Concepts – Paternal vs Patrilineal and Maternal vs Matrilineal

Sometimes a single word – and its interpretation – makes a world of difference.

For example, maternal versus matrilineal and paternal versus patrilineal.

What’s the difference and why does it matter?

In genetic genealogy, it’s very important.

Y and Mitochondrial DNA Lineage

When we explain the differences between Y, mitochondrial and autosomal DNA, we used to tell people that Y was your paternal line and mitochondrial (mtDNA) was your maternal line.

People became confused.

Y and mito

Here’s the pedigree chart generally used to explain the people in your tree represented by Y (blue boxes) and mtDNA (red circles) testing. Unlike autosomal, Y and mitochondrial only tests one line, but tests that one line VERY deeply, providing information not available through autosomal testing.

Y DNA tests only the Y DNA of the line shown with the blue boxes, NOT everyone on your paternal side.

Mitochondrial DNA tests only the line shown in red circles, NOT everyone on your maternal side.

That’s a good thing, not a bad thing, because this type of testing reveals information and matching opportunities not available through autosomal testing.

Maternal Versus Matrilineal, Paternal Versus Patrilineal

When we say maternal and paternal, the meaning can easily be confused.

Paternal and maternal

Anyone on the father’s entire side of the tree literally is paternal, and anyone on the mother’s side literally is maternal. The line is drawn straight down the middle, with half of your ancestors on each side.

Paternal and Maternal sides

What we really mean when we discuss Y and mtDNA testing is patrilineal and matrilineal. Those words mean the direct paternal line only, and the direct maternal line only, shown below.

patrilineal vs matrilineal

There doesn’t seem to be as much confusion with understanding that the Y chromosome follows the patrilineal line – probably because we’re used to this concept as the surname follows the same Y DNA path.

Matrilineal means the same thing on the maternal side, but there isn’t any key anchor concept, such as surname to go along with it. Therefore, when I’m discussing mitochondrial DNA testing, I say, “matrilineal, meaning your mother’s mother’s mother’s line, on up the tree until you run out of mothers.”

Why is this So Important?

Aside from the fact that expectations can easily be mis-set resulting in misinterpreted results, the concept of patrilineal and matrilineal are important because this confusion results in the confused person in advertently confusing others.

For example, when people want to take a mitochondrial DNA test to see if their Native American ancestor is on their mother’s side, what they are really testing is their matrilineal line, not everyone on their mother’s side of the tree.

Native American mitochondrial haplogroups are known to be subsets of haplogroups A, B, C, D and X. If the matrilineal line is Native, the mitochondrial results will fall into the proper Native subgroup. If not, they won’t.

However, a maternal Native American ancestor could well exist in any other ancestor or ancestors whose circles and squares aren’t colored at all – shown below by haplogroup B2a.

Native nonpatrilineal nonmatrilineal

Conversely, a male Native American ancestor could exist in any of those other lines as well, shown above by C-M217. The only way to discover that information is to DNA test someone who carries the Y or mitochondrial DNA of each of your ancestral lines.

At Family Tree DNA

At Family Tree DNA, the only vendor that does full Y and mitochondrial testing and matching, one of the information fields that testers are asked to provide is titled “Earliest Known Ancestors.”

FTDNA earliest known ancestor

Although this field says specifically how to determine the relevant ancestor they are asking about, many people either don’t read this, or don’t understand, or they enter the information before their results come back and never think to update this field when they discover that this isn’t their Native line after all.

On the Matches Map tab, where this information can also be entered, there is no explanation for which ancestor they are asking for. Often, I see males names have been entered in the direct maternal field, so the person interpreted this as their OLDEST person on their mother’s side – which of course is inaccurate – instead of their most distant matrilineal ancestor.

The problem is that if the tester enters a person who was born in Germany, and the matrilineal ancestor is a Native American female (or vice versa), this provides incorrect information to the system which then uses that compiled information to populate Haplogroup Origins, Ancestral Origins and the locations on the Family Tree DNA universal Y haplotree and mitochondrial public haplotree for other people. This is why you often see people in European haplogroups shown as “Native American.” Other testers’ information is part of what is provided on those pages. Collaboration is the underpinning foundation of genetic genealogy, but it also carries with it the opportunity for error.

