The recent incorporation of molecular methods into analyses of social and mating systems has provided evidence that mating patterns often differ from those predicted by group social organization. Based on field studies and paternity analyses at a limited number of sites, African lions are predicted to exhibit a strict within-pride mating system. Extra-group paternity has not been previously reported in African lions; however, observations of extra-group associations among lions inhabiting Etosha National Park in Namibia suggest deviation from the predicted within-pride mating pattern. We analysed variation in 14 microsatellite loci in a population of 164 African lions in Etosha National Park. Genetic analysis was coupled with demographic and observational data to examine pride structure, relatedness and extra-group paternity (EGP). EGP was found to occur in 57% of prides where paternity was analysed (n = 7), and the overall rate of EGP in this population was 41% (n = 34). Group sex ratio had a significant effect on the occurrence of EGP (P < 0.05), indicating that variation in pride-level social structure may explain intergroup variation in EGP. Prides with a lower male-to-female ratio were significantly more likely to experience EGP in this population. The results of this study challenge the current models of African lion mating systems and provide evidence that social structure may not reflect breeding structure in some social mammals.