In any society, kinship refers to how an individual’s relationships with others are defined, either by blood or marriage. If kinship is based on blood relation, it is called consanguineal. If, however, the kinship is based on marriage, then it is called affinal. The concept of kinship includes several terminologies, two of them being lineage and descent. Lineage can be defined as a principle upon which inheritance is decided. It is mostly established by one parent – either mother or father. Descent can be defined as a person’s affiliation with a group of his/her parents. It can be classified into various types, which will be discussed further in detail.
Descent, in simple terms, establishes how a person is related to his/her kinsman. It can be traced through one of the parents, either through one’s mother or father. Several people can trace their lineage back to a single person/entity. It could be a person or even a mythical entity like an animal, tree, thunder, etc. A group comprising all the people who have a common ancestor is a descent group.
Types of Descent
Descent can be divided into two types based on the rules of descent – unilineal and non-unilineal or cognatic descent. Mostly, unilineal descent refers to a descent group where the line of ancestry is traced in a unilineal fashion or using a single parent only.
Unilineal descent can further be divided into patrilineal and matrilineal, based on whether the ancestry line is traced through father or mother.
Patrilineal Descent: In a patriarchal kinship system, inheritance, position, authority, and property are only passed down through men. Agnatic descent is another name for it. Sons and daughters, for example, can trace their lineage from their fathers. Both sons and daughters of sons will be a part of the grandfather’s group, but the daughter’s children would be of her husband’s descent group.
Many of the world’s societies, such as the classical Romans, the Chinese, and India’s Hindu civilisation, fall within this category. Hinduism is a society in which the rule of descent governs the transfer of power and immovable property from one generation to the next. The heir is the oldest son of the family.
Matrilineal Descent: In a matriarchal kinship system, lineage tracing for inheritance, property, authority happens through the mother. It also goes by the name of uterine descent. A matrilineal descent group comprises a lady, her siblings, her sisters’ children, her own children, her daughter’s children, her granddaughter’s children and so on. The societies that follow the rule of matrilineal descent are numbered.
Rules of descent other than unilineal are as follows:
Bilineal or double descent: Descent is traced through both the parents. In societies that go by bilineal rule, immovable assets like property are inherited through patrilineal descent, and moveable assets like gold, small livestock, etc., are inherited through the mother’s side.
Ambilineal or cognatic descent: In this system, individuals decide how they want to trace back their lineage. They can do so via their father or mother or both.
Parallel Descent: A rather rare rule of descent, it is sex-specific in which a boy follows patrilineal descent, and a girl follows matrilineal descent.
What is lineage?
Descent groups can further be decided into residential groups called clans, which can further be divided into a lineage. In Hindu society, clans are referred to as gotras. Now, in each clan, there are several lineages. Lineage is the smallest unilateral descent group in which the ancestor is generally the 5th or 6th ancestor. Very strong kinship bonds exist between members of a lineage.
Why is it important?
It gives an individual identity and a sense of belonging to a group. Moreover, it also helps establish who gets to marry whom. In most societies, it is frowned upon when two people of a single clan or lineage marry each other. Two individuals from different descent groups have to come together for matrimonial purposes. This is desirable biologically as well for having sufficient gene variation.
This gives rise to two terms – endogamy and exogamy. Marrying within a group is called endogamy, and marrying outside one’s group is called exogamy.
At the time of birth, a child is born into a particular descent group, defined by either his father’s side or mother’s side or both. When the lineage is defined by the paternal side, then it is termed patrilineal descent, a practice followed in most parts of India. In a few rare cases, lineage can be defined by the maternal side and is termed matrilineal descent. Such descent rules help establish the rules of ancestry, property and asset inheritance, culture propagation etc. A descent group is huge and consists of smaller lineages.