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17 October 2003
Men empowered by cattle ownership

Research into language, social organisation and cultural trends among 68 Bantu-speaking African cultures suggests that the spread of cattle in Africa caused societies to shift from female to male lines of descent. Researchers found that when men acquired cows, many matrilineal societies in Africa became patrilineal. The anthropologists who conducted the study believe that similar changes took place in India, Europe and many Western societies, with a legacy that remains today.
     In matrilineal societies property, political succession and residence are passed down through females. Female-based lines of descent exist today in only 17% of cultures worldwide, most of which are in regions which are still dominated by simple farming without ploughs or large domestic livestock. Examples can be found in Central Africa, the Pacific Islands and within some Native American cultures. Women in such groups often enjoy a degree of sexual freedom that makes fatherhood uncertain, so men frequently ensure their line of descent by passing over their inheritance to a sister’s son or daughter. Clare Holden, an anthropological research fellow at University College London and co-author of a paper published by the UK Royal Society, says: “Horticultural societies tend to be matrilineal because there are few really valuable resources that would benefit sons much more than daughters, so the factor of paternity uncertainty leads to daughter-based inheritance.” But because livestock are attractive to raiders, they require defence by males. Hence a power shift that also enabled males to use these valuable resources as a bargaining tool in marriage and to support many wives. Holden believes that the same principle would apply to any large valuable herd animal, such as camels. For similar reasons, areas where land was scarce and required defence, as, for example, in Europe and India, also tended to develop patrilinear societies.
     Mark Pagel, professor of evolutionary biology in the School of Animal and Microbial Sciences at the University of Reading, agrees with the findings and supports the theory that the implications could extend beyond Africa. “There is every reason to believe that this is a general explanation that could and probably does apply everywhere else in the world.”

Source: discoverynews.com (16 October 2003)

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