Akan Lineage Organization

The Akan are best known for their colorful kingdoms, which are located throughout the forest zones of southern Ghana and Cote d'Ivoire. The tropical environment has supplied them with valuable resources for both commercial cocoa farming, a recent economic innovation, and gold mining, which in former times supported regal opulence and pageantry. The Ashanti empire, the largest and most powerful of the precolonial polities, owes its prominence to is location within the region's richest goldfields. The traditional kingdom remains an important national cultural and political force and is inseparably tied to the structures and functions of the matrilineal descent system which forms the foundation for the Akan social order.

Ashanti Gold Weight.

These small brass figurines were used to weigh gold dust, a major trade good and exchange medium. The weights were sometimes styled to portray a proverb, in this case: "Only birds of the same abusua (family or clan) play together on the same tree".
Source: Martha Erlich, 1995 Shaping for the Fire.

Lineage Structures. The Akan have a multitiered segmentary structure consisting of matrilineal clans, major matrilineages, and minor lineage segments. The clans number eight in total and are not localized, including members throughout all the kingdoms. Their origins are attributed to mythical female ancestors, and no attempt is made to trace descent lines to the groups' founders. They assume little importance in the lives of their members, beyond creating a context for friendship among fellow clan members from distant localities. However, sexual relations or marriage between members of the same clan is prohibited as incestuous.

On the next level, maximal lineages (abusua) assume the form of localized groups that make up the Akan town (kuro), a nucleated settlement of sometimes as many as several thousand inhabitants, which occupies the lowest administrative level of the territorial and political structure. Each town is composed of 5 to 8 matrilineages, each of which occupies a continuous residential quarter within the settlement. The maximal lineages are established on the basis of common matrilineal descent from a known female ancestor traced back through 10 to 12 generations. They are subdivided into minor lineages that are ranked according to lines of seniority within the genealogical record. As well as forming a coherent neighborhood, the maximal lineage constitutes a fundamental corporate group with religious, political, social and economic functions.

Ritual Functions: Revering the Ancestors. The lineage organization is defined and sanctioned primarily through the religious belief and ritual system that centers on ancestral worship. While the descent groupings are formed through female lines, ritual observance focuses on the spirits of deceased male members incarnated in carved wooden stools. During a man's assumption of full social maturity, he purchases stool which is considered an exclusive possession and an extension of his personality. Upon his death, this object is placed in a special room that serves as common repository for the lineage as a whole. Every 6 weeks, special adae ceremonies are held. The family's stools are removed and offered sacrifices of liquor, domestic animals, and other foods to propitiate the ancestral spirits, whose blessings are necessary for the welfare of their progeny. Adae ceremonies and annual odwira celebrations are also held for the stools of political officials, -- chiefs, kings, and queen mothers (the only instance of a female stool)-- and form major occasions for public religious worship. The Ashanti have added another element to this ritual system in the form of the golden stool, which represents the abstract spirit of the whole nation rather of a particular historical ancestor. Similar observances and sacrifices are held during funerals, rites of passage at which the living lineage members pass on the the next stage in a cycle which includes the living, the dead, and the yet-to-be born, as the deceased will eventually be reincarnated within the same matriline. The religious belief structure and the concrete representation of matrilineages and other social groupings as ancestral relics establishes the rationale for assigning important corporate rights in statuses, land, and people.

Ashanti Stool

Lineages in the Political Economy.

Each town forms the bottom layer of a multilevel administrative hierarchy and is locally ruled and represented by a chief (ohene) in cooperation with a town council. Official positions on the municipal governing body are allocated to all the maximal lineages in the settlement, each of which independently selects one or sometimes two representatives from among its members. Chiefs and co-reigning queen mothers are chosen from the royal lineage, which asserts presidence on the basis of first settlement, but the council is consulted on the choice of a successor and can institute impeachment procedures (destoolings). There are no fixed rules of succession, but titled political positions within a lineage's control are often rotated among its segments to ensure equitable participation in the political process. (See Schwimmer 1976 for a discussion of rotational principles in the formation of new settlements.)

In addition to selecting municipal representatives, local matrilineages are also organized under internal leaders, who manage the considerable assets, activities, and responsibilities of the group. Each lineage is subject to the authority of a family elder (abusua panyin), who consults with his peers to make and carry out decisions affecting economic, political, and ritual matters and to settle internal disputes. He is assisted by a female counterpart, who has a special responsibility for the lineage's women and also acts as an advisor and the official authority on family history, a critical element in assigning rights and statuses. Succession to leadership is determined by genealogical seniority within the group and is assigned to a man or woman who must be:

  1. of the most remote generation that has living members
  2. in the senior minor segment that still has members in generation 1,
  3. the eldest person of the appropriate sex in the segment identified in 2.

