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Evolutionary Contributions to Solving the "Matrilineal Puzzle" A Test of Holden, Sear, and Mace's Model


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Matriliny has long been debated by anthropologists positing either its primitive or its puzzling nature. More recently, evolutionary anthropologists have attempted to recast matriliny as an adaptive solution to modern social and ecological environments, tying together much of what was known to be associated with matriliny. This paper briefly reviews the major anthropological currents in studies of matriliny and discusses the contribution of evolutionary anthropology to this body of literature. It discusses the utility of an evolutionary framework in the context of the first independent test of Holden et al.'s 2003 model of matriliny as daughter-biased investment. It finds that historical daughter-biased transmission of land among the Mosuo is consistent with the model, whereas current income transmission is not. In both cases, resources had equivalent impacts on male and female reproduction, a result which predicts daughter-biased resource transmission given any nonzero level of paternity uncertainty. However, whereas land was transmitted traditionally to daughters, income today is invested in both sexes. Possible reasons for this discrepancy are discussed.
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Evolutionary Contributions to Solving
the Matrilineal Puzzle
A Test of Holden, Sear, and Maces Model
Siobhán M. Mattison
Received: 20 April 2010 /Accepted: 1 November 2010 /Published online: 31 May 2011
#Springer Science+Business Media, LLC 2011
Abstract Matriliny has long been debated by anthropologists positing either its
primitive or its puzzling nature. More recently, evolutionary anthropologists have
attempted to recast matriliny as an adaptive solution to modern social and ecological
environments, tying together much of what was known to be associated with
matriliny. This paper briefly reviews the major anthropological currents in studies of
matriliny and discusses the contribution of evolutionary anthropology to this body of
literature. It discusses the utility of an evolutionary framework in the context of the
first independent test of Holden et al.s 2003 model of matriliny as daughter-biased
investment. It finds that historical daughter-biased transmission of land among the
Mosuo is consistent with the model, whereas current income transmission is not. In
both cases, resources had equivalent impacts on male and female reproduction, a
result which predicts daughter-biased resource transmission given any nonzero level
of paternity uncertainty. However, whereas land was transmitted traditionally to
daughters, income today is invested in both sexes. Possible reasons for this
discrepancy are discussed.
Keywords Mosuo .Evolution .Kinship .Matriliny .Sex-biased parental investment .
Intergenerational transmission of wealth
In matrilineal kinship systems, descent and inheritance are directed toward kin
related through females. Postmarital residence is variable but is often with the brides
mother (uxorilocal), the grooms mothers brother (avunculocal), or, somewhat less
commonly, involves separate residences for the bride and groom (nata- or duolocal;
Driver and Schuessler 1967; Gough 1961a; Murdock 1949). Furthermore, because
certain forms of altruism are directed toward and received from kin related through
females in matrilineal kinship systems, the role of the father and other affinal
Hum Nat (2011) 22:6488
DOI 10.1007/s12110-011-9107-7
S. M. Mattison (*)
Department of Anthropology and Morrison Institute for Population and Resource Studies,
Stanford University, Main Quad, Building 50, 450 Serra Mall, Stanford, CA 943052034, USA
relations is often diminished relative to their role in patrilineal or bilateral societies;
instead, the mothers brother often assumes the highest status in the family.
The special position of the mothers brother has been the subject of much
puzzlement and debate in anthropology: its occurrence in patrilineal societies has
been said to defy normative unilineal principles (e.g., see Bloch and Sperber 2002
for a review) and its emphasis in matrilineal societies to undermine the principle of a
males authority over his offspring (e.g., Richards 1950; Schneider 1961; Schneider
and Gough 1961). Explanations for this have been sought on a variety of theoretical
grounds, from unilineal evolutionist (e.g., Bachofen 1967; Morgan 1964)to
functional (e.g., Malinowski 1930; Radcliffe-Brown 1924), to structural-functional
(e.g., Fox 1983; Murdock1949; Richards 1950; Schneider and Gough 1961), to
evolutionary (e.g., Alexander 1974,1977; Flinn 1981; Hartung 1976,1981,1985;
Holden and Mace 2003; Holden et al. 2003). This paper briefly reviews the rationale
underlying various statements of what has become known as the matrilineal puzzle
(Richards 1950) and the attempts to solveit. In line with the purpose of this
special issue, it focuses on the contributions of quantitative evolutionary anthro-
pologists by way of testing a recent model explaining the evolution of matriliny as
daughter-biased investment (Holden et al. 2003) among the matrilineal Mosuo of
Southwest China. As the first independent test of this model, this paper verifies the
models main predictions in a new setting, while highlighting some nuances in its
application in contemporary contexts, thereby adding to the empirical foundations of
our understanding of matrilineal kinship.
The Matrilineal Puzzle: Inception and Conception
The study of matriliny has a long history in anthropology and yet one that may be
largely unfamiliar to students of evolutionary anthropology (Knight 2008). With the
publication of Das Mutterrecht (Mother Right) in 1861, Bachofen (1967) was the
first anthropologist to theorize about the nature of matrilineal kinship (Divale 1974).
In 1877, Lewis Henry Morgan (1964), struck by similarities in classificatory kinship
terminology among matrilineal Native American tribes, pioneered (along with E. B.
Tylor, and followed by McLennan, Engels, and others) the school of evolutionism,
which described kinship systems as evolving in a unilineal fashion whereby
matriliny, which was thought to be associated with group marriage, was seen as a
primitive stage of evolution experienced by all societies on their route toward
civilized monogamy. In so doing, Morgan helped to establish social anthropology as
its own discipline (Knight 2008) and incited generations of subsequent debate about
the primacy of matrilineal kinship and the universality of human kinship elements
and structure.
The arguments of early evolutionists undoubtedly impacted the framing of the
matrilineal puzzle as it was conceived in the mid-twentieth century. According to the
unilineal evolutionists, when kinship elements of a given society mirrored those
expected in matrilineal societies, for example, they were deemed survivals”—
vestiges of previous matriliny and evidence of unilineal evolution. Analogously, the
relative rarity of matrilineal kinship, which was found in only 17% of a worldwide
sample of societies (Murdock and White 1969), has been used as evidence of its
Hum Nat (2011) 22:6488 6565
impending doom (see Douglas 1969) and contributed to the notion that matriliny is
inconsistent with modernization (Gough 1961b). Moreover, the presumed universality
of stages in human kinship gave way to the search for elementary kinship structures
(e.g., Lévi-Strauss 1969) and universal kinship principles (e.g., Radcliffe-Brown
1924). Both of these notionsthe modern incongruence of matriliny and the search
for kinship universalsshaped the initial framing of the matrilineal puzzle, arguably
hindering our ability to understand systematically the adaptive features of matriliny
until modern evolutionary anthropology provided a theory embracing the variation
inherent in human kinship systems.
Though matriliny had already been central to the study of anthropology for more
than half a century, the first modern systematic attempts to understand its functions
were made by functionalists such as Malinowski (1932) and structural-functionalists
pursuing cross-cultural study, beginning with Murdock (1949) and culminating with
the publication of Schneider and Goughs(1961) edited volume, Matrilineal
Kinship, before the study of kinship fell out of favor among anthropologists during
the latter part of the twentieth century. These attempts were associated with what has
been dubbed the matrilineal puzzle:the difficulty of combining recognition of
descent through the woman with the rule of exogamous marriage(Richards
1950:246). Put differently, matrilineal kinship, by vesting authority in men and
tracing descent through women, splits a mans allegiance between his own natal kin,
with whom he is reared, and those of his wife and children, whom he desires to
control (e.g., Schneider 1961).
Lacking any particular unifying theory about the nature of matriliny, the
structural-functionalists embarked on numerous comparative studies to yield insights
into the associations between matriliny and other social and ecological variables.
Though rare, matriliny (or its corollary, matrilocal residence) was consistently found
in association with horticulture (Aberle 1961; Keesing 1975) or where agricultural
yields were low (Douglas 1969); in the presence of warfare, especially external
warfare (Divale 1974; Ember and Ember 1971; Jones 2011; see also Ember 1974);
and when men were otherwise absent (Keegan and Maclachlan 1989). Matriliny was
rarely found in association with plow agriculture or with significant animal
husbandry or pastoralism (Aberle 1961) and was thought to erode under conditions
of economic prosperity (e.g., Goody 1962; Gough 1961b; Murdock 1949). Finally,
matriliny was associated with high frequencies of divorce (e.g., Gluckman 1950;
Poewe 1978) and low levels of paternity certainty (Aberle 1961; Murdock 1949).
In tying together these associations, mid-twentieth-century anthropologists
problematized matriliny. In its original conception, the matrilineal puzzle empha-
sized the difficulty inherent to male members of matrilineal systems. Men were
expected to cope with matriliny only under conditions of poverty or low productivity
or when their absence owing to warfare or other reasons prevented them from
governing their households. If conditions changed such that men acquired more
resources or otherwise improved their lots, they would desire to regain authority
over their wife and children and would push the kinship system away from matriliny.
