Social System of West Papua: Matrilineal Descent


Meta Description: Melanesians of West Papua Possess An Ancient Form Of Social Organization In The Past. They Use Matrilineal Descent. 

Slug: Social-System-West-PapuaMatrilineal-Descent

West Papua of Indonesia is rich in history. Melanesians, the native inhabitants, possess an ancient form of social organization in the past. There are several Melanesians‘ ancient social organizations, and those are in the form of dual-society with matrilineal descent, the dominance of the old men, and the peculiar form of marriage. In this article, we are going to talk about the matrilineal descent of Melanesians.

Descent means how the people transmit their property and rank (Rivers, 2017). There are definition differences between descent, inheritance, and succession. To know who is a member of a social group, people can use descent. In the Melanesian community, the usage of descent is the same as a community that practices exogamy. Succession functions to know who becomes the next leader.

Most Melanesians Use Matrilineal Descent System

Most Melanesians use matrilineal descent, especially among those who practice exogamy. The Melanesian totemic clans use matrilineal descent. However, not all part of the Melanesian community uses matrilineal descent. Some use patrilineal descent, such as those found in Fiji or some parts of Santa Cruz. A man is linked to the matanggali or itokatoka of his father, which is a characteristic of the patrilineal descent system (Rivers, 2017). 

It is difficult to know why and for what purpose Melanesians adopt a matrilineal descent social system. And probably Melanesians have abandoned this system nowadays. To discuss descent matters, it is better to also speak of kinship. Among communities of matrilineal descent, it is often said that the son does not have a kinship relationship with his father. The word kinship translates into sogoi in the Melanesian language. 

So, the father is not the son’s sogoi if the community adopts matrilineal descent. The relationship between the father and the son would be that it’s forbidden for them to eat together. They may also have a different way of thinking. This shows that the father is like a stranger to his son, which means they are not related to each other. However, the practice of this kind of relationship has ended (Rivers, 2017). 

However, The Present Melanesian of West Papua Family Is Different From The Past

According to Rivers (2017), the present Melanesian family is not the same as in the past. It looks just like another family in the world. Now, parents and children live under the same roof, and they normally interact like other universal families. Even the father and the son are close with each other because they share the same interest. It contradicts the fact of Matrilineal descent, which forbids the father-son relationship. If one looks closely, one will find that the son’s father’s sister is the most honorable person in the family. 

Though the father is not the kinsman, the son has a relationship with the father. This shows that their relationship is very important and intimate. So, this contradicts the idea that the son and the father are not related. Close observation suggests that their bond is close and important. 

In the Melanesian social system, there is no distinction between cousins. Though one is the child of the father’s brother and the other is the mother’s sister, they are included in the same category. Because they are not very different from each other, they are not allowed to get married as it will be considered unlawful (Rivers, 2017)

The important relationship between the son and his father shows that the Matrilineal descent social system still regards the importance of that relationship. This becomes evidence that the father and the father’s relatives have a relationship, which is different from persons who are related in the same social category. 

This tradition happens because the relationship between a father and his son should be limited since they do not belong to the same category due to the marriage that requires members from the same social category. And that is why the line of descent is very important. As the culture progresses, so does the freedom to have a relationship between a son and his father and his father’s relatives. This freedom continues until today when there is no distinction between them, making their family look normal like any other universal family. 

The point to explain the nature of descent is that there are some changes in the social organization regarding the line of descent since there is a change in the relationship of father-son (Rivers, 2017). 

There is evidence that social grouping is not as important in the past. This is because exogamous social clans are not the only factor that rules Melanesian marriage. And in other parts of Melanesia, the kinship system regulates marriage. However, even though the line of descent does not matter anymore in the present times, it still has an important function. This is because Melanesian’s marriages are under the rule of descent lines. So, the system of this descent must continue. 


Melanesians of West Papua had several ancient social organizations in the past. One of them is in the form of dual society with matrilineal descent. In the past, this system forbade the father and the son to be close, so  they became like strangers toward each other. However, as the culture progresses, there is freedom for the relationship between father and son to exist. Parents (father and mother) are now living under the same roof. This causes the observer to think that the present Melanesian families are not much different from the universal family. 


Rivers, W., H. (2017). The History of Melanesian Society. CUP Archive.