Maternal rank 'inheritance', the process by which juveniles attain positions in the dominance hierarchy adjacent to those of their mothers, occurs in both cercopithecine primates and spotted hyaenas. Maternal rank is acquired in primates through defensive maternal interventions, coalitionary support and unprovoked aggression ('harassment') directed by adult females towards offspring of lower-ranking individuals. Genetic heritability of rank-related traits plays a negligible role in primate rank acquisition. Because the social lives of Crocuta and cercopithecine primates share many common features, we examined whether the same mechanisms might operate in both taxa to promote maternal rank 'inheritance'. We observed a large clan of free-living spotted hyaenas in Kenya to test predictions of four mechanistic hypotheses. Hyaena rank acquisition did not appear to be directly affected by genetic heritability. Unprovoked aggression from adult female hyaenas was not directed preferentially towards low-ranking cubs. However, high-ranking mothers intervened on behalf of their cubs more frequently and more effectively than low-ranking mothers. Maternal interventions and supportive coalitions appeared to reinforce aggression directed at 'appropriate' conspecific targets, whereas coalitionary aggression directed at cubs apparently functioned to extinguish their aggressive behaviour towards 'inappropriate' targets. Young hyaenas and primates thus appear to 'inherit' their mothers' ranks by strikingly similar mechanisms. Copyright 2000 The Association for the Study of Animal Behaviour.