The emphasis on men and universal male authority overlooked to some extent
womens contributions to kinship governance (cf. Murdocks1949 argument that the
sexual division of labor was responsible for kinship arrangements; see also Nolin
2011), however, and assumptions of universal male authority absent theoretical
66 Hum Nat (2011) 22:6488
justification made understanding the benefits of matriliny elusive. The rarity of
matriliny and high frequencies of divorce were cited as evidence of the problematic
nature of matriliny against a background in which nuclear families were held to be
the universal building blocks of kinship systems.
The Adaptive Value of Matriliny
Modern evolutionary anthropologists picked up the question of matriliny more or
less where the structural-functionalists left off, adding to what was known in at least
three important ways: (1) by tying together existing particulate associations under a
common theoretical framework; (2) in formalizing predictions based on theory
through quantification; and (3) by asking whether matriliny could be understood as
an adaptation, rather than as a tenuous, problematic solution, to certain socio-
ecological circumstances. In attempting to understand matriliny as an adaptation,
evolutionary anthropologists invoked the theory of natural selection, predicting that
matriliny would evolve under circumstances where it benefitted individual
reproductive success (i.e., genetic representation in future generations). Rather than
assuming a universal desire by males to control their reproductive partners and
biological children, evolutionary anthropologists asked when it would benefit men to
invest in their matrilateral nieces and nephews.
Paternity certainty formed the basis of initial attempts by evolutionary anthro-
pologists to explain the adaptive functions of matriliny. Kin selection theory
(Hamilton 1964; Maynard Smith 1964) predicts that, for a given net benefit, costly
investment in others will be proportionate to their level of genetic relatedness, r.
Under conditions of certain paternity, a mans maternal nieces and nephews are only
half as closely related to him (r=0.25) as are his own offspring (r= 0.50). Whereas a
mothers parentage is virtually certain, a father is rarely entirely sure of his paternity.
Thus, if paternity certainty were low enough, it could be in a mans best interest to
invest in matrilateral nieces and nephews, to whom his relatedness is assured, rather
than to raise offspring to whom he might be unrelated (Alexander 1974,1977;
Anderson 2006; Flinn 1981; Gaulin and Schlegel 1980; Greene 1978; Kurland 1979;
Lancaster and Kaplan 2000; Trivers 1972).
Though several empirical studies indicate that paternity confidence is associated
with the level of paternal investment (e.g., Anderson 2006; Anderson et al. 2006;
Gaulin and Schlegel 1980; Huber and Breedlove 2007; Flinn 1981; Lancaster and
Kaplan 2000; Marlowe 1999),
the level of paternity certainty necessary to produce
conditions under which men are likely to be more related to their matrilateral nieces
and nephews is probably unrealistically low (Flinn 1981; Holden et al. 2003),
ranging from a probability of paternity (P) of 0.268 (Greene 1978) to 0.33
(Alexander 1974,1977:320; Kurland 1979) in the short-term, to 0.46 if the
Paternity confidence refers to a mans assessment of the likelihood that he is the genetic father of a given
child. The studies referred to here may include other peoples assessments of likely parentage rather than
the putative fathers per se. Paternity certainty as used in this paper refers to the actual probability of
paternity, which may differ from paternity confidence (e.g., Anderson 2006).
Hum Nat (2011) 22:6488 6767
compounding geometric effects of paternity on relatedness over several generations
are included (Hartung 1985). These levels are well below certainty rates of 0.9 cited
by most researchers (usually cited in terms of uncertainty at 10%; e.g., Alfred 2002;
Cervino and Hill 2000; Stewart 1989; all cited in Anderson 2006), and the observed
certainty levels both in high paternity confidencesocieties (0.981) and low
paternity confidencesocieties (0.702; all figures from Anderson 2006).
Given that unrealistically low levels of paternity certainty are necessary to favor
men who choose to invest in their nieces and nephews over their own putative
children, paternity certainty cannot fully explain the evolution of matriliny. Recently,
evolutionary anthropologists have modified hypotheses concerned solely with
paternity certainty to incorporate another variable known to be associated with
matriliny and to affect investment in daughters versus sons: wealth (Holden et al.
2003). The matriliny-as-daughter-biased-investment hypothesis (MDBI) recognizes
and incorporates the variable effects of wealth on mens and womens reproductive
success. Following the logic of the Trivers-Willard hypothesis, the model recognizes
that it should benefit parents to invest wealth in the sex whose reproduction stands to
gain most from such investments (e.g., Cronk 1989; Hartung 1976,1982; Holden et
al. 2003; Mace 1996; Trivers and Willard 1973). Many forms of heritable wealth are
thought to impact male reproductive success more than female: both livestock and
productive land are usually more beneficial to males than to females, for example,
owing to their greater impacts on malesability to acquire partners (Holden et al.
2003). Thus, there are reasonable premises for incorporating wealth into a model that
attempts to explain the evolution of matriliny.
It is worth noting here that the MDBI hypothesis, while adequately incorporating
the effects of wealth on the reproductive success of women versus men, is perhaps
misnamed and/or not applicable in its narrowest form (described below) to all
matrilineal societies. Importantly, whereas in a number of matrilineal societies,
parents together confer inheritance on their offspring, in others, inheritance is
transferred from mothers brother to sisters son or, as in the Mosuo case,
collectively from one generation of matrilineally related relatives to the next.
Acknowledging variation in transmission pathways, Holden et al. speculate that
daughter-biased investment of resources is still key:
In other matrilineal societies, property is transferred from the mothersbrotherto
his sisters son (Schneider and Gough 1961). For grandparents, this is equivalent
to inheritance by their daughtersoffspring. This type of inheritance allows sons
to use inherited resources during their lifetime, while ensuring that those
resources are ultimately transferred to the daughterschildren (Holden et al.
A simple diagram clarifies the mistake in this reasoning (Fig. 1): In societies
where mens property is controlled separately from womens property, there is no
direct transmission of mens property to their daughters, nor to their daughters
offspring. Either men inherit from their maternal uncles (panel a) or one generation
of matrilineal relatives inherits collectively from another (panel b). Indeed, the only
case in which matrilineal transmission can be considered daughter-biased or
granddaughter-biased is in societies that practice pooling of parental resources
(panel c).
68 Hum Nat (2011) 22:6488
How, then, do we reconcile the models main predictions and empirical
correspondence to at least one matrilineal society with variance in the rules of
inheritance that seem to undermine the process by which the model operates? The
key lies in the relative impacts of the resources on male and female reproduction. If
resources have equal or lower impacts on male reproduction relative to female, the
nominal transmission mechanisms are moot because the households resources
primarily support reproduction by (resident) daughters. Among the Mosuo, for
example, though men nominally are partial stewards of economic resources, and are
said to play a role in decisions related to financial expenditures (e.g., Weng 1993),
they are rarely in complete control of household resources. This point is critical
because it means that men in such situations effectively do not use a households
resources to promote their own reproductive interests. If substantial household
resources support mens reproduction, and men devote these to their sisters
offspring, then Holden et al.s model cannot account for transmission dynamics
because the model is based on parental decision-making (i.e., the certainty parents
have over sonsoffspring). If men are effectively without property, on the other
Fig. 1 Diagrammatic representations of the flow of resources according to the type of matrilineal
transmission. In A (upper left), mothers brother transmits to sisters son such that, while women are never
stewards of property, their daughters nonetheless effectively stand to inherit the resources from her
matrilineal household. Men in A do not practice daughter-biased investment because their resources are
transferred to sisterschildren, not their own. Panel B (upper right) corresponds to transmission of
resources as traditionally occurs among the Mosuo. The situation is similar to A, except that women are
also stewards over property and men temporarily are able to use property even though their sisters
children inherit over the long-term. Panel C (lower left) shows the only type of inheritance structure that
corresponds in name to daughter-biased or granddaughter-biased inheritance. In this case, a childs
biological father must also confer property to his own children, rather than to those of his sisters. NB:
Triangles represent males; circles, females; equal signs, marriages or reproductive unions; and overarching
bars, sibships. Shading indicates who transmits property in each generation
Hum Nat (2011) 22:6488 6969
hand, then the question of who inherits is still a question of daughters or sonsonly,
as theorized by Hartung (1985) and formalized by Holden et al. (2003), one faced by
mothers but not by fathers.
The Model
The MDBI hypothesis examines the effects of the probability of paternity (P) and the
inheritance of wealth on the benefits to parents of investing wealth in daughters
versus sons.
It begins with the straightforward premise that parents should invest
wealth equally in daughters and sons when the inclusive fitness benefits of doing so
are equal, or when BS = BD (where BS is the benefit of wealth to sonsreproductive
success and BD to daughters). Because paternity in sonsoffspring is not assured,
the benefit of investing in sons must be devalued by P: PBS = BD. Rearranging, the
model predicts that the benefits of investing in sons and daughters are equal when
BS=BD ¼1=P:
This relationship is depicted in Fig. 2: when BS/BD > 1/P, it is more beneficial to
invest in sons; when this benefit ratio falls below 1/P, it is more beneficial to invest
in daughters.
