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.
This is a preview of subscription content, log in to check access.
Buy single article
Instant access to the full article PDF.
Price includes VAT for USA
Subscribe to journal
Immediate online access to all issues from 2019. Subscription will auto renew annually.
This is the net price. Taxes to be calculated in checkout.
Aginsky, B. W. (1939). Control in the Shanel (Pomo) Tribe. American Sociological Review, 4, 209–216.
Alès, C. (2002). A story of unspontaneous generation: Yanomami male co-procreation and the theory of substances. In S. Beckerman & P. Valentine (Eds.), Cultures of multiple fathers: The theory and practice of partible paternity in lowland South America (pp. 62–85). Gainesville: University Press of Florida.
Alexander, R. D. (1974). The evolution of social behavior. Annual Review of Ecology and Systematics, 5, 325–383.
Alkire, W. H. (1965). Lamotrek Atoll and inter-island socioeconomic ties. Urbana: University of Illinois Press.
Balikci, A. (1963). The Netsilik Eskimo. New York: Natural History Press.
Beckerman, S., Lizarralde, R., Lizarralde, M., Bai, J., Ballew, C., Schroeder, S., et al. (2002). The Bari partible paternity project, phase one. In S. Beckerman & P. Valentine (Eds.), Cultures of multiple fathers: The theory and practice of partible paternity in lowland South America (pp. 27–41). Gainesville: University Press of Florida.
Beckerman, S., Lizzaralde, R., Ballew, C., Sissel, S., Fingelto, C., Garrison, A., et al. (1998). The Bari partible paternity project: preliminary results. Current Anthropology, 39, 164–167.
Beckerman, S., & Valentine, P. (Eds.). (2002a). Cultures of multiple fathers: The theory and practice of partible paternity in lowland South America. Gainesville: University Press of Florida.
Beckerman, S., & Valentine, P. (2002b). Introduction: The concept of partible paternity among native South Americans. In S. Beckerman & P. Valentine (Eds.), Cultures of multiple fathers: The theory and practice of partible paternity in South America (pp. 1–13). Gainesville: University of Florida Press.
Berreman, G. D. (1962). Pahari polyandry: a comparison. American Anthropologist, 64, 60–75.
Berreman, G. D. (1975). Himalayan polyandry and the domestic cycle. American Ethnologist, 2, 127–138.
Binford, L. (2002). Constructing frames of reference: An analytical method for archaeological theory building using ethnographic and environmental data sets. Berkeley: University of California Press.
Birdsell, J. (1958). On population structure in generalized hunting and collecting populations. Evolution, 12, 189–205.
Birdsell, J. (1968). Some predictions for the pleistocene based on equilibrium systems among recent foragers. In R. Lee & I. DeVore (Eds.), Man the hunter (pp. 229–240). Chicago: Aldine.
Birket-Smith, K. (1929). The Caribou Eskimos: Material and social life and their cultural position. Report of the Fifth Thule Expedition 1921–24, 5(1). Copenhagen: Gyldeddalske Boghandel, Nordisk Forlag.
Bollig, L. (1967). The inhabitants of the Truk Islands: Religion, life, and a short grammar of a Micronesian people. New Haven, CT: Human Relations Area Files (Originally published in 1927).
Bontier, P., Le Verrier, J., & Major, R. H. (1872). The Canarian, or book of the conquest and conversion of the Canarians in the year 1402. London: Printed for the Hakluyt Society.
Burch, E. (1970). Marriage and divorce among North Alaskan Eskimos. In P. Bohannan (Ed.), Divorce and after (pp. 152–181). Garden City: Doubleday & Co.
Burch, E. S. (1975). Eskimo kinsmen: Changing family relationships in northwest Alaska. St. Paul: West.
Cartagenes, R. (2010). Ensaio Sobre os Zoe. Retrieved 5/22/2010, from http://www.amazoe.org.br/textoreferencia/ensaio_livro_tupi.pdf
Cassidy, M. L., & Lee, G. R. (1989). Study of polyandry: a critique and synthesis. Journal of Comparative Family Studies, 20, 1–11.
Chandra, R. (1987). Polyandry in the North-Western Himalayas: Some changing trends. In M. K. Raha & P. C. Coomar (Eds.), Polyandry in India (pp. 130–154). Delhi: Gian.
Chernela, J. M. (2002). Fathering in the Northwest Amazon of Brazil: Competition, Monopoly, and Partition. In S. Beckerman & P. Valentine (Eds.), Cultures of multiple fathers: The theory and practice of partible paternity in lowland South America (pp. 160–177). Gainesville: University Press of Florida.
