What Does “Our Ancestors” Mean in a Bilateral Kinship System

Ours is a bilateral kinship system in which we reckon our descent through both our mother’s side (maternal) and our father’s side (paternal). In the study of comparative family systems, the group formed through this pattern of descent is referred to as a “kindred.” Kindreds have several characteristics that distinguish them from the kin groups formed in unilineal or bilineal descent systems (https://www2.palomar.edu/anthro/kinship/kinship_4.htm).

A kindred is a group of relatives who are linked together by a single individual who can trace descent and/or marriage relationships to every other member. Our kindreds typically include spouses and in laws (affine) as well as those to whom we are related by blood (consanguine). Clans do not include spouses or in laws.

The concept of a kindred captures the essence of the group we are attempting to identify when we consider DNA contributed by both parents and look for our DNA cousins on both sides and down multiple lines. Understanding that bilateral kinship systems lead to the formation of kindreds rather than clans also helps to explain why need to search for our ancestors. During the search process it is important to remember that our cousins only share some ancestors with us.

Our kindreds are unique, idiosyncratic, and personal. For example, even though my mother has three children, I am my father’s only child. This means that while I share some of my ancestors with many people, my complete list of ancestors, as well as my kindred, is unique to me. I am the only individual who is linked to every other member of my kindred by descent and/or marriage. I do not share all my ancestors with any other person.

My daughter has both a kindred and a set of ancestors that are not identical to mine. My sister has a kindred and set of ancestors that are not identical to mine. There is not a single person on the planet with whom I share a single set of ancestors. Being the only child of my parents makes me an extreme case. It is only full siblings that have a common set of ancestors. Cousins  only share some ancestors. For that reason, I find that in some discussions the concept of “our ancestors” is ambiguous.

I have been given an assignment that includes the concept and I am not sure what it means. I need concept clarification. What exactly do people in our bilateral kinship system mean when they say, “Our ancestors.” To what group are they referring? Are they referring to the relatives that we do have in common? Are they using the term as a rhetorical tool with no actual referent? In discussions of genealogy and family history the concept of “our ancestors” needs clarification.



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