Though simple, this model potentially explains many of the features associated
with matriliny once used to support the premise that matrilineal inheritance was
somehow puzzlingor a cumbersome dinosaur(Douglas 1969:123) doomed for
extinction. In particular, the models fundamental prediction is that matriliny evolves
when the increased impact of resources on mens reproduction does not outweigh the
risk of non-paternity in sonsoffspring. Regardless of whether inheritance is
transmitted primarily from women to their daughters (with men as temporary
stewards) or from parents in matrilocal marriages to their daughters, the prediction is
the same and thus the model is applicable to the forms of matrilineal wealth
transmission considered in this paper and by Holden et al. The inclusion of paternity
certainty explains links between matriliny and high rates of divorce and protracted
absences, including warfare, while the term reflecting differential impacts of wealth
on mens and womens reproduction explains links to resource scarcity and
horticulture. Moreover, in contrast to the viewpoints of unilineal evolutionists (and
currently favored by certain former Soviet countries and China; e.g., see Divale
1974; Pusey 2009), this hypothesis predicts transitions from other forms of kinship
to matrilineal if conditions change to make daughter-biased investment beneficial to
parents. Quantitative model specification makes sense of variation in the factors
associated with matrilineal kinship, contributing to our understanding of matriliny
without appealing to unfounded and unexplained universals in human kinship. I turn
I retain Holden et al.s explanation here, but throughout the paper, when I say parents,”“mothers
would be more appropriate to the Mosuo context, as explained above. Note that in their test of MDBI,
Holden et al. compare the matrilineal Chewa to the patrilineal Gabbra. According to Holden et al., among
the Chewa, 75% of land is inherited directly from mother to daughter. Moreover, marriage among the
Chewa was historically uxorilocal (Phiri 2009). Thus, the Chewa correspond to panel C of Fig. 1,
satisfying the conditions of Holden et al.s transmission process.
70 Hum Nat (2011) 22:6488
now to testing this model to evaluate whether it can explain matrilineal inheritance
among the Mosuo of Southwest China.
Study Population
The Mosuo are a population of approximately 40,000 minority Chinese living on the
border of Sichuan and Yunnan provinces in the Himalayan Mountains (Walsh 2005). The
Mosuo may be subdivided into two distinct subpopulations according to kinship
practices: patrilineal and matrilineal (see Shih 1993). Discussion in this paper will focus
on the matrilineal Mosuo residing near Yongning, their cultural center and township
seat, and Lugu Lake, the center of tourism, both in Yunnan Province (Fig. 3).
The majority of Mosuo until recently were subsistence agriculturalists, raising such
crops as buckwheat, corn, wheat, potatoes, and garden vegetables for their own
subsistence, and engaging in animal husbandry of livestock, including cattle,
as a
significant sideline (Cai 2001;Shih1993,2010). Beginning in the 1980s and
increasingly since the mid-1990s, a subset of the Mosuo residing primarily along Lugu
Lake have earned their living from profits driven by a thriving tourism industry
(Mattison 2010a,2010b;Walsh2001,2005). These profits are distributed to some
Cattle are rare among matrilineal societies. Though the Mosuo keep cattle, they do so in insignificant
numbers, such that one head of cattle is often shared among multiple households. Moreover, cattle
apparently are not used as bridewealth payments or for consumption, but as draft animals.
Fig. 2 The MDBI model depicting the direction of sex-biased investment. The y-axis depicts the ratio of the
benefit of investing wealth in sons versus the benefit of investing the same wealth in daughters (BS/BD). The
x-axis is the probability of paternity (P) in sonsoffspring. The line (BS/BD=1/P) represents the values of
the benefit ratio and the probability of paternity for which equal investment in sons and daughters is
predicted. Above this line, parents are expected to invest in sons because the benefit of wealth to sons
outweighs the risk of non-paternity in their offspring. Below the line, parents are expected to invest in
daughters. (Modified from Holden et al. 2003)
Hum Nat (2011) 22:6488 7171
extent communally, with each family sending one representative to assist in community-
based tourism ventures such as public dance displays and boating excursions to
destinations inside the lake (e.g., Xing et al. 2009). Family-owned hotels and shops have
nonetheless resulted in substantial income variation among households (Mattison
Fig. 3 Map of study site. The matrilineal Mosuo reside along the border of Sichuan and Yunnan
provinces in southwestern China (from Mattison 2010a)
72 Hum Nat (2011) 22:6488
2010a), and incomes are such that most individuals in areas where tourism is prevalent
live entirely off of associated profits (Mattison 2006). Most families residing in areas
away from the lake have retained agricultural traditions as the major source of
subsistence, though individuals in many of these families have salaried occupations
ranging from wage laborers engaged in physical activities to television anchors.
Among traditional Mosuo, women effectively transmit property to their daughters
and their daughtersoffspring while Mosuo men act as temporary co-stewards of
property, which is transmitted to their sistersoffspring (Fig. 1b). All offspring of
matrilineally related women in a household have usufruct access to household
property, but only offspring of female descendants stand to pass property to
subsequent generations. Labor is supposedly dedicated to a mans natal household
rather than to his partners household, but historical participation in caravans would
have led to prolonged absences and, correspondingly, low male contributions to any
household labor. Whatever rights men have to property, nominal or real, are
transferred to their sisterschildren. Lineage affiliation among the Mosuo is also
matrilineal: children of both sexes belong to their mothers lineage and normally
reside with her throughout their lives. The most important inherited resource shared
by a household until recently was land, but money and other durable goods have
now become more important, especially in areas where tourism is prevalent.
Mens authoritative roles among the Mosuo were traditionally relegated to their natal
lineages (Cai 2001;Shih1993,2000,2010). Practicing a system of pairing known as
walking marriage(sese), most men traditionally visited their lovers at night, retaining
separate residences throughout the duration of their unions. According to ethnographers
of the Mosuo (Cai 2001;Shih1993,2000,2010), walking marriages involve no
contract between lovers, paternity is not assured and is unimportant, and multiple
concurrent unions are possible and do not incite jealously. Men engaging in sese are
thus expected to refrain from active participation in their partnerslineages under most
circumstances, as this may cause tension between a womans affinal and consanguineal
relatives. Anecdotal field evidence and reports from ethnographers of the Mosuo (e.g.,
Cai 2001;Shih2010) indirectly support the nominal nature of mens historical
participation in decision-making: when men were in control of resources (e.g., they were
paid individual incomes), they were likely to expend them as individuals (e.g., as gifts to
lovers) rather than through normative communal mechanisms.
The relationship between various forms of wealth and childbearing has not been
examined systematically among the Mosuo. Given that land historically was the
most important source of subsistence until recently, it is reasonable to expect that it
might be associated positively with fertility among postreproductive individuals
whose reproduction took place prior to major economic changes. Moreover,
although land was a valuable asset to the Mosuo, it has not been particularly scarce
in matrilineal areas (Shih 1993,2010). Land is also not particularly productive,
requiring intensive manual labor to work. The plow is used for agriculture, but most
other activities are carried out by hand. Thus I anticipate that land will have roughly
similar effects on male and female reproduction among postreproductive individuals:
where land is neither scarce nor highly productive, men cannot easily translate it into
higher marginal reproductive success (Holden et al. 2003).
With recent infrastructural and economic changes, land arguably has ceased to be
the most important asset to families reproducing in contemporary contexts.
Hum Nat (2011) 22:6488 7373
Increasingly, parents value education for their children and seek reproductive
partners with similar values. Indeed, many young people have abandoned an
agricultural lifestyle in pursuit of steady employment, whether as tourism
entrepreneurs or as salaried professionals (Mattison 2010a,2010b). As subsistence
and reproduction become increasingly tied to income, the opportunities for each
gender to translate resources into reproduction may change. Given that income is
fungible and easily defensible, it could result in higher reproductive returns for men
relative to women, particularly if men are able to attract more sese partners in
connection with higher incomes. Recent evidence (Mattison 2010a,2010b) points to
more marriage than indicated in previous reports, particularly among the wealthy.
Given recent tendencies toward monogamy, paternity certainty likely is higher for
men reproducing in contemporary contexts compared with postreproductive men. At
the same time, the benefits of wealth to sonsand daughtersreproduction may be
relatively equal in the context of monogamy, favoring daughter-biased investment if
paternity is not assured. Whereas land historically was transmitted to female heirs,
ethnographic evidence suggests that income is inherited by both male and female
heirs (Mattison2010a, b). In this paper, I examine whether wealth transmission
land among postreproductive Mosuo and income among currently reproductive
Mosuoconforms to predictions based on the MDBI hypothesis.
Data Collection
The data analyzed in this paper were collected from January through October of
2008 (for a description of the complete methods, see Mattison 2010b). Household
demographic surveys were conducted in 12 villages in the geographic area between
Yongning and Luoshui villages, consisting of 177 unique households. Villages were
chosen in order to obtain an accurate representation of current lifestyles, from
normatively conservative to progressive and from subsistence-based to income-
based. All households claiming Mosuo ethnicity were chosen for several villages; in
other cases, households were chosen based on convenience sampling (i.e., an adult
member of the household was home during the first attempted contact).