Cooper, J. M. (1942). Some anthropological publications of 1941. Primitive Man, 15(3/4), 71–74.
Cormier, L. A. (2003). Kinship with monkeys: The Guaja foragers of Eastern Amazonia. New York: Columbia University Press.
Crocker, W. H. (2002). Canela “Other Fathers”: Partible paternity and its changing practices. In S. Beckerman & P. Valentine (Eds.), Cultures of multiple fathers: The theory and practice of partible paternity in lowland South America (pp. 86–104). Gainesville: University Press of Florida.
Czaplicka, M. A. (1914). Aboriginal Siberia, a study in social anthropology. Oxford: Clarendon.
Damas, D. (1975). Demographic aspects of Central Eskimo marriage practices. American Ethnologist, 2, 409–418.
Davydov, G. I., Khvostov, N. A., & Shishkov, A. S. (1810). Dvukratnoe puteshestvie.
De Laguna, F. (1972). Under Mount Saint Elias: The history and culture of the Yakutat Tlingit. Washington, DC: Smithsonian Institution Press.
Deacon, B., & Wedgwood, C. H. (1934). Malekula, a vanishing people in the New Hebrides. London: G. Routledge & Sons.
Dempsey, H. A. (1986). The Blackfoot Indians. Toronto: McClelland and Stewart.
Dutilleux, J. P. (Writer) (2007). “The Zo-é: Nomads from the Amazon.” Alexandra Films. Available at http://oxfordhumanities.com/products_details.php?name=products&id=37
Ember, C. (1983). The relative decline in women’s contribution to agriculture with intensification. American Anthropologist, 85, 285–304.
Emlen, S. T., & Oring, L. W. (1977). Ecology, sexual selection and the evolution of mating systems. Science, 197, 215–223.
Endicott, K., & Endicott, K. (2008). The headman was a woman. Denver: Waveland.
Erikson, P. (2002). Several fathers in one’s cap: Polyandrous conception among the Panoan Matis (Amazonas, Brazil). In S. Beckerman & P. Valentine (Eds.), Cultures of multiple fathers: The theory and practice of partible paternity in lowland South America (pp. 123–136). Gainesville: University Press of Florida.
Finley, J. P., & Churchill, W. (1913). The Subanu: Studies of a sub-Visayan mountain folk of Mindanao. Washington, DC: Carnegie Institution of Washington.
Fisher, H. (2000). Lust, attraction, attachment: biology and the evolution of the three primary emotion systems of mating, reproduction, and parenting. Journal of Sex Education and Therapy, 25, 96–103.
Fisher, H., Aron, A., & Brown, L. (2006). Romantic love: a mammalian brain system for mate choice. Philosophical Transactions of the Royal Society B: Biological Sciences, 6, 2173–2186.
Gardner, P. M. (1972). The Paliyans. In M. G. Bicchieri (Ed.), Hunters and gatherers today (pp. 404–450). New York: Holt, Rinehart and Winston.
Goldizen, A. W. (1990). A comparative perspective on the evolution of tamarin and marmoset social systems. International Journal of Primatology, 11, 63–83.
Gayton, A. H. (1948). Yokuts and Western Mono ethnography: Tulare Lake, Southern Valley, and Central Foothill Yokuts. Berkeley: University of California Press.
Goldman, I. (1963). The Cubeo Indians of the Northwest Amazon (Vol. 2). Urbana: University of Illinois Press.
Goldstein, M. C. (1978). Pahari and Tibetan polyandry revisited. Ethnology, 17, 325–337.
Gomes, M. P. (1991). O povo Guaja e as condicoes reais para a sua sobrevivencia. São Paulo: Centro Ecumenico de Documentacao e Informacao.
Gomes, M. P. (1996). Os indios Guaja: demografia, terra, perspectivas de futuro. Relatorio das pesquisas realizadas. Núcleo de Pesquisa Acadêmica da FAE Centro Universitário.
Goodenough, W. H. (1951). Property, kin, and community on Truk. New Haven: Yale University Press.
Goody, J. (1976). Production and reproduction. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.
Gough, E. K. (1952). Changing kinship usages in the setting of political and economic change among the Nayars of Malabar. Journal of the Royal Anthropological Institute, 82, 71–87.
Gough, E. K. (1959). The Nayars and the definition of marriage. Journal of the Royal Anthropological Institute, 89, 23–34.
Gregor, T. (1985). Anxious pleasures: The sexual lives of an Amazonian people. Chicago: University of Chicago Press.
Grinnell, G. B. (1891). Marriage among the pawnees. American Anthropologist, 4, 275–282.
