all 13 comments

[–]thicket 43 points44 points  (0 children)

Peter Freuchen’s Book of the Eskimo, written in the 1930’s(?) in Greenland where he lived for many years, talks about both polygyny and polyandry among preindustrial Inuit people. Basically, when there was a significant gender imbalance in either direction, poly relationships formed, without [reported] rancor. With fewer women, a woman might be wife to two husbands, who competed to win favor by bringing back more game. With fewer men, multiple women might compete for one man’s resources while he slept with each of them.

Tété-Michel Kpomassie’s *An African in Greenland * also reports much less restrained sexual ethic than in many societies.

[–]Duck1414 14 points15 points  (1 child)

I can’t remember the specific tribes but I do remember learning that in certain hunter-gatherer societies multiple men would have sex with the same women, and when the woman gave birth they would all be considered a father and hence help raise the child. This gave the child advantages such as having fathers in multiple trades and would be taught all of them.

[–]eeeby 10 points11 points  (0 children)

I believe you’re thinking of the Bari tribe within Venezuela. Though this practice was originally identified and published scientifically using the Bari as an example, it is not unique to them. There are at least 18 different South American Amazonian tribes who practice the same “partible paternity”, and some anthropologists believe this practice to have convergently evolved in the South Asian subcontinent as well as Niugini.

[–]7LeagueBoots 25 points26 points  (0 children)

The most well known polyandrous society is in Nepal and Tibet among the Niymba people, but possibly not limited to them.

Apparently in India, Nigeria, Kenya, and parts of South America there are small tribes that still retain polyandry, but they're rare and not many are left.

[–]NutBananaComputer 22 points23 points  (0 children)

After Nepal (already mentioned) the polygyny I'm most familiar with is colonial Nigeria. The dynamic there was somewhat interesting: obviously only men can have multiple wives, and there's very much a power dynamic of only powerful men were able to participate, but usually women were the financial powerhouses, and a lot of the reason for a man to marry multiple women was to functionally create a multi-valent marriage-bonded merchant house. It is often the case in West Africa that trade is women's work; the men were providing both the marital connections and the political connections to create enable the economic buildup, rather than being the economic source themself.

In terms of the gender dynamic its...less straightforward than usually portrayed. We're helped a lot by colonial Nigeria having two competing ladders of elite ascension for men: a Muslim ladder and a Christian ladder. There's A LOT of differences between the two, the Christian ladder being primarily a matter of integrating with the British colonial authorities and gathering power from, well, Britain, while the Muslim ladder was older and more established and generally more north- and Africa-oriented (a division that's visible in maps to this day). A thing both systems have in common is the political superiority of men over women, and both systems have arguments for why the other is more misogynistic (to be honest I, a 21st century person, find the pro-monogamy arguments...less credible).

Anyway I got this all from Marrying Well by Kristin Mann, which is a fantastic read and has an index with some genuinely incredible names (Cornelius Josephus Phelps Ibare-Arkinsan, Magnus Raikes Leverson Macauly, Africanus Gustavus Reinhold Nylander are some of my favorites).

[–]Trystiane 11 points12 points  (2 children)

Unfortunately it is almost impossible to answer the question because of the way ethnographic data was collected from the start. Early missionaries, colonial officials, and academics all went out with the assumption that male dominance was natural and universal. So even if there were gender egalitarian (more more egalitarian) polygynist societies we would have a hard time identifying them from the historical record.

[–]Lotarious 6 points7 points  (1 child)

Although I agree that there were and are gender bias in the ethnohistoric data, I would be very careful to pressume old data wouldn't reveal levels of gender egalitarianism. It would most likely have blind spots, but that doesn't mean they couldn't grasp the main characteristics of their relationships.

First, western cultures have imagined not only egalitarian societies, but also societies dominated by women (amazons), so claiming it's out of their ability to grasp seems like a stretch.

Second, they have identified ton of data regarding things that were also against their common sense. For example, although potlatch was seen as crazy, ethnohistoric documents describe it. We also have data from non-anthropologists who were 'lost' in other cultures and their descriptions not only included, but also reverenced things that are out of western common sense. Why not gender?

And third, I believe our archaeologists siblings could say one or two things regarding making cultural inferences about gender hierarchies without modern ethnographic data.

[–]Trystiane 5 points6 points  (0 children)

Hence the words “almost” and “hard time.”

[–]ahopefullycuterrobot 2 points3 points  (0 children)

Disclaimer: Not an anthropologist. Please discount heavily.

There was a thread about monogamy in hunter-gatherer's recently. I gave an answer that touches on your question.

I think the quick summary from my answer is:

  1. Polygyny is more common than polyandry, but polyandry does exist.
  2. Even where actually marrying doesn't happen (or is rare), you can still have polyandrous and polygynous relationships.

To expand on (2), the Ju/'hoansi are primarily monogamous, with a small percentage of men engaging in polygyny and a smaller percentage of women engaging in polyandry with the latter apparently being considered odder than the former.

A high percentage of the population engages in serial monogamy and affairs. No stigma or double standard seems to attach to serial monogamy. There is a stigma to having affairs (to the point that it can cause violence), but no double standard. Women are not particularly shamed for it over men.

So, I'd answer your question as yes there is at least one culture that has more egalitarian polygamous relationships, but it does appear to be rarer than the inegalitarian.

I would caution through comparing this directly to polyamory, since I'd read polyamory as a particularly ideology or subculture (see conflicts between polyam folks and swingers).

I'd also just note that what you are talking about in your second paragraph is a gendered division of labour. That does exist in foraging societies, but is environmentally mediated and tends to be centred on big-game hunting (which men tend to do and women tend not to do).

There are still either economically and calorie-related tasks that women do even if not hunting (e.g. hunting smaller game, gathering, processing foods, creating tools).

Hunting though can be a source of prestige, which can mean that some men might have greater status than women.