For each demographic survey, an adult member of the household (and often
several other interested members of the household) acted as respondent and
provided information on the households and each household members
characteristics. In particular, household monthly income and information on
land, property, and assets were provided. Each respondent also provided
information on household members (including all members who were born in
the household, regardless of their current residence) including their roles in the
household (i.e., their relation to the household head); their individual incomes, if
any; and their approximate age, sex, level of education, occupation, marital
status, and number of living children. Household residents who were present
during the time of the survey were weighed and their heights measured; these
data were not consistently available and are not included in these analyses. All
surveys were administered orally to respondents by a member of the research
74 Hum Nat (2011) 22:6488
staff in Mandarin Chinese or the local Sichuan dialect, when possible, and
otherwise translated into Naru, the Mosuo language, by a local assistant.
Data Analysis
This paper examines whether MDBI predictions hold for two different forms of
wealth in two age-based cohorts of adults: a cohort of postreproductive individuals
whose fertility decisions were made under putatively traditionalcircumstances and
a cohort of currently reproductive individuals whose fertility decisions have been
impacted by fertility policies and whose subsistence has been altered by a recent
transition to a market economy. Among postreproductive individuals, a threshold of
58 years old (i.e., birth during or prior to 1950) was used to examine MDBI. This
age cutoff aims to limit exploration of MDBI to only those Mosuo whose fertility
decisions were relatively unconstrained by the various historical events that have
been shown to affect fertility and wealth. Among these events were the incorporation
of the Mosuo into the Chinese communist system, which began in 1950, when the
Peoples Government of Ninglang County was established in Yongning (Shih 1993,
2010); the Great Leap Forward, which impacted fertility through famine and its
effects on marital practices (Shih and Jenike 2002); and the various birth planning
policies that were implemented in China beginning in the early 1970s. The precise
moment at which such policies actually began to affect fertility decisions in rural
China is highly variable (e.g., Harrell et al. 2011; Lavely and Freedman 1990;
Skinner et al. 2000); thus, examination of actual fertility data among the Mosuo may
be insightful. Figure 4shows the distribution of number of living children reported
Fig. 4 Average number of live children reported by Mosuo individuals in each age cohort. The horizontal
line at an average of 3 children shows a point of transition between relatively low completed fertility (for
those aged 45 and over) of fewer than 3 children and a relatively high completed fertility of more than 3
children. The cutoff age of 58 was chosen as the midpoint of the transitional cohort in order to determine
fertility behavior of individuals in the absence of external influence
Hum Nat (2011) 22:6488 7575
by Mosuo of given age cohorts. There is a clear delineation between those who
reported an average of more than three children and those who reported fewer.
The transition seems to occur among individuals aged 5660; 58 was the
midpoint of this age range and thus deemed a suitable threshold for depicting
changes in fertility decisions (see also Table 5 in Zhang 1990:255, which
indicates a similar age threshold).
I also assessed the impacts of monetary income on female versus male
reproduction among currently reproductive individuals aged 1745. These age
cutoffs were chosen to establish the pattern of parental decision-making in the
context of the contemporary economy, where income has become increasingly
important to reproduction. A 45-year-old would have been 15 years old in 1978
when the family planning policy was implemented but would not have experienced
the effects of a market economy as acutely as a 30-year-old, whose reproduction
would have commenced after income from tourism would have become an important
resource. To accommodate the nuances in timing of both fertility policies and
economic change, I ran the same set of analyses on cohorts of individuals from
17 years of age to anywhere between 30 and 45 years of age, resulting in 16 different
regressions (summarized below).
The statistical methods used to analyze these predictions closely followed the
procedures used by Holden et al. (2003), with some minor modifications. In
particular, the impact of wealth (land or income) on reproduction is assessed as the
coefficient of the slope of the regression of the number of living children on a given
type of wealth, computed separately for males and females via an interaction term
that allows for varying effects of wealth on reproductive output based on gender. A
significant interaction term is interpreted as evidence that the effects of wealth on
reproduction are different for each gender; non-significance indicates that the effects
are similar. Thus the first model predicts that the ratio of the benefits of land to sons
reproduction versus daughtersis outweighed by the risk of non-paternity in sons
offspring, such that it benefits parents to invest land in daughters, whereas the
second model predicts that this ratio balances such a risk (or is roughly equivalent to
the reciprocal of the probability of paternity) such that it benefits parents to invest
income in both daughters and sons. The probability of paternity, P, is simply the
inverse of the ratio of the male to female regression coefficients.
Some features of the variables used in this analysis are important to consider
when interpreting the results. First, I am using current estimates of landholdings to
estimate prior impacts on reproduction within the postreproductive cohort. There is
no way to know definitively how directly this measure corresponds to a measure that
might have been made during the time these individuals were reproducing. On the
one hand, communalization of land and property undoubtedly altered the amount of
land held by a given individual over the course of the reproductive period; on the
other, many individuals reported that they had not changed residences since birth
and that elite families had been able to maintain their status and, eventually, wealth
throughout tumultuous periods. Acquisition and maintenance of wealth through this
period will be considered in future fieldwork; for now, the current size of land is the
best estimate available. Second, both income and land are shared at the household
level, though their effects on individuals are considered in the analysis. As described
above, wealth is largely shared among household members, and relatively few
76 Hum Nat (2011) 22:6488
individuals report earning individual salaries. To assess the impacts on reproduction
of the wealth attributed to individuals, a control for the number of total adults in the
household with whom wealth might be shared is included in both models.
Households reporting zero income were excluded in Model 2, following Holden et
al. and to improve model fit. A control for age is included in the second set of
models, but not the first. It had no substantive effect on the first model. A control for
land is included in the second set of models to allow for the possibility that it might
affect reproduction where individuals continue to pursue an agricultural lifestyle.
Finally, education is included in the model of currently reproductive individuals to
control for delayed childbearing that may be associated with prolonged education.
Data were log transformed as necessary to improve model fit and accommodate
assumptions of normality in linear regressions. All analyses were conducted in R
(version 2.11.1; R Core Development Team 2010).
Summary of Predictions
In summary, the analysis is partitioned into two models. In the first model (M1), I
examine the effects of land on postreproductive individuals and predict:
M1.1 The effect of land on reproduction is significant for both sexes; and
M1.2 The ratio of the benefits to sons of land wealth relative to the benefit to
daughters is outweighed by hypothetical values of non-paternity in sons
The second model (M2) focuses on the effects of earned income on currently
reproductive individuals and predicts:
M2.1 The effect of income on reproduction is significant for both sexes; and
M2.2 The ratio of the benefits to sons of income relative to the benefit to daughters
balances hypothetical values of non-paternity in sonsoffspring.
Descriptive Statistics
The demographic surveys resulted in information on 1,156 individuals of known
age: 893 adults (over age 17) and 263 children. Table 1shows descriptive
statistics of interest for surveyed individuals according to status of reproduction.
There is considerable variation in all variables considered in these analyses.
Household-level variables (e.g., wealth) do not differ significantly based on
reproductive category (nor would we expect them to), but there are notable
differences in the proportion of included individuals who were male (fewer in the
older generation), average completed level of education (grade 1 among
postreproductives and grade 6.3 among current reproductives), and in the average
number of surviving children reported (fewer among individuals currently
Hum Nat (2011) 22:6488 7777
Model 1: Land Effects on Postreproductives
Table 2and Fig. 5show regression results for the effect of land on the number of
surviving offspring among postreproductive adults. As predicted (M1.1), land has
a positive effect on reproduction for both sexes after controlling for the number
of adults in the household. The effect of land on reproduction does not differ
between males and females, as the interaction term is not significant. The ratio of
the benefits to sonsreproduction relative to the benefit to daughtersis
calculated from the regression coefficients. The slope for females (the reference
category) is simply the slope for land: 0.9674. The slope for males is calculated
by adding the slope for the interaction term (where male=1) to the slope for
females (where male= 0) and is 0.4489. The ratio of the benefits of land to sons
reproduction is thus 0.4489/0.9674 or 0.4640. Statistically equivalent slopes
indicate that the effects of land on reproduction do not differ for males and
females. If Pis less than 1, then it benefits parentstoinvestlandindaughters.
Thus, these results are consistent with the MDBI model, and specifically with
prediction M1.2: the relative benefit of land to sons versus daughters is outweighed
by the risk of non-paternity for any level of paternity lower than absolute certainty,
and it benefits parents to invest land in daughters.
