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The avunculate, sometimes called avunculism or avuncularism, is a feature of some societies whereby men have a special role in relation to their sisters' children.
The term avunculate comes from the Latin kinship term avunculus ("mother's brother", in opposition to the brother of the father). In societies where maternal filiation is strongly represented, the role of a father could be taken over by a maternal uncle, who becomes a "social father" of his sister's children and becomes a father figure to his nephews and/or nieces.
The 1989 Oxford English Dictionary defines "avunculate" as follows:
- "Avunculate. The special relationship existing in some societies between a maternal uncle and his sister's son; maternal uncles regarded as a collective body.
- 1920 R. H. LOWIE Prim. Soc. v. 81 Ethnologists describe under the heading of avunculate the customs regulating in an altogether special way the relations of a nephew to his maternal uncle. Ibid. vii. 171 The Omaha are patrilineal now, but their having the avunculate proves that they once traced descent through the mother, for on no other hypothesis can such a usage be explained. .. "
At avunculate time the maternal family is already headed by a man, a father or a brother of the woman given into another's family or clan. The matrilocal spousal residence is replaced with patrilocal one, the man does not move any more into the house of his wife, but just the opposite, in marriage he takes her into his house. At the same time a wife and her children retain their affiliation with the former maternal family and clan. In such system the factual father of the child, instead of the blood father, is the uncle on the maternal side. And while a mother remains in the husband's house, her children (sons) "return home". The blood father and his relatives are obligated to turn the child over to his uncle, "return" him to his family. M.O.Kosven called this order "return of the children". The nephews are all-powerful and have exclusive privileges in the family of the uncle on the maternal side.
Relics of avunculate custom are known at present. According to the Kazakh common law, the avunculate nephews could take anything from the relatives of the mother up to three times. In the Kyrgyz past a nephew, at a feast at his maternal uncle or grandfather, could take any horse from their herd or any delicacy.
In the Southwest United States, the Apache tribe practices a form of this, where the uncle is responsible for teaching the children social values and proper behavior while inheritance and ancestry is reckoned through the mother's family alone. Modern day influences have somewhat but not completely erased this tradition.
An avunculocal society is one in which a married couple traditionally lives with the man's mother's eldest brother, which most often occurs in matrilineal societies. The anthropological term "avunculocal residence" refers to this convention, which has been identified in about 4% of the world's societies.
This pattern generally occurs when a man obtains his status, his job role, or his privileges from their nearest elder matrilineal male relative. When a woman's son lives near her brother, he is able to more easily learn how he needs to behave in the matrilineal role he has inherited.
In historical (not anthropological) terminology, an "avunculate marriage" is the marriage of a man with the daughter of his sister (not explicitly forbidden by the listings in Leviticus 18). In most cultures with avunculate customs in the sense used by anthropologists, such a marriage would violate incest taboos governing relations between members of the same matrilineal lineage.
- Oxford English Dictionary. Second Edition 1989. On-line version.
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