Guttentag, M., & Secord, P. F. (1983). Too many women? The sex ratio question. Beverly Hills: Sage.
Haddix, K. A. (2001). Leaving your wife and your brothers: when polyandrous marriages fall apart. Evolution and Human Behavior, 22, 47–60.
Haddix, K. A., & Gurung, J. (1999). “Excess women”: non-marriage and reproduction in two ethnic Tibetan communities of Humla, Nepal. Himalayan Research Bulletin, 19(1), 56–65.
Hames, R. (1992). Variation in paternal care among the Yanomamö. In B. Hewlett (Ed.), The father’s role: Cultural and evolutionary perspectives (pp. 85–110). Chicago: Aldine de Gruyter.
Hamilton, W. D. (1964). The genetical evolution of social behavior, II. Journal of Theoretical Biology, 7, 17–52.
Heinsohn, R., Ebert, D., Legge, S., et al. (2007). Genetic evidence for cooperative polyandry in reverse dichromatic Eclectus parrots. Animal Behaviour, 74, 1047–1054.
Hill, K., & Hurtado, A. M. (1996). Ache life history: The ecology and demography of a foraging people. New York: Aldine de Gruyter.
Hollis, A. C. (1905). The Masai: Their language and folklore. Oxford: Clarendon.
Hose, C., McDougall, W., & Haddon, A. C. (1912). The pagan tribes of Borneo: a description of their physical, moral and intellectual condition, with some discussion of their ethnic relations. London: Macmillan.
Howitt, A. W. (1904). The native tribes of south-east Australia. London: Macmillan.
Hrdlicka, A. (1975). The anthropology of Kodiak Island. New York: AMS.
Hrdy, S. B. (1981). The woman that never evolved. Cambridge: Harvard University Press.
Hrdy, S. B. (2000). The optimal number of fathers: evolution, demography, and history in the shaping of female mate preferences. Annals of the New York Academy of Sciences, 907, 75–96.
Hrdy, S. B. (2005). Comes the child before man: How cooperative breeding and prolonged postweaning dependence shaped human potentials. In B. Hewlett & M. Lamb (Eds.), Hunter-gatherer childhoods: Evolutionary, developmental and colonial perspectives (pp. 65–91). Piscataway: Aldine Transaction.
Hrdy, S. B. (2009). Mothers and others. Cambridge: Harvard University Press.
Jankowiak, W., Sudakov, M., & Wilreker, B. C. (2005). Co-wife conflict and co-operation. Ethnology, 44, 81–98.
Janssen, M. H., Arcese, P., Sloan, M. S., & Jewell, K. J. (2008). Polyandry and sex ratio in the song sparrow. The Wilson Journal of Ornithology, 120, 395–398.
Jennes, D. (1922). The Life of the Copper Eskimos. Report of the Canadian Arctic Expedition 1913–18, vol. 12. Ottawa: F. A. Ackland.
Jochelson, W. (1908). The Koryak. Leiden: E. J. Brill ltd.
Jones, D. M. (1976). Aleuts in transition: A comparison of two villages. Seattle: Published for the Institute of Social, Economic, and Government Research, University of Alaska, by the University of Washington Press.
Kasdan, L. (1965). Family structure, migration and the entrepreneur. Comparative Studies in Society and History, 7, 345–357.
Kensinger, K. M. (2002). The dilemmas of co-paternity in Cashinahua Society. In S. Beckerman & P. Valentine (Eds.), Cultures of multiple fathers: The theory and practice of partible paternity in lowland South America (pp. 14–26). Gainesville: University Press of Florida.
Kjellstrom, R. (1973). Eskimo marriage. Stockholm: Nordiska Meseets.
Kramer, K. (2010). Cooperative breeding and its significance to the demographic success of humans. Annual Review of Anthropology, 39, 417–436.
Krause, A. (1956). The Tlingit Indians: Results of a trip to the northwest coast of America and the Bering Straits. Seattle: Published for the American Ethnological Society by the University of Washington Press.
Kruger, D. J., & Nesse, R. M. (2006). An evolutionary life-history framework for understanding sex differences in human mortality rates. Human Nature, 17, 74–97.
Kurbanov, A. (2010). The Hephthalites: An archaeological and historical analysis. Berlin: Free University.
La Barre, W. (1948). The Aymara Indians of the Lake Titicaca Plateau. Menasha: American Anthropological Association.
Lantis, M. (1970). The Aleut social system: 1750 to 1810. In R. E. Ackerman (Ed.), Ethnohistory in southwestern Alaska and the southern Yukon (pp. 139–301). Lexington: University Press of Kentucky.