Table 1 Descriptive statistics for populations and variables of interest, by reproductive status. Means are
reported for continuous variables, with standard deviations in parentheses
Postreproductive Reproductive
Number of children
3.81 (2.28) 0.94 (0.93)
Log of monthly income (RMB) 6.06 (2.56) 6.17 (2.38)
Log of land (mu) 3.01 (0.69) 2.81 (0.88)
Highest educational grade (years) 1.12 (2.88) 6.30 (6.99)
% male 35.8 46.3
Number of adults in household 5.13 (1.89) 4.85 (1.97)
N122 656
Live children only
Table 2 Regression output for the effect of land on reproduction (number of surviving offspring) for
postreproductive individuals over the age of 58 in 2008
Estimate SE p
Intercept 0.4558 1.2916 0.7248
Log of land 0.9674 0.3902 0.0147*
Number of adults in household 0.1567 0.1069 0.1455
Male 0.5490 1.7917 0.7599
Interaction (Male * Log of land) 0.5185 0.5918 0.3828
Adjusted R
78 Hum Nat (2011) 22:6488
Importantly, because there was a relative scarcity of men at older ages in the
dataset (Table 1), it is possible that, owing to either mortality or migration, men who
had reproduced with women in the sample were not, themselves, included in results
analyzed here, and mens fertility was consequently biased downward. Results
shown elsewhere (Mattison 2010b) have not revealed higher levels of out-migration
for men compared with women. It is possible that men suffered higher mortality at
older ages, however. To control for this possibility, I performed an additional
regression in which individuals over the age of 70, where the female advantage
appeared most significant among postreproductives, were excluded. The results (not
shown) were not substantively altered; thus, the similarity in male and female
reproduction in Model 2 is probably not due to sampling bias.
Model 2: Income Effects on Current Reproductives
Table 3summarizes the results from 16 linear regressions of the effects of earned
income on reproduction among young adults, aged 17x, where the xvaried from 30
to 45. Controlling for covariates, the effect of income on reproduction was positive,
regardless of maximum age, and significant or near significant in most regressions,
conforming to prediction M2.1. Interestingly, land seems to have a negative effect on
reproduction for individuals reproducing in contemporary contexts, even though the
ethnographic evidence suggests that some families have maintained an agrarian
lifestyle. Education was negatively associated with reproduction and age was
positively associated with reproduction in all regressions. As in M1, the intercepts
and slopes for the effect of income on male reproduction were never significant,
indicating similar effects of earned income on male and female reproduction.
To exemplify these regressions, Table 4and Fig. 6show the effects of various
covariates on the number of living children reported by currently reproductive
individuals, aged 1740. Again, differences between the sexes in terms of the effect
Fig. 5 The effect of land (log mu)
on the number of surviving off-
spring among postreproductive
individuals (more than 58 years old
in 2008). The thicker gray dashed
line represents the predicted effect
based on regression output for
females (i.e., controlling for mod-
eled covariates) and the black solid
line, for males; thin dashed lines
represent 95% confidence intervals
for the female regression and the
thin solid lines, for the male
Hum Nat (2011) 22:6488 7979
of earned income on reproduction are not significant. The scale of the effects is
lower than in M1, however, both owing to lower reproduction overall in the younger
cohort and as a result of the scales on which land and income were tabulated. The
slope for females of the effect of income on reproduction was 0.0537, and for males,
0.0179 (0.0537 + 0.0358). The ratio of BS/BD is thus 0.333, and the probability of
paternity necessary to invest equally in sons and daughters is 3. Again, because the
difference in slopes is not significant, the probability of paternity necessary to invest
equally in sons and daughters is 1. The above illustrate how Pis calculated for each
Table 3 Summary statistics of 16 regressions designed to assess the impact of covariates on the number
of surviving children among individuals currently reproducing, aged 17x. Age range for cutoff: x=
Coefficient Mean Range Number of Regressions in which
Variable Was Significant
Intercept 0.885 1.1010.596 16 (100) | 16 (100)
Log of monthly income 0.048 0.0370.064 3 (18.8) | 12 (75)
Log of land 0.100 0.1260.064 12 (75) | 14 (87.5)
Number adults in household 0.001 0.0130.010 0 (0) | 0 (0)
Highest educational grade 0.026 0.0410.013 16 (100) | 16 (100)
Age 0.065 0.0560.072 16 (100) | 16 (100)
0.040 0.1570.052 0 (0) | 0 (0)
Interaction (Male*Income) 0.040 0.0550.023 0 (0) | 0 (0)
Nranged from 250 to 600 (increasing with increasing age threshold) across all regressions with a mean of
The number of times a variable was significantly associated with the residual number of children over all
regressions; significance is defined as p0.05 and p0.1.
The reference category is female.
Table 4 Regression output for the effect of income and covariates on reproduction (number of surviving
offspring) for currently reproductive individuals aged 1740 in 2008
Estimate SE p
Intercept 0.9630 0.2629 0.003***
Log of monthly income 0.0537 0.0270 0.0470*
Log of land 0.1019 0.0396 0.0104*
Number of adults in household 0.0078 0.0164 0.6350
Highest educational grade 0.0168 0.0050 0.009***
Age 0.0656 0.0045 <0.001***
Male 0.0760 0.2678 0.7764
Interaction (Male*Log of income) 0.0358 0.0384 0.3517
N= 499
Adjusted R
80 Hum Nat (2011) 22:6488
The MDBI hypothesis explains matriliny as an outcome of daughter-biased wealth
investment by parents seeking to optimize allocation of resources in terms of inclusive
fitness (Holden et al. 2003). In their paper, Holden and colleagues show evidence that
supports their hypothesis in two different societies, one matrilineal and one patrilineal.
The patrilineal Gabbra derive nearly three times as much benefit from wealth invested
in sons relative to daughters, whereas the benefits of investing wealth do not differ by
sex among the matrilineal Chewa. The levels of paternity certainty necessary to make
investing in sons beneficial were 0.36 and 0.94, respectively, indicating that paternity
certainty can be quite low among the Gabbra before it makes sense to invest in
daughters, because the impacts of wealth on male reproduction were much higher than
on female reproduction, but not among the Chewa, where it would rarely be beneficial
to invest wealth in sons. It is important to note here that according to this model,
matriliny derives causally from the type of wealth available to support reproduction in
different societies. If the wealth benefits men to such a degree that it outweighs
existing levels of non-paternity in their offspring, then mothers and their partners will
invest wealth in sons. Patriliny results not only as mothers invest resources in sons but
also because sons become freer to pursue their own reproductive interests and as a
result begin to invest their resources in their own children. If my explanation of how
this model applies to matrilineal societies in which wealth is transferred from mothers
brother to sisters son is correct, then men in such societies effectively invest very little
in any descendants. When they possess the means to impact reproduction (e.g.,
because prolonged absences are no longer necessary or the source of wealth changes),
men choose to invest in their own children and/or romantic partners and the kinship
system shifts away from matriliny.
Applying this framework to the Mosuo revealed that the MDBI hypothesis is
generally consistent with inheritance transmission in this population, while
Fig. 6 The effect of monthly
income (log RMB) on the number
of surviving offspring among
young adults aged 1738 in 2008.
The thicker gray dashed line ?
represents the predicted effect
based on regression output for
females (i.e., controlling for
modeled covariates) and the black
solid line, for males; thin dashed
lines represent 95% confidence
intervals for the female regres-
sion and the thin solid lines, for
the male regression
Hum Nat (2011) 22:6488 8181
highlighting some interesting nuances of this data set. Among postreproductive
individuals whose childbearing occurred prior to the implementation of the birth
planning policy, the impacts of land on reproduction were similar for men and
women, such that parents would need complete certainty over paternity in sons
offspring in order to invest land equally in sons and daughters. Given that paternity
certainty was likely to have been relatively low among postreproductive individuals
engaging in sese, the model predicts daughter-biased investment of land, which was
indeed the norm among traditional Mosuo.
The effects of earned income on reproduction among young adults currently
reproducing must be interpreted within the socioecological context in which
reproductive decision-making occurs. As with the first model, the second set of
models showed that the relationships between earned income and reproduction were
similar for men and women. Here, too, parents would need complete certainty in
sonsoffspring in order to invest income equally in sons and daughters. Given the
increasing prevalence of marriage and monogamy among young Mosuo (Mattison
2010a), it is likely that paternity certainty is higher among recent age cohorts relative
to previous generations. Opportunities for employment close to home may also lead
to higher paternity certainty as men can spend more time in close proximity to their
affines. At the same time, limits on childbearing for rural and ethnic Chinese of two
or three children leaves relatively little variation in reproductive outcomes,
decreasing the relative advantage of investing wealth in sons that might normally
be expected with respect to income. When parents can be assured of paternity, it may
indeed benefit them to invest income in both sons and daughters. If actual paternity
is lower than 100%, however, parents are expected to bias investment of income
toward daughters. Without knowing prevailing levels of paternity confidence, it is
impossible to say whether income is distributed in ways consistent with the MDBI
model. Future studies of MDBI could incorporate internal variation in inheritance
practices to examine whether, for example, married individuals are more likely to
invest equally in sons and daughters relative to individuals engaged in non-marital
The MDBI model can be used to analyze variable practices among societies
(e.g., Holden et al. 2003), but it is also flexible enough to analyze transmission of
different forms of wealth within the same society, as has been done here (see e.g.,
Keegan and Maclachlan 1989; Pelto and Pelto 1975;Poewe1978 for discussion of
the importance of intrasocietal variation). This flexibility is important because
sex-biased parental investment rarely involves binary decisions of whether to
invest in just daughters or just sons, but rather responds to the variable effects of
each type and increment of investment on a childs reproductive success (Sieff
1990). Indeed, the models ability to capture variation in sex-biased investment
could be expanded to incorporate the differential returns of other types of
investment to parental reproductive success, such as those accruing directly to
parents through their childrens help (e.g., Borgerhoff Mulder 1998;Smithand
Smith 1994;Turke1988).
