Iroquois kinship

Iroquois kinship (also known as bifurcate merging) is a kinship system named after the Haudenosaunee people, also known as the Iroquois, whose kinship system was the first one described to use this particular type of system. Identified by Lewis Henry Morgan in his 1871 work Systems of Consanguinity and Affinity of the Human Family, the Iroquois system is one of the six major kinship systems (Eskimo, Hawaiian, Iroquois, Crow, Omaha, and Sudanese).

Kinship system

The system has both classificatory and descriptive terms. In addition to gender and generation, Iroquois kinship also distinguishes 'same-sex' and 'cross-sex' parental siblings: the brothers of Ego's (the subject from whose perspective the kinship is based) father, and the sisters of Ego's mother, are referred to by the same parental kinship terms used for Ego's Father and Mother. The sisters of Ego's father, and the brothers of Ego's mother, on the other hand, are referred to by non-parental kinship terms, commonly translated into English as "Aunt" and "Uncle".

The children of one's parents' same-sex siblings, i.e. parallel cousins, are referred to by sibling kinship terms. The children of Aunts or Uncles, i.e. cross cousins, are not considered siblings, and are referred to by kinship terms commonly translated into English as "cousin". In some systems, the kinship terms applied to cross-cousins are the same as those applied to brothers-in-law and sisters-in-law, due to preferential marriage practices (see below).

Egocentric genealogical diagram of the Iroquois kinship system.


Ego (the subject from whose perspective the kinship is based) is encouraged to marry his cross cousins but discouraged or prohibited from marrying his parallel cousins. In many societies with Iroquois kinship terminologies, the preferred marriage partners include not only first cousins (mother's brother's children and father's sister's children), but more remote relatives who are also classified as cross cousins by the logic of the kinship system. Preferential cross-cousin marriage can be useful in reaffirming alliances between unilineal lineages or clans.


The term Iroquois comes from the six Iroquois tribes of northeastern North America. Another aspect of their kinship was that the six tribes all had matrilineal systems, in which children were born into the mother's clan and gained status through it. Women controlled some property, and hereditary leadership passed through the maternal line. A woman's eldest brother was more important as a mentor to her children than their father, who was always of a different clan.

Some groups in other countries also happen to be independently organized for kinship by the Iroquois system. It is commonly found in unilineal descent groups. These include:

  1. The Anishinaabe of North America, who include the Algonquin, Nipissing, Mississauga, Ojibwe, Saulteaux, Odawa and Potawatomi peoples. Many of these people were traditional neighbors to the Iroquois, but they spoke languages of the Algonquian family.

Other populations found to have the Iroquois system are

  1. Most of the Bantu-speaking cultures of Eastern and Southern sub-Saharan Africa — see Sesotho kinship for an example.
  2. Many Melanesian societies.

South India and Sri Lanka

Some communities in South India use the kinship tradition described above.[1]


Many of the cultures of Vanuatu use this type of kinship system. In Bislama (Vanuatu pidgin), paternal uncles and maternal aunts are referred to as smol papa "small father" and smol mama "small mother" respectively.

See also


  1. ^ The Origin of the Family, Private Property and the State.

Media files used on this page

Author/Creator: Fred the Oyster, Licence: CC0
Graphic of the "Iroquois" type of kinship terminology system (one of six main systems commonly recognized by anthropologists).
Note that in some languages with this type of system, the term for father's sister can be the same as that for mother-in-law, and the term for mother's brother the same as father-in-law, while the terms for cross-cousins can be the same as sister-in-law and brother-in-law (or even the same as wife, husband), since cross-cousins (including remote classificatory cross-cousins) are preferred marriage partners, while marriage with parallel cousins is generally strictly prohibited.