Historically, polyandry was much more common than we thought.
by Alice Dreger / Northwestern University / theatlantic.com
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, andRaymond 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. (Disclosure: I first learned of Starkweather’s project while researching a controversy involving Hames and he is now a friend.)
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.”
Rather than treating polyandry as a mystery to be explained away, Starkweather and Hames suggest polyandry constitutes a variation on the common, evolutionarily-adaptive phenomenon of pair-bonding — a variation that sometimes emerges in response to environmental conditions.