Another interesting modification of the model could incorporate the synergistic
effects of paternity certainty and wealth. Evolutionary theory predicts that men will
seek fidelity from reproductive partners as a requirement for substantial paternal
investment (e.g., Fortunato and Archetti 2009; Marlowe 2000). If this is the case,
82 Hum Nat (2011) 22:6488
increased levels of wealth might be positively correlated with increased paternity
certainty in offspring when paternal investment is significant and men exert control
over resources important to reproduction. The empirical significance of paternity
certainty or confidence in affecting paternal investment in offspring (e.g., Anderson
et al. 2006; Flinn 1981; Gaulin and Schlegel 1980; Greene 1978; Kurland 1979) and
wealth in impacting sex-biased transmission of resources (e.g., Cronk 1989; Mace
1996; Trivers and Willard 1973) is well-established. Because these are currently
modeled as separate, independent effects on sex-biased transmission of wealth, the
MDBI model probably underestimates the synergistic effects of these two variables
when acting together.
Finally, when considering the rules and causes of sex-biased intergenerational
wealth transmission in places like China, it is important to acknowledge the very real
possibility that womens and mens reproduction may not be impacted equally by
resources; rather, womens reproduction may be impacted more than mens. Given
large female deficits in Chinas population and corresponding impacts on the
marriage market (e.g., Coale and Banister 1994), it is possible that in many locales,
women achieve higher average reproductive success than do men. This is because
excess males from populations not counted in surveys such as mine may remove a
portion of reproductive opportunities from local men. Under such circumstances,
parents of local girls may always derive higher benefits from investing certain types
of wealth in daughters. In these cases, Ptakes on values greater than 1 and is no
longer interpretable strictly as a probability. Modifications to the model that allow
for higher impacts of resources on female reproduction may be called for, and
researchers employing the model must take into account the dynamics of wealth and
reproduction specific to each population under study.
I began this article by reviewing the historical anthropological arguments
associated with matriliny and by arguing that the evolutionary, quantitative
perspective added to our understanding of the forces producing matriliny by
providing a singular rationale for a variable outcome in kinship behavior. I hope to
have shown the utility of an evolutionary framework in tying together what was
already known about matrilineal kinship, including the factors that lower P, such as
warfare and prolonged male absences, and the connections between matriliny,
unstable reproductive unions, and its nuanced relationship with resource availability
and subsistence base. Because unilineal evolutionism is still the dominant
perspective in the geographic area where this work was conducted, it is worth
mentioning that the evolutionary framework employed here is at odds with the
theoretical rationale of the Chinese state (e.g., Pusey 2009). Instead of viewing
matriliny as a fossil-like vestige of some primitive stage in human evolution (Yan
1984), I analyze it as an adaptation to contemporary environments. This perspective
is consistent with recent evidence that associates matrifocality with a lack of male
contributions to their households (e.g., Quinlan 2006; Stack 1974) and transitions
away from matriliny with economic development (e.g., Holden and Mace 2003;
Mattison 2010a; Sear 2008), illustrating once again the relative flexibility in
responses envisioned by some modern evolutionary perspectives.
Our understanding of matriliny is important not only to kinship studies but
also to our understanding of human evolution in general (Knight 2008). Because
the human life history is so different than those of our ape ancestors, (e.g., Hill
Hum Nat (2011) 22:6488 8383
1993; Mace 2000;Voland1998), one of the central questions of evolutionary
anthropology involves the extent to which different family members contributed to
womens fertility, allowing for our unique life history (e.g., Hawkes et al. 1998;
Hrdy 1999;Kaplanetal.2000;Kramer2005;Leonettietal.2005; Sear and Mace
2008). The MDBI hypothesis provides some insights into the types of environ-
ments that might have been conducive to different classes of kin in assisting with a
womans reproduction. In order for paternal care to become critical, either
paternity certainty must have been relatively assured or the benefits of wealth to
sons must have exceeded its benefits to daughters.
The MDBI hypothesis adds to our understanding of matriliny by tying together
variation in inheritance practices among and within societies under a simple yet
elegant and precise mathematical model. It explains various features previously
known to be associated with matriliny, such as its incompatibility with economic
development (Douglas 1969; Goody 1962; Gough 1961b;Holdenetal.2003;
Murdock 1949), its association with warfare (Divale 1974; Ember and Ember 1971;
Holden et al. 2003), and its association with low paternity certainty (Alexander
1974,1977;Flinn1981; Greene 1978;Holdenetal.2003;Kurland1979)and
divorce (Gluckman 1950;Poewe1978), providing an ultimate reason for variation
in inheritance via evolutionary theory. My data support the utility of this model in
explaining the sex-biased transmission of two types of wealth, land and income,
among two reproductive cohorts of the matrilineal Mosuo of Southwest China,
while highlighting the importance of local socioecological contexts in shaping
transmission dynamics. It is the first independent empirical test of Holden et al.s
model, as well as an application of evolutionary theory to a geographic area in
which unilineal evolutionism still drives theoretical understanding of kinship
Acknowledgments Thanks to co-editor Mary Shenk for collaborating on the AAA session that led to
this special issue and to general editor Jane Lancaster for all her assistance and encouragement. This
research was supported by a National Science Foundation Doctoral Dissertation Improvement Grant (BCS
0717918) and a China Studies Program (Fritz Endowment) grant from the University of Washington. Pilot
studies were supported by the American Philosophical Society and the Department of Anthropology at the
University of Washington. Software and administrative assistance was provided by the Center for Studies
in Demography and Ecology at the University of Washington. Eric A. Smith, Donna Leonetti, Stevan
Harrell, Brian Wood, David Nolin, and four anonymous reviewers provided useful comments and
criticisms on drafts of this paper.
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Siobhán M. Mattison obtained her Ph.D. from the Biocultural program of the Department of
Anthropology at the University of Washington. Her dissertation explored the behavioral ecology of
kinship and reproduction among the ethnic Mosuo of Southwest China. She is currently a Mellon
Foundation John E. Sawyer postdoctoral scholar at Stanford University and the Morrison Institute
studying the bases of sex-biased parental investment in China and India. Her research interests also
include demography, statistical modeling, and the emergence of health and income disparities as they
relate to transitions in economic markets.
88 Hum Nat (2011) 22:6488
... Path A arises because forms of subsistence that are not particularly productive, such as horticulture, are neither strongly monopolizable (e.g. because they are labour-rather than land-limited) nor conducive to strong opportunities for family expansion (e.g. because they have limited potential for growth). Resources that are not productive or worth monopolizing result in men and women exhibiting similar relationships between resource accumulation and reproductive success [42,43]. Thus, relatively low-yielding horticulture is frequently associated with femalebiased kinship systems, especially where paternity certainty is low and grandchildren through sons are less assured. ...
... Women in such scenarios have opportunities to compete reproductively, but the differences in women's reproduction pale in comparison to those in men. By contrast, in resource-moderate environments we can expect the rates of reproductive returns to wealth for women and men to be relatively similar (i.e. the slopes in figure 2 would be statistically indistinguishable) [43,50]. If so, the scope for gender inequality in wealth may also be relatively limited [53]. ...
... Mosuo are well known to anthropologists for being one of China's only matrilineal societies [59,60]. In their matrilineal communities, Mosuo traditionally reckon descent and pass inheritance along female lines [61,62], whereby everyone residing in a household stands to inherit its resources, but, because children typically reside with their mothers and their mother's brothers rather than their with their fathers, inheritance effectively proceeds through daughters [43]. Residence is duo/natalocal [63]: women and men remain in their natal households throughout their lifetimes. ...
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Contemporary inequality exists at an unprecedented scale. Social scientists have emphasized the role played by material wealth in driving its escalation. Evolutionary anthropologists understand the drive to accumulate material wealth as one that is coupled ultimately to increasing reproductive success. Owing to biological caps on reproduction for women, the efficiency of this conversion can differ by gender, with implications for understanding the evolution of gender disparities in resource accumulation. Efficiency also differs according to the type of resources used to support reproductive success. In this paper, we review evolutionary explanations of gender disparities in resources and investigate empirical evidence to support or refute those explanations among matrilineal and patrilineal subpopulations of ethnic Chinese Mosuo, who share an ethnolinguistic identity, but differ strikingly in terms of institutions and norms surrounding kinship and gender. We find that gender differentially predicts income and educational attainment. Men were more likely to report income than women; amounts earned were higher for men overall, but the difference between men and women was minimal under matriliny. Men reported higher levels of educational attainment than women, unexpectedly more so in matrilineal contexts. The results reveal nuances in how biology and cultural institutions affect gender disparities in wealth. This article is part of the theme issue ‘Evolutionary ecology of inequality’.