Lantis, M. (1984). Aleut. In D. Damas (Ed.), Arctic: Handbook of North American Indians 5 (pp. 161–184). Washington D.C: Smithsonian Institution Press.
Laraia, R. de B. (1963). “Arranjos Poliandricos” na Sociedade Surui. Revista do Museu Paulista, 14, 71–75.
Lee, R. B. (1972). !Kung Spatial Organization: an ecological and historical perspective. Human Ecology, 1, 125–147.
Lesser, A. (1930). Levirate and fraternal polyandry among the pawnees. Man, 30, 98–101.
Levine, N. E. (1990). Nyinba polyandry and the allocation of paternity. Journal of Comparative Family Studies, 11, 283–298.
Levine, N. E., & Sangree, W. H. (1980). Conclusion: Asian and African systems of polyandry. Journal of Comparative Family Studies, 11, 385–410.
Levine, N. E., & Silk, J. B. (1997). Why polyandry fails: sources of instability in polyandrous marriages. Current Anthropology, 38, 375–398.
Linnekin, J. (1990). Sacred queens and women of consequence: rank, gender, and colonialism in the Hawaiian Islands. Ann Arbor: University of Michigan Press.
Lips, J. E. (1947). Naskapi law: law and order in a hunting society. Transactions of the American Philosophical Society, 37, 379–492.
Majumdar, D. N. (1962). Himalayan Polyandry. London: Asia Publishing House.
Marlowe, F. W. (2000). Paternal investment and the human mating systems. Behavioural Processes, 51, 45–61.
Marlowe, F. W. (2003). The mating system of foragers in the standard cross-cultural sample. Cross-Cultural Research, 37, 282–306.
Muller, J. C. (1980). On the relevance of having two husbands: contribution to the study of polygynous/polyandrous marital forms of the Jos Plateau. Journal of Comparative Family Studies, 11(3), 359–369.
Murdock, G. P. (1949). Social structure. New York: Macmillan.
Murdock, G. P. (1957). World ethnographic sample. American Anthropologist, 59, 664–687.
Murdock, G. P. (1967). Ethnographic atlas: a summary. Ethnology, 6, 109–236.
Murdock, G. P., & White, D. (1969). Standard cross-cultural sample. Ethnology, 8, 329–369.
Parmar, Y. S. (1975). Polyandry in the Himalayas. Delhi: Vikas.
Park, W. Z. (1937). Paviotso polyandry. American Anthropologist, 39, 366–368.
Peter, Prince of Greece. (1963). A study of polyandry. Mouton: The Hague.
Peters, J. F. (1982). Polyandry among the Yanomama revisited. Journal of Comparative Family Studies, 13, 89–95.
Peters, J. F. (1998). Life among the Yanomami. New York: Broadview.
Peters, J. F., & Hunt, C. L. (1975). Polyandry among the Yanomama Shirishana. Journal of Comparative Family Studies, 6, 197–207.
Phillips, H. P. (1965). Thai peasant personality: The patterning of interpersonal behavior in the village of Bang Chan. Berkeley: University of California Press.
Pollet, T. V., & Nettle, D. (2008). Driving a hard bargain: sex ratio and male marriage success in a historical US population. Biology Letters, 4, 31–33.
Pollock, D. (2002). Partible paternity and multiple maternity among the Kulina. In S. Beckerman & P. Valentine (Eds.), Cultures of multiple fathers: The theory and practice of partible paternity in lowland South America (pp. 42–61). Gainesville: University Press of Florida.
Rasmussen, K. (1931). The Netsilik Eskimos. Report of the Fifth Thule Expedition 1921-24, vol. 8. Copenhagen: Gyldeddalske Boghandel, Nordisk Forlag.
Rainey, F. G. (1947). The whale hunters of Tigara. Anthropological Papers of the AMNH 41(2). New York. Available online at http://digitallibrary.amnh.org/dspace/handle/2246/125.
Reid, J. P. (1970). A law of blood: The primitive law of the Cherokee nation. New York: New York University Press.
Riazanovskii, V. A. (1965). Fundamental principles of Mongol law. London: K. Paul, Trench, Trübner & Co.
Roscoe, R. C. J. (1932). Immigrants and their influence in the Lake Region of Central Africa. In W. R. Dawson (Ed.), The Frazer lectures, 1922–1932 (pp. 25–46). London: Macmillan.
Saksena, R. N. (1962). Social economy of a polyandrous people. London: Asia Publishing House.
Sangree, W. H. (1980). The persistence of polyandry in Irigwe, Nigeria. Journal of Comparative Family Studies, 11, 335–343.
