ScienceDaily (Aug. 2, 2012) — Marrying multiple husbands at the same time, or polyandry, creates a safety net for women in some cultures, according to a recent study by a University of Missouri researcher. Extra husbands ensure that women’s children are cared for even if their fathers die or disappear. Although polyandry is taboo and illegal in the United States, certain legal structures, such as child support payments and life insurance, fill the same role for American women that multiple husbands do in other cultures.
“In America, we don’t meet many of the criteria that tend to define polyandrous cultures,” said Kathrine Starkweather, doctoral student in MU’s Department of Anthropology in the College of Arts and Science. “However, some aspects of American life mirror polyandrous societies. Child support payments provide for offspring when one parent is absent. Life insurance allows Americans to provide for dependents in the event of death, just as secondary husbands support a deceased husband’s children in polyandrous societies.”
Starkweather and her co-author, Raymond Hames, professor of anthropology at the University of Nebraska, examined 52 cultures with traditions of polyandry from all continents except Europe. They found that similar conditions seemed to influence cultures toward polyandry. Males frequently outnumbered females in these cultures, as a result of high mortality prior to adulthood. Although males out-numbered females, they also were more likely to die in warfare or hunting and fishing accidents or to be absent for other economic reasons. Polyandrous cultures also tended to be small scale and egalitarian.
In approximately half of the cultures studied, the other husbands were closely related to the first husband, a practice with economic repercussions. In previously studied polyandrous cultures, especially those of Nepal, Tibet and India, inheritance traditions called for land to be divided evenly among male offspring after a parent’s passing. That practice would have resulted in land being sub-divided into useless parcels too small to provide enough crops to feed a family. However, if several brothers married the same wife, the family farm would stay intact. In the small egalitarian cultures Starkweather studied land and property ownership was unusual. In these societies, younger brothers in the marriage often protected and provided food for the family in the absence of the older brother, who was often the primary husband.
“This research shows that humans are capable of tremendous variability and adaptability in their behaviors,” said Starkweather. “Human marriage structures aren’t written in stone; throughout history, people have adapted their societal norms to ensure the survival and well-being of their children.”
Katherine E. Starkweather, Raymond Hames. A Survey of Non-Classical Polyandry. Human Nature, 2012; 23 (2): 149 DOI: 10.1007/s12110-012-9144-x
Multiple Fathers Prevalent in Amazonian Cultures, Study Finds
ScienceDaily (Nov. 11, 2010) — In modern culture, it is not considered socially acceptable for married people to have extramarital sexual partners. However, in some Amazonian cultures, extramarital sexual affairs were common, and people believed that when a woman became pregnant, each of her sexual partners would be considered part-biological father.
Now, a new University of Missouri study published in the journalProceedings of the National Academy of Sciences has found that up to 70 percent of Amazonian cultures may have believed in the principle of multiple paternity.
“In these cultures, if the mother had sexual relations with multiple men, people believed that each of the men was, in part, the child’s biological father,” said Robert Walker, assistant professor of Anthropology in the College of Arts and Science. “It was socially acceptable for children to have multiple fathers, and secondary fathers often contributed to their children’s upbringing.”
Walker says sexual promiscuity was normal and acceptable in many traditional South American societies. He says married couples typically lived with the wife’s family, which he says increased their sexual freedom.
“In some Amazonian cultures, it was bad manners for a husband to be jealous of his wife’s extramarital partners,” Walker said. “It was also considered strange if you did nothave multiple sexual partners. Cousins were often preferred partners, so it was especially rude to shun their advances.”
Previous research had uncovered the existence of multiple paternity in some Amazonian cultures. However, anthropologists did not realize how many societies held the belief. Walker’s team analyzed ethnographies (the branch of anthropology that deals descriptively with cultures) of 128 societies across lowland South America, which includes Brazil and many of the surrounding countries. Multiple paternity is reported to appear in 53 societies, and singular paternity is mentioned in 23 societies. Ethnographies for 52 societies do not mention conception beliefs.
Walker’s team has several hypotheses on the benefits of multiple paternity. Women believed that by having multiple sexual partners they gained the benefit of larger gene pools for their children. He says women benefited from the system because secondary fathers gave gifts and helped support the child, which has been shown to increase child survival rates. In addition, brutal warfare was common in ancient Amazonia, and should the mother become a widow, her child would still have a father figure.
Men benefitted from the multiple paternity system because they were able to formalize alliances with other men by sharing wives. Walker hypothesizes that multiple paternity also strengthened family bonds, as brothers often shared wives in some cultures.
Walker collaborated with Mark Flinn, professor in the MU Department of Anthropology, and Kim Hill, professor in Arizona State University’s School of Human Evolution and Social Change.
R. S. Walker, M. V. Flinn, K. R. Hill. Evolutionary history of partible paternity in lowland South America.Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, 2010; 107 (45): 19195 DOI: 10.1073/pnas.1002598107