Ian Williams
Matriarchal societies, where women are at the head of families and power structures, fail for reasons set out by Susanna Viljanen where large numbers of single-parent families (headed by women) raise families and the boys have no father figures to socialise them.
However, matrilineal societies can be quite stable - although cross culturally and across the world, they are quite rare.
Matrilineal societies are derived from the idea that you never can be 100 percent sure who your father is, but you always know for sure who your mother is.
Matrilineal societies base property ownership via the female line. This leads to a very different social structure than is common across most of the world. Men are still in charge of things but there is more of a sense of equality.


Women in the Trobriand Islands - a matrilineal society - traditionally wear these grass mini-skirts, which are now famous.
A well-researched example of a matrilineal society is in the Trobriand Islands, a cluster of small coral islands off the north-east coast of Papua New Guinea, The islands have long fascinated both anthropologists and travel writers.


While the women do marry and have husbands, extra-marital affairs are common. Most villages have a special hut called a bukumatula which is used for extramarital encounters. Virginity is not prized. A school teacher on the islands once told me that you could never guarantee a girl was a virgin if she was over the age of nine.
Babies are thought to be the result of magic with no lix between sex and pregnancy. If a girl gets pregnant, her family keeps the baby, because, according to the local beliefs, men just help to open up the woman to pregnancy - the real father is a Baloma or spirit. This is despite the fact they do understand biology - for example, they understand that pigs won’t get pregnant unless they are mated.
Magic has been very important in this traditional society. Polish anthropologist Bronislaw Malinowski, in the early 1900s recorded countless spells performed by a towosi, or professional gardening magician. Most Trobriand gardeners still engage in garden magic.


The islanders have a complex social structure. The father-figure for boys is often the woman’s uncle - which makes for very different relationships to what is “normal” in the West.
Although land ownership in the Trobriand Islands follows the matriline, married women often live with their husbands—meaning few people live on land that belongs to them. Rather, they obtain the right to live on, and cultivate, someone else’s land, as long as they’re on decent terms with the village elder. But to remain in the good graces of the village elder, villagers must pay in yams (as a form of rent)—or else get kicked out.
Sadly, the social structure is now under threat. Particularly bad droughts hit in 2009, 2010, and 2016, and, amidst these poor growing conditions, the islands’ population spiked.
More hamlets have sprung up, leaving less arable land to go around. Over-farming has drained the soil of important nutrients. Yams, once harvested in surplus, are growing scarce—threatening to unravel the social and political fabric of the islands.


Some of the comments express concern about how men may “suffer” with poverty and hardship in this matrilineal system.
Well gentlemen, if you want to get rich in this Trobriand society the answer is simple: Have lots of wives. There’s no rule about having only one wife.
When I visited the islands a great many years ago, I met the “king” a man in his late 60s or perhaps in his 70s. He had 11 wives. While some of the wives were young and attractive (and substantially younger than him), this was not his motivation. All the wives’ relatives were obligated to keep his gigantic yam house full.


This is a standard size yarm house. A full yam house is a sign of prestige and power. The king’s yam house was about three times as tall.
Across much of Papua New Guinea, wives are sexted not because of good looks, but their ability to work hard in the gardens. Toughness and fitness is the attraction. Looking good is very much less important.
In the New Guinea highlands, the way for a man to get rich is to have more wives. More wives mean bigger gardens. Bride price is paid to the wife’s relatives, essentially, to compensate her family for losing a good worker. (Men work in the gardens too - they don’t just sit around and relax.)