Family Tree DNA provides a lot of information to customers, but some of it relies on information from other testers, so please test, and please be sure that your information is accurately reflected in these fields. Now might be a good time to check.

What About My Other Lines?

You can’t test for lines other than your patrilineal (males only) and your matrilineal (both genders) personally, BUT, other family members can – and you can surely gift them with tests. I look at it this way; they are testing for me, and if I could, I’d test for that line in a heartbeat – so I’m more than willing to provide a scholarship for their testing.

In the situation above, your mother’s father carries the mitochondrial DNA that you seek, shown as Native American B2a. If he’s not living, his siblings carry that same mitochondrial DNA. If he has sisters, their children, both male and female carry his mother’s mitochondrial DNA too. You need to follow the lineage through all females to a living relative who’s willing to test.

To obtain the DNA of the Native male, shown above as C-M217, you’d need to test your father’s mother’s father, or her brothers, or their sons. Follow this line up and down in the tree to find a male who carries that surname who is not adopted into the family.

I wrote about determining who to test in this article, along with a more detailed article about who to test for your father’s Y and mtDNA DNA, here.

DNA Haplogroup Pedigree Tree

I’ve been gathering my own ancestors’ Y and mtDNA information, because only Y and mtDNA provides a periscope view directly down a single line without admixture from the other parent.

DNA 8 grandparent

There’s just so much to learn! Where they originated, the history of their lineage, who you match and more. Y and mtDNA reaches back before surnames.

What can you learn about your family lines, and who can you ask to test?

What About You?

You can order the Y DNA for males and the mtFull test for either males or females at Family Tree DNA. When I ask a family member to test, I always offer to also purchase a Family Finder test at the same time so we can utilize their autosomal DNA as well, which is inherited from all of their lines. The cousin and I both get to know our ancestors better and advanced matching feature allows combined matching between all kinds of tests.

The Family Finder test can then be leveraged by uploading the autosomal DNA files to other free databases such as GedMatch and MyHeritage to obtain even more matches.

Your cousins and family members are goldmines containing the DNA nuggets of your ancestors just waiting to be found!

Ready for More?

If you have enjoyed this concepts article, you may enjoy other articles in our concepts series.



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34 thoughts on “Concepts – Paternal vs Patrilineal and Maternal vs Matrilineal

  1. Are the mtDNA and Y-DNA tests still on sale like they were over Thanksgiving weekend? I’m thinking about ordering tests for family members as Christmas gifts.

    Lately, I’ve received several new matches to my mtDNA haplogroup “relatives” list. Unfortunately, most people don’t list their earliest known matrilineal ancestor or even the country of origin. They can update this info at any time. It would be very helpful for me to have that type of info, especially if the match is a married woman who uses her husband’s surname.

  2. Hi Roberta

    Have you ever considered rolling all the ‘Concept’ articles into a pdf file? Or have you published a book that I have missed?


  3. This is very helpful information. I sometimes refer to the patrilineal and matrilineal lines as a person’s “outside” lines — since in a pedigree they’ll always be on the left and the right or on the top and bottom, no matter what generation you’re looking at. (To myself I tend to think of these as my “Y DNA” and “mtDNA” lines.)

    One way the information can be useful is if you’re interested in an ancestor who is *not* on a Y DNA line or mtDNA line (and obviously, only half the people in the world even *have* the former), you may be able to find a relative descended from the same ancestor — and in one of these lines.

    So, for example, I have a Native American ancestor on my maternal grandfather’s side, and another on my maternal grandmother’s side (but not in her mtDNA line). In both cases, I actually have two lines back to these ancestors, but I can’t directly confirm that they were Native American.

    In my case, I do have a small percentage of Native American ancestry that shows in autosomal testing at about 2%. But what if I didn’t? Well, because I know the identities of the ancestors, I’ve been able to locate other descendants of each of these ancestors who also happen to be in the “correct” lines.

