While all unilineal descent groups can be considered lineages in a general sense, anthropologists give the term a limited technical meaning.

Validation of the genealogical facts of descent can be carried out in a number of ways. Often each individual will memorize his or her ancestry and recount it to his or her children. In some cases specialized institutions will arise to maintain ancestral records. Among the Malinke people of West Africa, the griot assumes the role of official oral historian, committing to memory the full descent lines of indigenous royalty, nobility and other people of importance. In ancient Israel written genealogies were maintained and were consulted to validate or invalidate peoples' claims to status. (See the account of the rejection of repatriated exiles to Israelite citizenship and priestly titles in the Book of Ezra 2:59-63).

Even in the best of circumstances, the accuracy of genealogies is questionable, even more so when they entail access to position, wealth, and power. Often the process of "telescoping" will occur, in which one or more actual ancestors will become forgotten so that "fathers" and "sons" may have in reality been several generations removed. (As a rule of thumb, any genealogy over 12 generations will contain such missing links.) At other times anomalies, such as the incorporation of a woman's children into a patrilineage, will be glossed over by changing a female ancestor into a male. More intentional changes will also be attempted when individuals or factions attempt to establish membership or change status within the group by fabricating an ancestor or pedigree. Thus the recounting of particular descent lines must often be understood as an idiom for documenting, challenging, or authenticating social, economic, and political claims rather than as a accurate historical account.

Noah's nakedness

The Aftermath of Noah's Defilement
Sistine Chapel, Michaelangelo

The biblical story of Noah and his sons provides an example of the use of genealogy to underwrite political claims. Noah's third son, named Canaan or Ham, the father of Canaan, alternatively, is depicted as violating his father after a drinking bout(Genesis:9). He is accordingly cursed to be a "slave of slaves", as are his imputed descendants, the Canaanites, who constituted a servile caste in ancient Israel. This story was latter reinterpreted to justify slavery in the United States. A final twist was added in the 19th century by the "hamitic hypothesis", a theory advanced by racial theorists to attribute Sub-Saharan historical advancements to Mediterranean invaders.

Previous Page | Next Page | Unit Menu | Main Menu

© 1995 Brian Schwimmer, All rights reserved
Department of Anthropology
University of Manitoba