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Friday, February 1, 2013

Polyandry More Common Than Previously Thought

Posted by on Fri, Feb 1, 2013 at 8:05 AM

Alice Dreger writing at The Atlantic:

For generations, anthropologists have told their students a fairly simple story about polyandry—the socially recognized mating of one woman to two or more males. The story has gone like this: While we can find a cluster of roughly two dozen societies on the Tibetan plateau in which polyandry exists as a recognized form of mating, those societies count as anomalous within humankind. And because polyandry doesn't exist in most of the world, if you could jump into a time machine and head back thousands of years, you probably wouldn't find polyandry in our evolutionary history.

That's not the case, though, according to a recent paper in Human Nature co-authored by two anthropologists, Katherine Starkweather, a PhD candidate at the University of Missouri, and Raymond Hames, professor of anthropology at the University of Nebraska. While earning her masters under Hames' supervision, Starkweather undertook a careful survey of the literature, and found anthropological accounts of 53 societies outside of the "classic polyandrous" Tibetan region that recognize and allow polyandrous unions.

Indeed, according to Starkweather and Hames, anthropologists have documented social systems for polyandrous unions "among foragers in a wide variety of environments ranging from the Arctic to the tropics, and to the desert." Recognizing that at least half these groups are hunter-gatherer societies, the authors conclude that, if those groups are similar to our ancestors—as we may reasonably suspect—then "it is probable that polyandry has a deep human history."

Dreger writes that polyandry is common in societies with skewed "operational sex ratios," a.k.a. too many men, too few women. So is polyandry likely to emerge in India and China, Dreger wonders, two countries with skewed sex ratios? Go read the whole thing to find out.


Comments (27) RSS

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Pope Peabrain 1
Clearly, scientists need to watch more Maury. Polyandry is a common theme.
Posted by Pope Peabrain on February 1, 2013 at 8:35 AM · Report this
@3 I guess there's a lot of it going around in 3rd world cultures.
Posted by M. Provich on February 1, 2013 at 9:08 AM · Report this
Unicorn alert, aisle 9.
Posted by seeker6079 on February 1, 2013 at 9:23 AM · Report this
Thanks, Dan! @1 I'll suggest people seek grants to study Maury. Probably should come with the equivalent of academic combat pay.
Posted by Alice Dreger on February 1, 2013 at 9:33 AM · Report this
*shrug* Sometimes polyandry is just what makes sense, given the circumstances. People generally strive for the sensible option, all things being equal. No big surprise.
Posted by STS on February 1, 2013 at 9:43 AM · Report this
Will in Seattle 6
Why label what a man, his wife, his mistress, her lover, and people they meet at bars do?

@3 for the Unicorn win.
Posted by Will in Seattle on February 1, 2013 at 10:52 AM · Report this
OutInBumF 7
@5- Yep. It's either that, do without, or screw boys. I suspect option C will become more common too in these nations with operational sex ratios. That, or a raging war will break out to kill off a bunch of males- another way humankind has dealt with this problem over the millenia.
Posted by OutInBumF on February 1, 2013 at 11:02 AM · Report this
Helix 8
Posted by Helix on February 1, 2013 at 11:02 AM · Report this
seandr 9
X Polyandry More Common Than Previously Thought

And yet still not very common.
Posted by seandr on February 1, 2013 at 11:03 AM · Report this
Ophian 10
I can't be the only one who thought the movie Savages would have been sooo much better if the boys kissed too.
Posted by Ophian on February 1, 2013 at 12:20 PM · Report this
GeneStoner 11

Your sexuality only matters to you. As subjective as what kind of food you like. BFD.

This straight/gay/bi/chicken-humping/whatever propaganda that Savage spews here is just so boring. Get over yourselves people and become productive for goodness sake.
Posted by GeneStoner on February 1, 2013 at 12:35 PM · Report this
If we consider sex workers, then all societies are polyandrous.
Posted by beccoid on February 1, 2013 at 1:08 PM · Report this

I, for one, am very much for this.

Posted by Velvetbabe on February 1, 2013 at 2:19 PM · Report this
@12 Interesting point.

Still, count me among the dubious. Hunter/Gatherer societies were on average very violent (see Steven Pinker's "The Better Angels of our Nature). If you count gang-raped women captured or stolen in inter-tribal raids, skirmishes and wars as "polyandry", then sure, okay--it was likely widespread.

But I don't think that's the sort of polyandry that has captivated Dan's imagination.
Posted by Functional Atheist on February 1, 2013 at 2:21 PM · Report this
@ 11 - You - a self-described stoner - could also be more productive if you didn't take the time to read posts that don't interest you and to comment on them.
Posted by Ricardo on February 1, 2013 at 2:41 PM · Report this
@15 ... I don't think he means that he tokes, I think that he means that he is a gun fan. Eugene Stoner is the inventor of the AR-15, which developed into the M-16.
Posted by seeker6079 on February 1, 2013 at 2:52 PM · Report this
Well, not "is", was. Mr. Stoner reached the end of the 74-round magazine that God issued him some fourteen years ago.
Posted by seeker6079 on February 1, 2013 at 2:58 PM · Report this
@ 16 - Thanks for the info. Having never lived in a gun-crazy culture, this is something I can't even begin to be interested in, but at least now I know where he's coming from.