    In the case of my grandfather’s ancestor, I know the Native American ancestor was male and apparently belonged to Y haplogroup Q-L53. In the case of my grandmother’s ancestor, we’re looking at mtDNA haplogroup C1b.

    This is why I think it’s a shame that Ancestry completely abandoned Y DNA and mtDNA testing. Although these only involve two lines — where autosomal DNA can involve all lines — this information can still be very helpful when used in conjunction with other information.

    • I can see how this type of testing would be useful in families with lots of endogamy where several lines are descendants of the same families.

  4. I truly appreciate the information that you give. I’m still struggling to understand, but I think if I take enough time, I’ll be able to sort it out. I bought a Ydna for a maternal cousin and a autosomal for a male cousin on the paternal line. I plan to purchase a mitochondrial test, but I’m not sure if I should be the testee. I have no living aunts, uncles nor mother. I suppose I’ll take the test. All in all the hardest thing to do is to learn the vocabulary.

  5. Writing is not quite like talking. When i am talking to someone about DNA and explain what Y DNA will tell you and what mtDNA will tell you i usually say, ‘It is the dad to dad to dad to dad to dad kind . . . . ‘ (depending on when i get tired of saying ‘dad to dad’). When i talk about mtDNA i usually say something along the lines of ‘it’s the mom to mom to mom to mom to mom kind . . . . Mom’s do give it to their sons but they don’t pass it on.’ (Again, you get tired after a while and stop saying ‘mom to mom.’) I explain about one line along the outside edge of a family tree and one line along the other outside edge of a family tree. Then we discuss, while i try to make it clear! I realize (for one thing i am an editor) that people don’t write that way . . . . and aren’t going to . . . but maybe it would help!

  6. Thank you for sharing this clarification. I can see how easy it would be to think that because a test is for the mother’s side that it would show my Scottish heritage on a matrilineal search, for instance, or the German on my father’s side, but neither of those are on the direct matrilineal or patrilineal lines. Understanding what the results are really bringing before we get caught up in the dreams of what we’ll find out is important.

  7. I’m a noob to DNA (2 yrs since finding my bio-parents) but I think you should either kill the superfluous Y-DNA haplogroup references in your last chart, or change them to something other than R1b (except for the patrilineal Estes line). As I thought I understood it, the brother would only get his Y-DNA from the Estes line, not the Bolton line (which could be different from R1b). If I’m correct, I find the additional Y indications on the other lines distracting & confusing. But then again, I’m a male .. and a noob! lol

    • I’m confused about what you’re confused about. Each male ancestral line gives the downstream males in their line their Y chromosome. So Bolton makes get the Bolton Y. Estes males get the Estes Y. The Estes father had a Bolton mother, shown in pink. Her father is a Bolton shown with a green square. It may be the same base haplogroup, but their individual STR markers don’t match. R1b is very common. Maybe that’s what is confusing, the fact that the haplogroups are the same?

      • Right. But in the typical scenario, Bolton is likely not haplogroup R1b, but something else that you would not know until a male Bolton is Y-tested.

        Myself (in the role of “brother (male) Estes) should only be concerned with the purely patrilinial Estes line, but aware that Bolton as well as all of the other-than-Estes males on either side will likely have different Y halpogroups.

      • Sorry- 1st reply didn’t address your last 2 sentences- and yes, that they are all shown as R1b was distracting/confusing to me. Real world the other males in the tree would each have “their own” unique haplogroups. Important point going forward as we find new branches. And then there’s already R1b1, R1b2, etc.

        • I should have made up a family rather than grabbing my own. But I guess this is a really good example of why so many men choose to so DNA testing further down the tree either through SNP packs or via the Big Y:) Just under 50% of European males are made up of R1b.

          • On reflection, distracting was my first thought. Confusing was when I tried to guess why the other male haplogroups were shown. Here is my perspective from where that comes:

            The impact of downstream branch differences in Y haplogroups was driven home to me as a male adoptee initially looking for my paternal surname. And again while currently seeking to expand my patrilineal line “across the pond”.

