Igbo Lineage Organization

Igbo descent organization is based on a segmentary patrilineal system, which, like the Akan system, involves the development of localized corporate lineages. The core members of a patrilineage, descended from a male ancestor within eight to ten generations, form the basic descent group. They inhabit a single territory involving a settled village, or in some cases, interlinked dispersed farmsteads, and the adjoining agricultural land. A single lineage will usually form the bulk of the settlement’s inhabitants, but several separate lineages may sometimes join to form a single local group. Villages are more widely integrated into a larger territorial unit, the village group, through a series of alliances, common institutions, and joint activities. In some cases, this broader unity is underwritten by a claim that the component lineages are all descended from a remote common ancestor. Within the village, the lineages are subdivided into major segments or sublineages, which are in turn further subdivided into minor segments, the minimal units of the system. This branching is reflected in the village’s spatial layout. The major segments occupy contiguous wards within the village. The minor ones assume the form of compounds, the basic domestic units. Compounds are also complexly subdivided, but according to patterns of marriage and residence rather than to those of descent. (See Igbo domestic organization).

The segmentary structure and the correspondance between kin groups and territorial units can be diagrammed as follows:

Igbo lineage structure

According to the rule of patrilineal inheritance, people normally acquire membership in these various descent groups through their fathers. However, the Igbo system involves an interesting quirk that sometimes allows for descent to pass through a woman rather than a man. The kinship status and identity of a child is established as a consequence of the fact that his or her father has paid a sizable bride price to his wife’s family during the arrangement of the marriage. If a child is born out of wedlock, and thus without the appropriate compensation, then he or she becomes a member of the mother’s patrilineage. Furthermore, in the Igbo system of “woman marriage”, a woman can pay a bride price and acquire a wife on her own account. In this case, the female “husband” will be considered the sociological father of any children that her “wife” gives birth to and they will thus belong to the “husband’s” patrilineage. The biological father, since he has not provided any marriage payment, will have no necessary relationship to his offspring and will not be able to include him/her as a patrilineal descendent.

© Brian Schwimmer, All rights reserved
Department of Anthropology
University of Manitoba
Created: April 2002
Last updated: September 2003