Study highlights importance of female roles in matrilineal families | 3/20/2013 | Staff
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What do termites, elephants, whales, hyenas, and some human societies have in common? The core of their societies is female. According to a new study led by researchers at The University of New Mexico researchers, females—not males—may provide the backbone on which complex society is built.

Published in Philosophical Transactions of the Royal Society, Series B, the study reviews evidence from human and animal studies to question assumptions underlying claims that men are always central to the functioning of human families.

Anthropologists - Time - Men - Families - Siobhán

"Anthropologists have argued for a long time that men are central to building successful human families," said Siobhán Mattison, assistant professor of evolutionary anthropology and director of the Human Family and Evolutionary Demography Lab at UNM and the study's lead author. This male-centered view emphasizes male provisioning of their wives and children, monogamy, and nuclear families.

"But human families are much more complex than that," Mattison said, "and, while it is undoubtedly the case that men provide important contributions to their families under many circumstances, they are also frequently the least reliable providers."

Study - Minority - Societies—17 - Matrilineal - Humans

The study focuses on a large minority of human societies—17 percent—that are called "matrilineal." In humans, this means that women inherit family property, children belong to their mothers' lineages, or newly-married couples live in close proximity to the wife's kin.

Even in these matrilineal societies, anthropologists have claimed that men are more important than women. Moreover, instead of provisioning their own children, men in these societies supposedly give what they have to their sisters' sons.

Mattison - Colleagues - Literature - Evidence - Transfers

But Mattison and her colleagues scoured the literature to find hard evidence of these avuncular transfers and came up empty-handed.

"As evolutionary biologists and anthropologists, we looked not only at human cases, but also at animals and in no case could we find credible evidence of males choosing their nieces and nephews over their own children," Mattison said.

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