The function of menstrual taboos among the dogon
- Cite this article as:
- Strassmann, B.I. Human Nature (1992) 3: 89. doi:10.1007/BF02692249
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Menstrual taboos are nearly ubiquitous and assume parallel forms in geographically distant populations, yet their function has baffled researchers for decades. This paper proposes that menstrual taboos are anticuckoldry tactics. By signaling menstruation, they may advertise female reproductive status to husbands, affines, and other observers. Females may therefore have difficulty in obfuscating the timing of the onset of pregnancy. This may have three consequences: (a) males are better able to assess their probabilities of paternity and to direct their parental investment toward genetic offspring; (b) adulterous pregnancies are more easily detected and penalized, enhancing sexual fidelity; and (c) males avoid marrying pregnant females by relying on menstruation as evidence of nonpregnancy. This hypothesis is tested with 29 months of field data on menstrual taboos among the Dogon of Mali. Key results include the following: (a) cuckoldry is a major Dogon concern, (b) menstrual huts advertise female reproductive status, (c) husbands impose the taboos upon their wives, (d) female defiance of the taboos is undetectable and probably rare, and (e) informants think that the taboos help husbands and patrilineages to avoid cuckoldry. Thus the anti-cuckoldry hypothesis provides helpful insight into the menstrual taboos of the Dogon and should be tested among other populations.