Yanomamo Lineage Organization

The Yanomamo are organized into named localized lineage groupings on the basis of patrilineal descent. Lineage groups are quite shallow and small. They seldom extend beyond three adult generations (the descendants of a single great-grandfather) or include as many as 100 members. Generational depth and group size are limited by the frequent segmentation. Division usually occurs because of disputes between cousins over rights to women who are due to marry into the group in the system of exchange marriage. Ensuing fights lead to internal violence, separation of segments (usually groups of brothers), and relocation to new settlement and farming locations. The newly formed daughter lineages retain no ties with each other and are normally opposed as enemies. Genealogical connections are fogotten with the passing of the generations because of a stipulation forbidding the mention of the names of the dead and, thereby, of any connecting ancestral links (Chagnon 1983).

Lineages function as territorial units, inhabiting a common settlement and normally foster mutual cooperation and support among their members, often focusing on organizing alliances and battles in a cycle of endemic warfare. Their central dynamics are set in motion by their role in the marriage exchange system. They are exogamous and their members consult jointly in the selection of marriage partners for their sons and daughters within the web of marriage exhanges with allied lineage groups.

The marriage system normally acts to construct regular relationship between pairs of lineages who regularly intermarry through a system of bilateral cross cousin marriage. Intermarrying units tend to pair off and exclusively occupy the same village, thereby generating a moiety system. Members from other lineages may also reside in the village and marry within it, but two intermarrying moieties will usually dominate the settlement both numerically and socially. When lineages segment they usually include their closest affines when migrating to a new settlement, thereby reproducing the moiety structure.

Paired Intermarrying Lineages

Note: lines connecting people from below indicate marriages.

Yanomamo lineages may be said to exert a limited range of corporate functions through collective rights to marry off their women and claim wives in exchange within the marriage system. Beyond this, the group does not manage joint assets, such as land, that frequently assume importance in other unilineal societies.

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