... Until recently, the majority of Mosuo were subsistence agriculturalists, growing crops such as buckwheat, corn, wheat, potatoes, and garden vegetables primarily for consumption while engaging in animal husbandry as a sideline. Starting in the 1980s and increasingly through the 1990s, some of the Mosuo inhabiting the areas near Lugu Lake have carved a living through profits from tourism (Mattison, 2011;Walsh, 2005). While family-owned hotels and tourist shops have led to significant income variation among households, families residing further from the lake maintain agriculture as their major mode of subsistence, and individuals in many of these families also have salaried employments ranging from wage laborers to television anchors (Mattison, 2011). ...
... Starting in the 1980s and increasingly through the 1990s, some of the Mosuo inhabiting the areas near Lugu Lake have carved a living through profits from tourism (Mattison, 2011;Walsh, 2005). While family-owned hotels and tourist shops have led to significant income variation among households, families residing further from the lake maintain agriculture as their major mode of subsistence, and individuals in many of these families also have salaried employments ranging from wage laborers to television anchors (Mattison, 2011). ...
... As lineage affiliation among the traditional Mosuo is matrilineal, offspring come under their mother's lineage and typically reside with her throughout their lives. The most important inherited resource shared by a household until recently was land, but money and other durable goods have increasingly become more important, especially in areas where tourism is prevalent (Mattison, 2011). ...
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The Mosuo, arguably the last surviving matrilineal society in China, offers interesting insights into kinship practices that support reproduction. In particular, the modes of courtship and reproduction of the traditional Mosuo revolve around a practice known as walking marriages, which involves no contract or obligations, where the men do not use social status or resources to court women, women do not expect commitment from men, and multiple sexual relationships are permitted for both sexes and seldom incite conflict. Children borne from walking marriages are cared for not so much by fathers but rather their mothers' brothers, and wealth and property are controlled by women and passed on to daughters rather than to sons. By analyzing how familial and mating practices interact with evolved preferences and ecological affordances, we highlight the ways that traditional Mosuo practices facilitate reproductive success despite differing vastly from those familiar to modern, industrialized societies. We suggest that cases that appear like evolutionary exceptions, such as the traditional Mosuo, can bring into question the mating practices and preferences we take for granted as relatively universal and prompt a nuanced understanding of how environments, culture, and evolution mutually constrain and shape one another.
... In monogamous contexts, men's interests should be more closely (if not perfectly) aligned with their partners' interests and their social relationships more tightly focused on household concerns. A society's means of subsistence influences the divergence of men's and women's reproductive success (Holden et al. 2003;Low 2005;Mattison 2011). Forms of subsistence such as pastoralism generally support men's reproductive agendas because animals can be converted into reproductive success at higher rates for men than for women (for example, via polygynous unions). ...
... A relatively high degree of women's autonomy amidst a limited ability among men to convert resources to reproductive success should be associated with less divergence in men's and women's relationship-building strategies. Because subsistence differences alter the possible divergence in men's and women's reproductive success, they have been tied to variation in kinship systems, whereby son-biased inheritance (patriliny) is favored when men's reproductive interests can be effectively supported, and daughter-biased inheritance (matriliny) when reproductive returns are greater via daughters than via sons (e.g., Cronk 2000;Fortunato 2012;Holden et al. 2003;Mattison 2011). Matriliny is also frequently, though not exclusively, associated with female philopatry (matrilocality; Fortunato 2019; Surowiec et al. 2019). ...
... In this paper, we leverage variation in kinship norms and institutions among the Mosuo of Southwest China to investigate differences and similarities in gendered so-cial networks. Evolutionary anthropologists have hypothesized that kinship systems are shaped by social and environmental circumstances (Alvard 2011;Shenk and Mattison 2011) in ways that alter the costs and benefits associated with gender-specific reproductive strategies (Holden et al. 2003;Mattison 2011;. We have argued previously that Mosuo matriliny is driven by limited reproductive differentiation between the genders due to a resource base (agriculture) that is expansive and not particularly productive and that does not therefore support a strongly divergent male reproductive agenda (see also Alesina et al. 2013;Brown et al. 2009), as well as norms and institutions that allow some men to limit investment in reproductive partners and parenting activities (Mattison 2011;Mattison et al. 2019; see also Fortunato 2012). ...
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Although cooperative social networks are considered key to human evolution, emphasis has usually been placed on the functions of men’s cooperative networks. What do women’s networks look like? Do they differ from men’s networks and what does this suggest about evolutionarily inherited gender differences in reproductive and social strategies? In this paper, we test the ‘universal gender differences’ hypothesis positing gender-specific network structures against the ‘gender reversal’ hypothesis that posits that women’s networks look more ‘masculine’ under matriliny. Specifically, we ask whether men’s friendship networks are always larger than women’s networks and we investigate measures of centrality by gender and descent system. To do so, we use tools from social network analysis and data on men’s and women’s friendship ties in matrilineal and patrilineal Mosuo communities. In tentative support of the gender reversal hypothesis, we find that women’s friendship networks in matriliny are relatively large. Measures of centrality and generalized linear models otherwise reveal greater differences between communities than between men and women. The data and analyses we present are primarily descriptive given limitations of sample size and sampling strategy. Nonetheless, our results provide support for the flexible application of social relationships across genders and clearly challenge the predominant narrative of universal gender differences across space and time.
... According to Mattison (2011), 3 the Mosuo family structure is typical mainly, with the mother's side of the bloodline establishing the family and the father resuming his matrilineal links. The mother's brother also plays a significant role in the nuclear family. ...
... The "walking marriage" is the type of marriage that only Mosuo people use. A man enters a woman's chamber late afternoon and leaves the next day (Mattison, 2011). As a result, Mosuo created a system of lawless marriage in which couples were only intended to be temporary (Chen & Lu, 2019). ...
... Men in matrilineal groups typically invest in their sisters' children rather than their own children (i.e., an avunculate), and so did Nayar men. Superficially, this pattern stands out as an evolutionary "puzzle" (Mattison, 2011), given that from an inclusive fitness perspective one's own children should typically be the recipient of one's investment due to a higher proportion of shared genes, relative to a sibling's children (Anderson et al., 1999;Hamilton, 1964;Trivers, 1972). This system of affiliation and investment, however, makes evolutionary sense when paternity uncertainty is considered (Alexander, 1974;Fortunato, 2012;Hartung, 1985;Rogers, 2013). ...
... Of interest is the proposal that matriliny is primarily maintained by a female reproductive advantage related to wealth inheritance and resource accrual, rather than the male advantage in promoting his reproductive success by diverting resources to his female kin (Hartung, 1985;see Fortunato, 2012;Rogers, 2013 for updates). In fact, studies have brought forth evidence supporting a daughter-biased investment by parents and grandparents in certain matrilineal societies (Holden et al., 2003;Mattison, 2011). These findings do not overlap with two observations of Nayar life in the pre-British era. ...
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The historical mating practices of a South Indian community, the Nayars, have often been cited as an example of matriliny and polyandry. Little attention has been given to puritanical aspects of their conjugal unions involving endogamy and hypergamy. We adopt an evolutionary psychology perspective to reexamine these practices. We outline key historical events to situate the Nayar case in the broader Indian context and compare different evolutionary psychology models of sexual strategies to determine the most befitting one. The unique mating arrangements provide a novel opportunity to appraise the focal points of the different models involving fitness-indicators, resource provisioning, parenting, and the temporality of the mating context. This exercise helps in revealing the primacy of assortative mating and perceived mate quality based on prestige-markers, despite the incertitude about resource provisioning or other direct benefits.
... Among Pacific matricentric (matrifocal) Mosuo people from China there are no conventional long-term marriages (they are based on mutual sympathy "walking marriages") and therefore, women are more sexually accessible (Mattison 2011). Bonobo and Mosuo societies are characterized by geographical isolation, facilitated availability of females (no male property rights on females), absence of male hierarchy and group conflicts (Mattison, 201;Hare et al. 2012). ...
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The aim of this study was an analytical justification of the emergence and presence of the phenomenon of war among hominins, taking into account males’ genetic benefits gained through war in the natural environment. Based on chimpanzee behavior, the analytical model of the primary warrior balance was explored, comparing the risk of a war expedition with the genetic profits from war rape—“life and death balance”. On the profits side, genetic gains possible to obtain in terms of permanent attractiveness of females (warrior status and abductions of females) were also included. Kin cooperation, parochial altruism, and “partisan strategy” have been defined as psychological mechanisms that enable effective group violence. Male genetic benefit from a war rape could exceed the risk of a warrior’s death in the chimpanzee–human LCA species; transition from the herd to the patriarchal tribal social system could increase warrior’s genetic gains from war. At the root of war lie sexual limitations of cooperating males, induced by female sexual preferences and lack of the permanent female sexual drive. War rape allows reproductive success for dominated and thus sexually restricted males. Tendencies for group aggression to gain access to out-group females (the war gene) are common among sexually restricted men. Resource-rich areas favor increase in human population density, this affects group territoriality and promotes intergroup conflicts, and thus patriarchy. Roots of conventional patriarchal marriage are strongly combined with war—“the right to land entails the right to a female”.
