Human Nature

, Volume 23, Issue 2, pp 149-172

First online:

A Survey of Non-Classical Polyandry

  • Katherine E. StarkweatherAffiliated withAnthropology Department, University of Missouri Email author 
  • , Raymond HamesAffiliated withAnthropology Department, University of Nebraska

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We have identified a sample of 53 societies outside of the classical Himalayan and Marquesean area that permit polyandrous unions. Our goal is to broadly describe the demographic, social, marital, and economic characteristics of these societies and to evaluate some hypotheses of the causes of polyandry. We demonstrate that although polyandry is rare it is not as rare as commonly believed, is found worldwide, and is most common in egalitarian societies. We also argue that polyandry likely existed during early human history and should be examined from an evolutionary perspective. Our analysis reveals that it may be a predictable response to a high operational sex ratio favoring males and may also be a response to high rates of male mortality and, possibly, male absenteeism. Other factors may contribute, but our within-polyandry sample limits analysis.


Polyandry Pair-bonding Cross-cultural analysis Marriage Operational sex ratio