more on solving the “polygamy problem”

ah-ha!:

“A major trait distinguishes the African family models as a whole from their European, American and Asiatic equivalents: widespread polygyny, which is only one central element of a whole system. The numbers of men and women in any community being roughly the same, a proportion of polygamous marriages of 30 per cent or more of all unions implies the existence of peculiar demographic mechanisms. One of these is a wide age difference between husband and wife. Women marry much younger than men and on average have more years of married life: the excess of ‘female married years’ is what makes general polygamy possible. To create a demographic balance, remarriage has to be frequent. Often it is not a question of remarriage but simply of inheritance, a widow being automatically transferred as wife to the man designated by the rules of succession. This implies a certain weakness or even the non-existence of prohibitions on marriages between affines; a man can inherit wives from his brother and from his father, although naturally his own mother is excluded. This practice, which is fairly frequent in Africa, flagrantly contravenes bothe the Christian and the Muslim teaching on incest.” [The Explanation of Ideology, pg. 192]

so, i think i may have been on the right track re. solving the “polygamy problem” (i.e. that if some men hoard all the women, other men will be cheated out of a chance to get a wife/wives). the trick must be to recirculate the women as much as possible. i suggested divorce as a possible strategy. in african societies, some men just inherit wives from male family members.

perhaps other men are still left out, tho. maybe women just circulate around the “alpha male” circles. getting your hands on some captive, slave women (as suggested by greying wanderer) is probably another solution.

previously: solving the “polygamy problem”?

update 06/22: see also side-effects of polygamy in three african societies

(note: comments do not require an email. stay away from those sabine women!)

8 Comments

  1. Would polygamous groups have been more likely to be slaveholders? Certainly slaves are more useful in aiding agriculture/horticulture groups , producing potential surpluses to make their owner rich enough to take extra wives. Slaves would have been more of a hindrance to individualistic hunter gatherers.
    Some female slaves moved into the ranks of wives if they took the eye of the owner, and therefore may have had a greater life expectancy than male slaves, and also introducing different genes into the more successful slave-holding tribe.

    Reply

  2. This makes a lot of sense. If the wealthy men are much older on average then each wife could end up with 2-3 husbands over her fertile years (mind-boggling familial relationships if you imagine first husband to husband’s brother to first husband’s son with a different wife).

    I still wonder if there might be a class problem though i.e. the excess wives cycling among the upper 1/3 of men, especially if number of wives was a status symbol. It would be interesting know what percentage of men had no wives in the African model. Or even if they didn’t get a wife until their 40s when they inherited one. That’s a lot of frustration and potential aggression, not just sexual/breeding frustration, but status also. (I assume being unwed would be low-status?)

    Another factor if you had a structural shortage of females is it would create pressure for young girls to enter the market as young as possible.

    I think i’m right in thinking the Arabs originally had no limit on the number of wives and it was Islam that limited it to four? That’s still in theory (although probably not in practise) 3/4 of the men without wives.

    .
    “Would polygamous groups have been more likely to be slaveholders?”

    The more i think of it the more likely it seems. External aggression as a release for internal conflicts is common as a thing in itself plus the added practical reasons of female shortage.

    Reply

  3. @svk – “Would polygamous groups have been more likely to be slaveholders? Certainly slaves are more useful in aiding agriculture/horticulture groups….”

    that is a likely notion! the only thing is, in african societies anyway (where we find the most polygamy), the people doing the agriculture/horticulture are usually the women. so, if you do take in slaves, you don’t really need any male slave — just female ones. also, if you had this polygamous society with too many males without wives, the last thing you’d want to do is to add any MORE men to the population!

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  4. @g.w. – “I still wonder if there might be a class problem though i.e. the excess wives cycling among the upper 1/3 of men, especially if number of wives was a status symbol.”

    yes. i can see that is a problem with my “solutions” — i.e. that it might be the “alpha males” who circulate all these divorced/inherited women.

    the reason i started thinking about it, tho, is ’cause i started to think that, whoa — you could start to have big problems in a society if, like you say, 3/4s of the men didn’t get a chance to reproduce! (i can’t imagine it ever got that high anywhere, tho.) i was thinking that the very existance of the system must mean that most people are o.k. with it, otherwise it wouldn’t exist. or there’d be so much internal strife that we’d see societies imploding all over the place. (maybe that is what we see in africa?) so, i thought there must be some sort-of work around.

    i thought of another one today, but i’ll be d*mned if i can find the reference. i think this is a story told by henry harpending from the days when he was doing fieldwork in africa. he told a story about how he suggested to some african guy that why don’t they just go to his house nearby to stay for the night (they needed a place to stay, iirc), but the african guy just replied that no, that was not possible ’cause he hadn’t told that wife that he would be coming over that night. the implication was that that particular wife may have had a lover over and that would be very bad manners just to show up unannounced like that. sooooo, perhaps another solution to the polygamy problem is just a lot of overlooked “extra-pair copulations.” perhaps a lot of beta males are informally allowed access to married women. might not matter so much if they’re your younger brothers or cousins anyway (keeping the mating in the family i’m thinking).

    @g.w. – “It would be interesting know what percentage of men had no wives in the African model.”

    oh! i just recently saw some polygamy numbers from a couple of african nations. i’ll try to look them up tomorrow or the day after and post them. remind me if i forget!

    @g.w. – “I think i’m right in thinking the Arabs originally had no limit on the number of wives and it was Islam that limited it to four?”

    i think that is right — it think it was mohammed that put the limit to four. i’ve never seen anyone mention that there was such a limit in pre-mohammedean days.

    Reply

  5. hbdc “ the people doing the agriculture/horticulture are usually the women”

    Agreed to an extent, but as in New Guinea the initial slashing and burning heavier work is done by men, the women following up with the more detailed, sowing and tending.
    Also carrying of heavy rootcorps at harvest would possibly more of a male job.

    I am thinking too of pre-maize, and pre-cassava Africa….the crop options pertaining at the time.
    Perhaps the over-reliance on maize has much to do with overall African under-nutrition.

    Interesting that after the introduction of sweet potato ( kumera) to New Guinea, farming/ cropping was pushed to higher altitudes , and drier margins than taro could cope with. This allowed rapid population expansion, not only people but pigs. Pigs would eat sweet potato , not so much taro. More pigs, more wealth, more raiding, more polygamy?

    Reply

  6. “yes. i can see that is a problem with my “solutions” — i.e. that it might be the “alpha males” who circulate all these divorced/inherited women.”

    Well it’s still a partial solution especially as the top third in those times are likely to be those with the most martial expertise and sharpest swords.

    .
    “you could start to have big problems in a society…so, i thought there must be some sort-of work around.”

    Definitely. Some counter factors in pastoral nomad FBD groups might be:
    – critical mass, if 1/3 have multiple wives and 1/3 have single or cast-off wives and the group spends most of its time as a separate group the last 1/3 may not have the concentrated numbers to cause trouble (e.g. 10,000 dirt poor agricultural laborers scattered across 1000 villages compared with 10,000 dirt-poor industrial laborers concentrated in a city.)
    – free-lance raiding, unmarried men creating raids to steal women. i saw something about that recently but forget where now
    – FBD again, the unmarried men are still very related to the off-spring despite not being the father

    .
    “the implication was that that particular wife may have had a lover over and that would be very bad manners just to show up unannounced like that. sooooo, perhaps another solution to the polygamy problem is just a lot of overlooked “extra-pair copulations.””

    Yes that could be an option for a settled agriculturalist solution.

    Reply

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