone who has died in dad’s family, though he has to. We can lead a normal life.
Why matriarchal society of ancient human could last so many years in the past? According to the ESS, we can see the most stable male to female ratio is 1:1. So, why could this kind of society last for almost 35,000 years?