            As a quick aside, a check of your Bolton line surname reveals that of the Boltons testing at FTDNA, 6 have tested R1b while there are also 2 testing I2a. (fyi in case you haven’t checked very recently, fwiw)

            But in my case, although I knew early on in my search that I was I2a (more precisely I-M223 (I2a1b1)) from 23andMe autosomal and a 37 marker Y test, at that level I had 9 potential surnames, (2 were variants of 1 surname) to possibly be mine. Ultimately I needed a 111 marker test (plus a God-sent half sibling autosomal match) before I was determined to be the I-2364 (I2a1b1a2b1a2a) sub-clade and a “Humes”. A further SNP Pack refined me and one of my Y matches to a currently unique and new I-Y9161 (I2a1b1a2a1b) further sub-clade. And that has even split yet again in these 2 years with the advent of Big Y and more Y testers in general.

            Now that I know who Dad was and have found and visited Mom (!) I’m trying to determine my Humes ethnicity origins. Which btw, is different from autosomal ethnicity origins, which are the aggregate of ALL of your ancestors, not just patrilineal or matrilineal.

            Home/Hume/Humes are surnames of Scottish, Irish, and English origin. They are an excellent example (I’m finding) of the DNA and circumstantial “melding” of these 3 groups in British Isles deep history. Most Home & Hume variants claim to be true Scotts and are indeed R haplogroup. However there is a healthy chunk of I haplogroup as well. So far it seems that the I is mostly for “Irish”, lol. But, due to the history of turf wars etc., they are all a mix of Scott, Irish, English, N. Irish, Wales “origins”.

            So, whats a Humes like me to do? As much as a stretch it will be to do a Big Y, alas it’s the only way for me to precisely find my patrilineal origin trail, but with the bonus of possibly being a “new sub-clade pioneer”. 🙂

            So in that vein the other male haplogroups in MY tree are interesting, but distracting.

      • I think you have to be around the DNA world for a while to understand that soooooo many European male lines are R1b . . . so the Estes line and the Bolton line are different lines, yet both have the R1b label. (Maybe a fictional family with different base haplogroups would be less confusing . . . . )(In the various male relatives who’ve tested for me, I1a keeps showing up . . . although the families are not all from the same European locales. You can borrow one of my family lines!)

  8. So much new genealogical info to absorb — so little time!!
    Keep up your writing, Roberta, I ‘ll save it for review later…

  9. Roberta,
    As always, thanks for the helpful information.

    I’ve always thought both “matrilineal line” and “patrilineal line” are redundant expressions — or at least awkward. Seems like “matriline” or “matrilineage” and “patriline” or “patrilineage” could be possible substitutes.

  10. I have 2 questions. 1 I did mtdna because I have a wall at my ggggrandmother she is from Norway but both my parents have native american in their line, I was not looking for that I was trying to get Norways mom anyway my test showed 6 native american matches and they are matches , how did this happen on the Mtdna because my straight maternal line has no native american, is it that the women are getting from theie dads and passing it down? the other problem is we have Jewish but so far back it’s not going to show , my daughter it showed as 12% and another strange she also has 18.4% Iberian and I have none my husband 7% how is she getting things either more then us or that we don’t have.
    I appreciate any help but understand you’re busy. thank you for your blogs with so much info. I also would love to see a book from you.

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  12. Can dna help find mothers grandfather? We know her father was born out of wedlock and no record of his father available – birth certificate blank. Thus whilst he is on maternal side is not on Matrilineal line. I have autosomal, mtdna and Y test results for myself and the paternal and maternal hapalogroups. Where do i go next? What do I need to do to see if I can fill in this blank in my family tree?

    • Is your mother available to test? If so, test her. If not, I would work with the Leeds Method to group your matches into 4 grandparent quadrants, and go from there. You can find the Leeds method by entering those words into the search box for my blog.

      • Mother passed away as has Dad. Just myself and my brother.
        Also as my grandparents on fathers side were first cousins does leeds still work with one less group? Very much appreciate your help – thanks.

  13. If I could get my 102 year old auntie to test (mother’s sister) would that be to advantage to find my great grandfather?

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