Schaffner, C. M., & French, J. A. (2004). Behavioral and endocrine responses in male marmosets to the establishment of multimale breeding groups: evidence for non-monopolizing facultative polyandry. International Journal of Primatology, 25, 709–732.
Schebesta, P. (1954). The Negritos of Asia. Wien-Modling: St. Gabriel-Verlag.
Service, E. R. (1962). Primitive Social Organization: An evolutionary perspective. New York: Random House.
Skeat, W. W., & Blagden, C. O. (1966). Pagan races of the Malay Peninsula. New York: Barnes & Noble.
Smith, A. M. (1974). Ethnography of the Northern Utes. Santa Fe: Museum of New Mexico Press.
Smith, E. A., & Smith, S. A. (1994). Inuit sex-ratio variation: population control, ethnographic error, or parental manipulation? Current Anthropology, 35, 595–624.
Smith, E. (1998). Is Tibetan polyandry adaptive? Methodological and metatheoretical analyses. Human Nature, 9, 225–261.
Smuts, B. (1992). Male aggression against women: an evolutionary perspective. Human Nature, 3, 1–44.
Spencer, P. (1988). The Maasai of Matapato: A study of rituals of rebellion. Bloomington: Indiana University Press in association with the International African Institute, London.
Spiro, M. E. (1975). Kibbutz: Venture in utopia. Cambridge: Harvard University Press.
Starkweather, K. (2010). Exploration into human polyandry: An evolutionary examination of the non-classical cases. Unpublished Master’s thesis, Department of Anthropology, University of Nebraska, Lincoln.
Stefansson, V. (1921). The friendly Arctic: The story of five years in Polar regions. New York: Macmillan.
Steward, J. H. (1936). Shoshoni polyandry. American Anthropologist, 38, 561–564.
Stone, E. A., Shackelford, T. K., & Buss, D. M. (2007). Sex ratio and mate preferences: a cross-cultural investigation. European Journal of Social Psychology, 37, 288–296.
Symons, D. (1982). Another woman that never existed. Quarterly Review of Biology, 57, 297–300.
Symons, D. (1989). A critique of Darwinian anthropology. Ethology and Sociobiology, 10, 131–144.
Symons, D. (1992). On the use and misuse of Darwinism in the Study of Human Behavior. In J. Barkow, L. Cosmides, & J. Tooby (Eds.), The adapted mind: Evolutionary psychology and the generation of culture (pp. 137–159). Oxford: Oxford University Press.
Tambiah, S. J. (1966). Polyandry in Ceylon. In C. von Fuhrer-Haimendorf (Ed.), Caste and kin in Nepal, India and Ceylon (pp. 264–358). London: Asia Publishing House.
Tew, M. (1951). A form of polyandry among the Lele of the Kasai. Journal of the International African Institute, 21, 1–12.
Valentine, P. (2002). Fathers that never exist: Exclusion of the role of shared father among the Curripaco of the northwest Amazon. In S. Beckerman & P. Valentine (Eds.), Cultures of multiple fathers: The theory and practice of partible paternity in lowland South America (pp. 178–191). Gainesville: University of Florida Press.
VanStone, J. W. (1962). Point hope, an Eskimo village in transition. Seattle: University of Washington Press.
Wagner, A. P., Creel, S., Frank, L. G., & Kalinowski, S. T. (2007). Patterns of relatedness and parentage in an asocial, polyandrous striped hyena population. Molecular Ecology, 16, 4356–4369.
Walker, R. S., Flinn, M. V., & Hill, K. R. (2010). Evolutionary history of partible paternity in lowland South America. Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences (USA), 107, 195–200.
Walum, H., Westberg, L., Henningsson, S., Neiderhiser, J. M., Reiss, D., Igl, W., et al. (2008). Genetic variation in the vasopressin receptor 1a gene (AVPR1A) associates with pair-bonding behavior in humans. Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences (USA), 105, 14153–14156.
Westermarck, E. (1926). A short history of marriage. New York: Macmillan.
Weyer, E. M. (1932). The Eskimos: Their environment and folkways. New Haven: Yale University Press.
Weyer, E. M. (1959). Primitive peoples today. Garden City: Doubleday.
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.
This manuscript received the Best Paper by a Student award from the Evolutionary Anthropology Section of the American Anthropological Association at the annual meeting in Montreal, November 2011.
About this article
Cite this article
Starkweather, K.E., Hames, R. A Survey of Non-Classical Polyandry. Hum Nat 23, 149–172 (2012). https://doi.org/10.1007/s12110-012-9144-x
- Cross-cultural analysis
- Operational sex ratio