Monday, March 23, 2015

Muddling Through "Matrilineal"

In trying to explain to people the DNA testing concept of patrilineal and matrilineal lines, I’ve always been at a loss to succinctly deliver the goods. Short of actually pulling out pen and paper and mocking up a family tree chart—to which I add the line tracing both the patrilineal and matrilineal concepts—I’m often greeted with blank stares. Even by people smitten by the genealogy bug.

How can this be, I often wonder. But it is what it is. Still, it bugs me—just a tiny bit—because I realize the need for the genetic genealogy community to be mindful of good P.R. The DNA world—a world of terms and concepts too “science-y” to emit that user-friendly invitation to partake of its treasures—could use some capable ambassadors to bridge the gap between mind-boggling concepts and the warm fuzzies of customer satisfaction.

Today, while reading fellow blogger Randy Seaver’s week in review, I noticed his suggestion of a DNA blog I wasn’t familiar with. Since I could use all the help I can get in mounting that steep DNA learning curve, I took Randy’s suggestion and clicked on over to Kitty Cooper’s Blog. There, while perusing her archives, the answer to my little DNA PR dilemma slithered out of my subconscious and onto my mental horizon.

Let me try it out here. If you didn’t already know what the terms patrilineal and matrilineal meant, I’d ask you to imagine a world filled with countries having either of only two forms of government. One would be a monarchy. The other would be a democracy.

Now, assuming for a moment that the only ones who could become kings in that monarchy would be men, and the only ones in that democracy who could be elected to represent the people would be women, we have now set the stage for our discussion about patrilineal and matrilineal lines.

You see, the patrilineal concept is like the succession of sons inheriting the throne upon the death of their father, the king. Only “kings” could be in the patrilineal line: the current king now reigning is son of the king who just died. That king was son of the previous king. As far back as the history of that monarchy could go—assuming this was a world without war (and definitely devoid of intrigue)—the line would always pass from a man to his father. That is the patrilineal line: like a monarchy. (Sorry, Queen Elizabeth!)

When I explain what I’m trying to achieve with Y-DNA and mtDNA tests, it seems the patrilineal concept has a slightly better chance of being grasped by the innocent bystanders I am accosting with my testing proposals. So let’s test our political analogy on the matrilineal concept and see if it works as well as the monarchy example for the men.

Our second type of government, as I mentioned, would be a democracy. In other words, each governing position would be filled by election. Now, totally opposite of the monarchy we just discussed in our previous example, imagine that the only ones who could be elected in this other type of country would be women—not men. For every election cycle (in other words, for every generation), another woman would fill the position. One could never be quite sure who the next senator would be, for instance, but one thing you’d know for sure: it would be another woman.

Election cycle after election cycle—in other words, generation after generation—you knew someone would be selected to fill the position, but with each iteration came a woman with a different name. One generation, it could be Susan Smith. Another generation, it might be Jane Jones. Though the names would always change, each elected woman would still always receive the title, Senator.

To trace the history of this government back in time, the challenge would not be to find the most recent Senator, Jane Jones, and follow her surname back through time. It would be, instead, to find the list of senators, and follow that senatorial succession along its historical timeline. It would be the elected role of senator—in genealogy, that would be the role of mother—that is followed in our study. The office, not the person—from senator to senator to senator.

Perhaps that muddies the waters just as much as any other description I’ve heard. I don’t know. What I do know, though, is that when I mention following the genetic line of the mother, people often seem to think of all the women in a family—not just the mother, her mother, and the mother before that one. Or to begin following the ancestors of that woman's surname. But in the case of the mother's line, as we know, each generation presents a different mother's maiden name.

As if in one great big dance—or one historic succession of elections—the female players keep changing position. Without a set surname remaining constant while we trace the family back through time, the only established identity these women have is their title: in my allegory, senator—or, in the case of genetic genealogy, mother.

Maybe, as genetic genealogy testing becomes more prevalent—and, hopefully, the cost continues to come down, making the process more pocketbook-friendly as well—it will suffice all but the most novice among us to simply bandy about the terms, patrilineal and matrilineal. Until then, barring the handy use of pen and paper, perhaps a comparison like this will help clear up the definitions.


  1. Seems like a straight-forward concept to me - a mother's mother's mother... I'm not sure why anyone would have trouble understanding this... or realizing the challenge that represents since the woman, by and large, has assumed the husband's last name through the centuries (for better or worse) -- except for some places like Scandinavia (that system boggles my mind, the Eric's son thing...)

    1. It's funny, Iggy, when I explain "matrilineal" to people, and then have them work on it for themselves, so many get confused and want to mix in, say, the father's mother or other women into the matrilineal line. They can verbalize the defined concept, but the confusion shows when they try to put it into practice. I'm not sure why.

  2. I really like the way you have explained this.

  3. I must be a visual person I need to see Family Trees on paper:)

    1. With your love of photography, Far Side, I'm sure you are a visual person! And sketching this out on paper gets the point across the clearest.


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