the origin of monogamy

via dienekes via luke (“the force is strong with this one”) lea, here’s an interesting podcast @curioserandcurioser featuring laura fortunato speaking about her research into the origins of monogamy.

after delving into indo-european linguistic evidence, fortunato suggests that monogamy in indo-european societies (which is unusually high compared to the rest of the world, apparently) originated 8,000-9,5000 years ago in anatolia with the rise of agriculture. maybe.

interestingly, she suggests that monogamy may have been a solution to limiting the number of heirs so that farm holdings wouldn’t have to be split up between too many descendants, a practice which might eventually wind up in farms being too small to support a family. hmmmm … inheritance restrictions (i.e. passing enough resources on to one’s kids) affecting mating patterns. seems to be a recurring theme here.

see also: Monogamy, Polygyny and the Well-Tended Garden

(note: comments do not require an email. or multiple wives. [no concubines, please!])

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5 Comments

  1. Hmm, I could immediately think of different case. In China, agriculture has always been the key in the society. At the same time, polygamy is a widely-accepted social norm (even encouraged by Confucianism) in China. Thing is, many (majority) still chose to have one wife not because of the inheritance restriction but more on the economic pressure. Only big landlords and nobles could economically afford concubines. Of course monogamy has agricultural roots, but I am not convinced about the inheritance restriction theory.

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  2. “she suggests that monogamy may have been a solution to limiting the number of heirs so that farm holdings wouldn’t have to be split up between too many descendants, a practice which might eventually wind up in farms being too small to support a family.”

    I agree this sounds a very dubious explanation – most people didn’t have heirs – being slaves or serfs – and the mortality rate of children was then so high (for peasants especially) that no matter how many children were born, (as I read the evidence) it was not unusual for them *all* to die without reproducing. Indeed, beyond a fairly low point, the more that were born, the more likely they were all to die…

    Hence we are all the descendants of relatively few rich and highly fertile people; no of the mass of farmers.

    The focus should be on these rich people. And as it looks to me, they had as many kids as came along, passed on wealth to one or two, and the rest had to fend for themselves (assisted by power but not money) and generally they drifted down to the lower classes.

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  3. “In China, agriculture has always been the key in the society. At the same time, polygamy is a widely-accepted social norm (even encouraged by Confucianism) in China. Thing is, many (majority) still chose to have one wife not because of the inheritance restriction but more on the economic pressure.”

    Agree. I think it’s more to do with the balance between surplus and subsistence.

    If you imagine a spectrum of subsistence to surplus the two extreme cases are:

    a) Absolute subsistence where a single male cannot possibly provision two females and their off-spring. In fact it requires two people to provision their off-spring. In this case monogamy would be absolute. A debate on the issue would be pointless and it is in no-one’s interests.

    b) A surplus large enough for an elite to form and for that elite to be able to provision multiple wives and that elite to be *large enough* to impose what is in their interests. They don’t have to be anything like a majority. There just has to be enough of them relative to the number of losers.

    (For example, if there were 10,000 males and females and the top 1000 males had two wives each, the middle 8,000 had one each and the bottom 1000 had none, then the balance of winners to losers wouldn’t be too bad. If the top 1000 males could afford four wives each leaving 3,000 losers then things could get more dicey.)

    So basically anywhere within cultural and military range of a high-surplus, high-density, agrarian polygamous elite society – even if the people in that place were subsistence farmers with no surplus – might have the polygamous system either imposed by conquest and an external legal system or through elite emulation.

    .
    However take the near-east when farming was just starting. Initially there wouldn’t have been much of a surplus as the techniques were new – no surplus, no elite, no polygamy. Later as the techniques developed maybe that changed or maybe those people remained the same because it had become too strong a part of their culture. Either way if the first farmers were monogamous simply because of lack of surplus that would likely eventually have changed when farming reached the big river valleys as the level of surplus possible would have allowed a much larger elite who could impose polygamy as the legal form even if in reality it only applied to themselves.

    Also once those big agrarian polygamous elite empires developed their influence would spread to every society within cultural or military range.

    .
    Jump to Greece, somewhere in the middle, not wholly subsistence but not massive surplus either. There is an elite and they could provision a couple of wives each but as a caste maybe there’s not enough potential winners to balance out the losers or the size of the elite caste who could afford multiple wives is too small to make a dent in the dominant culture?

    It seems to me if you look at the subsistence to surplus spectrum you could see four standard forms developing

    a) strict monogamy
    b) official monogamy, tacitly accepted (single) concubine but with no legal status for the children
    c) official monogamy, explicitly accepted concubines with some kind of lesser legal status for the children
    d) polygamy, all wives, all children with legal status

    based on the balance of forces between elite and non-elite which generally derived from the level of surplus (although with an added twist in Europe’s case of the Church).

    .
    Possible connection with other topics through polygamy inclining more to endogamy depending on the scale?

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  4. @theslittyeye – “Thing is, many (majority) still chose to have one wife not because of the inheritance restriction but more on the economic pressure.”

    sure! it’s expensive to have a second wife and a second set of kids. not to mention the cost on the nerves having more than just ONE wife. (~_^)

    still, being able to afford a second (or even more) household(s) is not totally unrelated to the problem of inheritance. you need to have enough resources to feed your wife and kids, of course, but you also need to see that the next generation is set up for success in the future. if you don’t do that, all of your efforts may have been wasted. your kids’ future is also a very important factor in the calculation, here, i think.

    btw — any idea what the traditional inheritance system looked like in china? presumably it varied a lot over time and between regions, but i was wondering if you knew if there was a general trend toward primogeniture (the eldest son inheriting the farm intact) and, if so, what happened to second and third sons? in eighteenth and nineteenth century england, for example — amongst the upper classes, anyway — second and third sons would go into the military or the church. that’s how they solved the inheritance problem. i’m wondering if the chinese did something similar? thnx!

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  5. @bruce – “Hence we are all the descendants of relatively few rich and highly fertile people; no of the mass of farmers.”

    you make a good point, but surely this must vary over time, not to mention which population you’re talking about.

    sure, going back to certain points during the middle ages — or looking at the situation of the serfs — you’re, no doubt, correct. but, looking at more modern times, ordinary farmers have done a lot better and they have managed to leave a lot of descendants.

    hard to say about anatolia ca. 8000-9500 years ago. were there a lot of slaves and/or serfs? what was did the economic structure of the society look like? i have no idea. ?? in any case, it’s interesting that fortunato found linguistic evidence that monogamy-related terms go back that far. that’s pretty cool!

    still, you’re right about the fact a LOT of the time it’s been the rich and powerful who have managed to leave lots of descendants behind. i happen to know that i have just such an ancestor — he managed to leave a ridiculous number of descendants behind. good for him!

    Reply

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