(Note: This information is based on my own field work among an Akuapem group. Fortes (1950) maintains, from Ashanti data, that the abusua panyin and oba panyin are elected from the lineage at large.)

Economic functions of the lineage focus on land ownership, which is invested in the ancestors and, on their behalf, the abusua panyin as a trustee for the group. Accordingly, land cannot be sold or otherwise permanently alienated. Actual distribution of farm plots for agricultural use is assigned to minor lineage segments, which are responsible for mundane and day-to-day concerns. Individual tenure and farm management is left to household heads, who are usually men and often work the soil with the assistance of wives and children (see Akan domestic organization). The planted crops and any income they yield are considered individual property and can be given to household members whether or not they belong to the lineage which owns the land. (Wives and children are of course not be members of the household head's matrilineage.) In the traditional system this multiplicity of rights in land and its products were of little consequence, since cash incomes were negligible and plots were used only for two or three years within a long fallow regime. Cocoa farming has complicated the balance of rights because of the substantial cash value of the crop and because tree plantations involve permanent land use. Thus the matrilineage, or "family" (usually the minor segment) can lay claim to a cocoa farm located on its land, but the "people of the house" (the farmer's wife and children) can make a counter claim because of the labour they have invested in ponating and maintenance. In cases of conflict, property is usually divided to compensate both sets of interests.

Matrilineal inheritance and succession among the Akan is usually formulated in terms of the transfer of property and status from mother's brothers to sister's sons. However, generational seniority imposes a complication and dictates that property must first pass successively through a group of brothers and can descend to sisters' sons only after all the males within a generation have died. (Formerly the nephew was further preempted by cousins within the senior generation of collateral branches, but this practice has been modified to restrict inheritance within a sibling group.) Sisters usually cannot inherit a man's property but can be heir to their sons if they or their sisters have no other male children. Women's property, however, is allocated to other women, i.e. sisters and daughters in that order of precedence, and is awarded to men only if their are no female heirs. The traditional inheritance system of course excluded direct transfer of family property to wives and children. However, responsibility for these dependents was assumed by the heir, usually through leverate marriage. In recent times opportunities for accumulating savings and property without the assistance of lineage has allowed men to provide for wives and children through gift and oral or written wills. Occasions for ambiguities and conflicts are numerous.

The matrilineage exercises corporate rights over its individual members as well as its property. The most frequent imposition of collective interests in persons involves the control of marriages and the donation and receipt of bride wealth. Descent groups are strictly exogamous and all sexual contact between members is forbidden within the segment, maximal lineage, and wider clan. Among other implications, these stipulations support arranged marriages that initiate or continue alliances and cooperation between descent groups, usually within the same town, which is predominantly endogamous. Lineage leaders manage the alliance system though both insistence on cross-cousin marriages and control of the financial resources and negotiations involved in the bride wealth payments that must be given to the wife's family in several stages in the course of a marital relationship.

The various functions, rights, and responsibilities assigned to matrilineal structures make their strength and continuity essential for the welfare of their members and the integrity of the wider social order. Economic and demographic uncertainties, however, can threaten the stability of the individual descent lines and of the whole system. Very real problems emerge if a minor segment or, less frequently, a maximal lineage has few daughters through whom the through whom the line can continue. Gender ratio imbalances can be offset through a number of social mechanisms including the simple practice of adoption, which usually occurs between minor segments, and a more intricate pattern of slave marriage.

In precolonial times the Akan had developed an institutionalized form of slavery , which may have been in part intensified by their participation in the transcontinental slave trade. The practice focused on domestic slavery, through which individual bondsmen became incorporated into their owner's household and were granted fairly extensive privileges, including inheritance rights and the right to marry non-slaves. a woman married a male slave, her children became incorporated into her lineage through the normal application of the matrilineal descent rule. If a man married a female slave or otherwise had children by her, the offspring had no automatic lineage status. However, they could be granted membership in their father’s lineage. In the event that a man had no entitled heirs among the free members of his matrilineage, a slave son could inherit matrilineal property and pass it on to his sister’s children, who would form a new line of continuity. (Ironically, a man could pass matrilineal property on to a “slave child,” but not to a son of free status.) Frequent recourse to this practice has resulted in the presence of several “attached” segments within maximal lineages, whose origins are usually overlooked to avoid embarrassment. Interestingly, an exact mirror image of this pattern is described in the Old Testament to deal with the corresponding problem in patrilineal Hebrew society, the continuity of a line in which only daughters are born (I Chronicles 2:35). (See ancient Hebrew lineage organization.)

© Brian Schwimmer, All rights reserved
Department of Anthropology
University of Manitoba
Page created: 1995
Last updated: September 2003