But isn't calling yourself after the inventor of a gun "just so boring"? (And many other negative adjectives I could think of...)

Maybe he should toke. That would certainly make him more productive than being a gun junkie, which is only destructive.
Posted by Ricardo on February 1, 2013 at 2:58 PM · Report this
Oh, I wouldn't go that far, Ricardo. I live in nice, safe, comparatively gunless Canada, and have no plans to own a weapon any time soon, and yet I want a t-shirt that says "John Moses Browning Is God". Brilliance is worthy of admiration.
Posted by seeker6079 on February 1, 2013 at 3:13 PM · Report this
@ 19 - I'm sorry, but I can't possibly agree with you on that. By that criteria, we should all admire Hitler. He WAS brilliant at what he did. Except that what he did was absolutely evil.
Posted by Ricardo on February 1, 2013 at 3:19 PM · Report this
Following on 20 - I meant, of course, "criterion".
Posted by Ricardo on February 1, 2013 at 3:29 PM · Report this
Sorry, what? I was just banging this Godwin guy and lost the thread.
Posted by seeker6079 on February 1, 2013 at 3:59 PM · Report this
The Conclusion they draw from this data about our ancestors isn't a very sound one. Hunter-Gatherer tribes didn't really practice marriage like most settled societies do. Most tribal systems in history simply had people fuck who they wanted to fuck. Now there might have been tribes with a power balance that favored females. That is possible I guess. But I doubt there was polyandry as we define it.

This is sort of like the whole thing about the "mother goddess" statues. Where people try to fit historical data to paint a picture of a higher form of human nature in history when none probably existed. The "mother goddess" statues were probably just neolithic skin mags.
Posted by wachow on February 1, 2013 at 4:51 PM · Report this
So much ignorance in these comments it's hard to know where to start.
Polyandrous does not just mean a woman fucking more than one man, people. It means 2 or more men MARRIED to one woman.
"Hunter-gatherers" encompasses literally thousands of cultures. To say "they didn't [try "don't" - they're not extinct!] practice marriage like most settled societies do" is a gross generalization. And for the record, those polyandrous Tibetans mentioned in the article? They're farmers, i.e., "settled societies."
"Hunter-gatherer" is not synonymous with "tribal." A "tribe" is a specific form of social organization, larger than bands (most hunter-gatherer groups live in bands) but smaller than chiefdoms or states.
Also, while Steven Pinker is a brilliant linguist, he's no paleoanthropologist and a lot of his claims about hunter-gatherers being so violent are completely bogus, based on data from groups that aren't even hunter-gatherers (like the Yanomami, who are mainly horticulturalists).
Sigh... on some perfect planet they teach anthropology instead of [pseudo] economics in high school.
Posted by danfan on February 2, 2013 at 12:03 AM · Report this
sissoucat 25
@Danfan : thanks for clarifying.

I'm illiterate in anthropology, so I couldn't help but chuckle at the thought of some horticulturalist groups being quite violent. So much for the Flower power...
Posted by sissoucat on February 2, 2013 at 1:26 AM · Report this
danfan @24:

Furthermore, the studies on so-called "primitive" societies are usually contaminated by the researchers having to interact with these societies. Esp. regarding the Yanomami and their supposed violence, there has been quite a debate on the validity of the reports:

"Researcher contamination in Yanomamö findings
Chagnon wrote that the Yanomamö were "innately violent" and engaged in "chronic warfare". Other anthropologists argued that the Yanomamö became violent after Chagnon arrived to conduct his research and offered machetes, axes and shotguns to selected groups to elicit their cooperation.[11][12]
In the television documentary film The Trap, Chagnon walks off-camera in disgust during an interview after having been asked if his presence in the village could have affected his study."…
Posted by migrationist on February 2, 2013 at 2:09 AM · Report this
@24 Danfan
I wasn't really addressing the research I was addressing this little tidbit about conclusions.

Recognizing that at least half these groups are hunter-gatherer societies, the authors conclude that, if those groups are similar to our ancestors—as we may reasonably suspect—then "it is probable that polyandry has a deep human history."

Which I feel is unfounded. We don't have much evidence for paleolithic societies participating in marriage, at least not marriage as we would define it. That doesn't mean it didn't happen, it just means we can't go about telling people it happened, that's bad history.

You seem to have misread a lot of my post. I know what Polyandry is, I know hunter gatherer isn't synonymous with tribal and I wasn't talking about the Tibetan tribes (who are polyandrous). I was making a specific statement about the quality of the conclusion they came to about historical (I am assuming specifically paleolithic) Hunter-Gatherer groups.

Sorry I wasn't clearer
Posted by wachow on February 3, 2013 at 9:42 PM · Report this

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