Human Nature

, Volume 23, Issue 2, pp 149–172 | Cite as

A Survey of Non-Classical Polyandry

  • Katherine E. Starkweather
  • Raymond Hames


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 



We would like to thank Eric Smith, Sarah Hrdy, Rob Walker, Ed Hagen, Mary Shenk, and two anonymous reviewers for providing insightful and corrective comments on an earlier draft of this paper even though we failed to always heed them. We also thank Patricia Draper and Daniel Osborne for comments on the paper when in its initial form as a Master’s thesis. Finally, we thank Kim Hill for unpublished details on the Ache polyandry.


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Authors and Affiliations

  1. 1.Anthropology DepartmentUniversity of MissouriColumbiaUSA
  2. 2.Anthropology DepartmentUniversity of NebraskaLincolnUSA

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