Descent Structures

Unilineal descent groups come in many different forms and sizes. The ancient Hebrews had large descent groups, which included tens of thousands of people and were sub-divided into smaller constituent units on a number of levels. They also maintained detailed genealogical records to document the statuses that they held as lineage members. Yanomamo groups usually number under a hundred and frequent split up and become dissolved. The Dani have large groups but keep no track of ancestry at all and simply know that they belong to the same clans as their fathers. These variant structural features of descent organization are significant for understanding how they assume meaning and function in the course of social life. We shall discuss four types of groups that are common in both patrilineal and matrilineal systems.

  1. Lineages
  2. Segments
  3. Clans
  4. Moieties

These structural features are represented among our case studies as follows:


Generational Depth








Akan Minor Segment Major Segment Clan
Igbo Minimal Segment Minor Segment Major Segment Maximal Segment
Hebrews Minor Segment Major Segment Maximal Segment
Yanomamo Minimal Segment Moiety/Lineage
Turkish Lineage
Dani Clan/Sib Moiety

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