Polyandry: Definition & Cultures

Instructor: Tara DeLecce

Tara has taught Psychology and has a master's degree in evolutionary psychology.

While most of Western society practices monogamous marriage, there are other cultures that practice other types of mating arrangements. One of these is known as polyandry, and the following will explain more about it.

Polyandry Definition:

Polyandry is officially defined as the practice or condition of having more than one husband or male mate simultaneously. Although it is illegal to have more than one husband in the United States, it does occur in some cultures. Polyandry overall is, however, among the rarest of human mating systems. Specifically, only 1.1% of cultures studied worldwide engage in polyandry. The following describes the most famous cases of polyandry practiced cross-culturally.

Tibetan Polyandry:

The most recognized society that practices polyandry is a certain population in Tibet. This population comprises mainly farmers that also raise livestock. Typically, farmland and livestock can only be gained through inheritance, and those males with land and resources are considered the most desirable as mates. Historically, there existed a very strict class system in Tibet and only those of higher class were entitled to farmland and therefore deemed fit to support a wife. In such mountainous terrain, dividing farmland could be difficult as only certain areas are fertile, so rather than brothers dividing up farmland within an inherited estate, it was common for brothers to share the estate.

Furthermore, brothers typically would share a wife, known as fraternal polyandry, and marriages between one woman and two or more brothers would be arranged in early childhood by their parents. Once the marriages occurred, usually the oldest brother was considered the head of the household. Paternity of any resulting children typically was not known, but since the men involved are all genetically related, they found it acceptable to help invest in children that may not be directly related to them but are indirectly related to them. Although monogamy (mating system between one woman and one man) has become more common in Tibet, fraternal polyandry is still practiced in rural areas.

Polyandry in South America:

Although polyandry in Tibet was influenced by male status and access to resources, it exists in South America for a much different reason. Different tribes in South America, including the Bari, Canela, Mundurucu, Mehinaku, and the Ache, practice polyandry. In these tribes, it is believed that a baby cannot be conceived by only one man and multiple men must provide their 'essence' for another whole being to be created.

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