... [33,34]). This is because differences in socio-ecologies affect the payoffs to male and female reproductive strategies, especially by limiting payoffs associated with men's pursuit of status and reproductive opportunities [7,[35][36][37][38][39][40]. Specifically, sexual selection theory relies on a set of assumptions that are met to varying degrees across human societies [41], including lower caps to the number of children produced by females, compared to males, higher variance in male reproductive success, and a steeper association between mating effort and reproductive success among males than among females. ...
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Cooperative networks are essential features of human society. Evolutionary theory hypothesizes that networks are used differently by men and women, yet the bulk of evidence supporting this hypothesis is based on studies conducted in a limited range of contexts and on few domains of cooperation. In this paper, we compare individual-level cooperative networks from two communities in Southwest China that differ systematically in kinship norms and institutions—one matrilineal and one patrilineal—while sharing an ethnic identity. Specifically, we investigate whether network structures differ based on prevailing kinship norms and type of gendered cooperative activity, one woman-centred (preparation of community meals) and one man-centred (farm equipment lending). Our descriptive results show a mixture of ‘feminine’ and ‘masculine’ features in all four networks. The matrilineal meals network stands out in terms of high degree skew. Exponential random graph models reveal a stronger role for geographical proximity in patriliny and a limited role of affinal relatedness across all networks. Our results point to the need to consider domains of cooperative activity alongside gender and cultural context to fully understand variation in how women and men leverage social relationships toward different ends. This article is part of the theme issue ‘Cooperation among women: evolutionary and cross-cultural perspectives’.
... Furthermore, gendered norms and institutions that codify daughter-or son-biased inheritance and investment may lag behind economic circumstances thought to drive changes in gendered social systems. Thus, gendered kinship institutions -which are rooted in ecological differences that lead to lesser accumulation of defensible resources in matriliny Mattison, 2011) -are likely both to reflect and affect the dynamics of gendered conflict in ways that extend beyond interpersonal dynamics (Borgerhoff Mulder & Rauch, 2009;Gibson & Lawson, 2015;Lawson & Uggla, 2014). Here, we ask whether the relationship between emphasis on material wealth (market integration) and inequality differs according to prevailing kinship system, hypothesizing that matriliny buffers against escalating inequality compared to patriliny. ...
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Increased access to defensible material wealth is hypothesized to escalate inequality. Market integration, which creates novel opportunities in cash economies provides a means of testing this hypothesis. Using demographic data collected from 505 households among the matrilineal and patrilineal Mosuo in 2017, we test whether MI is associated with increased material wealth, whether increased material wealth is associated with wealth inequality, and whether being in a matrilineal versus patrilineal kinship system alters the relationship between wealth and inequality. We find evidence that market integration, measured as distance to the nearest source of tourism and primary source of household income, was associated with increased household income and “modern” asset value. Both village-level market integration and mean asset value were associated negatively, rather than positively, with inequality, contrary to predictions. Finally, income, modern wealth, and inequality were higher in matrilineal communities, which are located closer to the center of tourism and where tourism has long provided a relatively stable source of income. However, we also observed exacerbated inequality with increasing farm animal value in patriliny. We conclude that the forces affecting wealth and inequality depend on local context and that the importance of local institutions is obscured by aggregate statistics drawn from modern nation states.
... The hypothesis assumes that household resources could be used by all household members, and especially reproducing women in the household would use a lot of household resources to reproduce (investing in reproducing and rearing children). This assumption is applicable to the matrilineal Mosuo, where sharing of household resources was well documented (Cai, 2001;Ji et al., 2013;Mattison, 2011;Shih, 2009;Yan & Liu, 2009;Zhan et al., 1980). It also assumes that benefits a household derived rise towards an asymptote as the amount of investment increase (i.e., as more fields of a household are planted or harvested, additional labour become less useful), and also assumes the level of communal breeding in sister's and wife's households are the same. ...
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According to Hamilton's rule, matrilineal-biased investment restrains men in matrilineal societies from maximizing their inclusive fitness (the “matrilineal puzzle”). A recent hypothesis argues that when women breed communally and share household resources, a man should help his sisters’ household, rather than his wife's household, as investment to the later but not the former would be diluted by other unrelated members (Wu et al., 2013). According to this hypothesis, a man is less likely to help on his wife's farm when there are more women reproducing in the wife's household, because on average he would be less related to his wife's household. We used a farm-work observational dataset, that we collected in the matrilineal Mosuo in southwest China, to test this hypothesis. As predicted, high levels of communal breeding by women in his wife's households do predict less effort spent by men on their wife's farm, and communal breeding in men's natal households do not affect whether men help on their natal farms. Thus, communal breeding by women dilutes the inclusive fitness benefits men receive from investment to their wife and children, and may drive the evolution of matrilineal-biased investment by men. These results can help solve the “matrilineal puzzle”.
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Here we investigate the impact of kin on child survival in a matrilineal society in Malawi. Women usually live in close proximity to their matrilineal kin in this agricultural community, allowing opportunities for helping behaviour between matrilineal relatives. However, there is little evidence that matrilineal kin are beneficial to children. On the contrary, child mortality rates appear to be higher in the presence of maternal grandmothers and maternal aunts. These effects are modified by the sex of child and resource ownership: female children and children in households where women, rather than men, own land suffer higher mortality rates in the presence of maternal kin. These modifiers suggests the detrimental effects of matrilineal kin may result from competition between such kin for resources. There are some positive effects of kin on child survival: the presence of elder siblings of both sexes is correlated with higher survival rates, and there is some weak evidence that paternal grandmothers may be beneficial to a child’s survival chances. There is little evidence that any male kin, whether matrilineal or patrilineal, and including fathers, affect child mortality rates. This study highlights the importance of taking social and ecological context into account when investigating relationships between kin.
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The authors combine evolutionary theory with the anthropological study of kinship to account for cross-cultural diversity in birth-related investments by kin. Four hypotheses are formulated using paternal certainty, gender, and kinship laterality as independent variables. They test these hypotheses with data from the 60-culture Probability Sample of the Human Relations Area Files (HRAF). Their hypotheses are generally confirmed. For example, grandmothers and aunts provide more direct birth care than grandfathers and uncles. However, they did have some unanticipated results. Fathers provide as much direct birth care as grandmothers and aunts. In addition, they found paternal certainty to be a better predictor of direct birth care than kinship laterality, and kinship laterality to be a better predictor of indirect care. They explain this difference by arguing that direct birth care is the most important kind of investment kin make to ensure the survival and reproduction of mothers and newborns.
Data from the Kipsigis of Kenya are used to test two models for how parents invest in offspring, the Trivers-Willard and local resource competition/enhancement hypotheses. Investment is measured as age-specific survival, educational success, marital arrangements, and some components of property inheritance, permitting an evaluation of how biases persist or alter over the period of dependence. Changes through time in such biases are also examined. Despite stronger effects of wealth on the reproductive success of men than women, the survival of sons and daughters is not related to parental wealth. However, a Trivers-Willard effect characterizes educational investment: poor families show a greater concern for daughters' (vis-à-vis sons') schooling than do rich families, a trend that has increased over time. In regard to models of local resource competition and enhancement, men's reproductive success decreases with number of brothers and increases with number of sisters; this pattern of competition with same-sex sibs and cooperation with opposite-sex sibs is not found among women. As predicted from these observations, parents show reduced investment in sons with a large number of brothers, and increased investment in sons with a large number of sisters. By contrast, investment in daughters is entirely unaffected by number of sisters and is influenced only in subtle ways by number of brothers. Levels of investment in relation to sibship size (irrespective of siblings' sex) are highest for younger children of large sib sets. Discussion of the results in relation to those from other studies leads to three conclusions. First, predictive models for how investment biases vary across societies must consider a broad range of socioecological factors constraining parental options and payoffs. Second, the timing of investment biases within societies will be affected by the value of children and the costs of parental investment. Third, measures of investment appropriate for between-sex and between-class comparisons need careful attention. Each of these issues is brought to bear on the question of why, in contrast to so many other parts of the world, sex preferences are so muted in Africa.
Cultural evolutionism; evolutionary history of humans progressing from savagery to barbarism (marked by invention of pottery) to civilization (marked by invention of written language); all humans have same potential for advancement, psychic unity; similar practices mean similar origins (culture contact); germs of ideas of civilized institutions found in state of savagery; adoption by Marx and Engels: society classified through material technology, evolution fr ancient society based on personal relations and communal property to modern society based on territory and private property