Of the 1,231 societies listed in the 1980 Ethnographic Atlas, 186 were found to be monogamous; 453 had occasional polygyny; 588 had more frequent polygyny; and 4 had polyandry. Polyandry is less rare than this figure which listed only those examples found in the Himalayan mountains (28 societies). More recent studies have found more than 50 other societies practicing polyandry.
Fraternal polyandry was traditionally practiced among Tibetans in Nepal, parts of China and part of northern India, in which two or more brothers are married to the same wife, with the wife having equal "sexual access" to them. It is associated with partible paternity, the cultural belief that a child can have more than one father.
Polyandry is believed to be more likely in societies with scarce environmental resources. It is believed to limit human population growth and enhance child survival. It is a rare form of marriage that exists not only among peasant families but also among the elite families. For example, polyandry in the Himalayan mountains is related to the scarcity of land. The marriage of all brothers in a family to the same wife allows family land to remain intact and undivided. If every brother married separately and had children, family land would be split into unsustainable small plots. In contrast, very poor persons not owning land were less likely to practice polyandry in Buddhist Ladakh and Zanskar. In Europe, the splitting up of land was prevented through the social practice of impartible inheritance. With most siblings disinherited, many of them became celibate monks and priests.
Polyandrous mating systems are also a common phenomenon in the animal kingdom.
In the Indian Himalayas, polyandry may be combined with polygyny to produce a system termed "polygynandry". The system results in less land fragmentation, a diversification of domestic economic activities, and lower population growth.
Fraternal polyandry (from the Latin frater—brother), also called adelphic polyandry, is a form of polyandry in which a woman is married to two or more men who are brothers. Fraternal polyandry was (and sometimes still is) found in certain areas of Tibet, Nepal, and Northern India, where polyandry was accepted as a social practice. The Toda people of southern India practice fraternal polyandry, but monogamy has become prevalent recently. In contemporary Hindu society, polyandrous marriages in agrarian societies in the Malwa region of Punjab seem to occur to avoid division of farming land.
Fraternal polyandry achieves a similar goal to that of primogeniture in 19th-century England. Primogeniture dictated that the eldest son inherited the family estate, while younger sons had to leave home and seek their own employment. Primogeniture maintained family estates intact over generations by permitting only one heir per generation. Fraternal polyandry also accomplishes this, but does so by keeping all the brothers together with just one wife so that there is only one set of heirs per generation. This strategy appears less successful the larger the fraternal sibling group is.
Some forms of polyandry appear to be associated with a perceived need to retain aristocratic titles or agricultural lands within kin groups, and/or because of the frequent absence, for long periods, of a man from the household. In Tibet the practice was particularly popular among the priestly Sakya class.
The female equivalent of fraternal polyandry is sororate marriage.
Anthropologist Stephen Beckerman points out that at least 20 tribal societies accept that a child could, and ideally should, have more than one father, referring to it as "partible paternity." This often results in the shared nurture of a child by multiple fathers in a form of polyandric relation to the mother, although this is not always the case. One of the most well known examples is that of Trobriand "virgin birth." The matrilineal Trobriand Islanders recognize the importance of sex in reproduction but do not believe the male makes a contribution to the constitution of the child, who therefore remains attached to their mother's lineage alone. The mother's non-resident husbands are not recognized as fathers, although the mother's co-resident brothers are, since they are part of the mother's lineage.
According to inscriptions describing the reforms of the Sumerian king Urukagina of Lagash (ca. 2300 BC), the earlier custom of polyandry in his country was abolished, on pain of the woman taking multiple husbands being stoned upon which her crime is written.
An extreme gender imbalance has been suggested as a justification for polyandry. For example, the selective abortion of female fetuses in India has led to a significant margin in sex ratio and, it has been suggested, results in related men "sharing" a wife.
Polyandry in Tibet was a common practice and continues to a lesser extent today. In Tibet, polyandry has been outlawed since the Chinese takeover of the area in 1950, so it is difficult to measure the incidence of polyandry in what may have been the world's most polyandrous society. Polyandry in India still exists among minorities, and also in Bhutan, and the northern parts of Nepal. Polyandry has been practised in several parts of India, such as Rajasthan, Ladakh and Zanskar, in the Jaunsar-Bawar region in Uttarakhand, among the Toda of South India.
It also occurs or has occurred in Nigeria, the Nymba, [clarification needed] and some pre-contact Polynesian societies, though probably only among higher caste women. It is also encountered in some regions of Yunnan and Sichuan regions of China, among the Mosuo people in China (who also practice polygyny as well), and in some sub-Saharan African such as the Maasai people in Kenya and northern Tanzania and American indigenous communities. The Guanches, the first known inhabitants of the Canary Islands, practiced polyandry until their disappearance. The Zo'e tribe in the state of Pará on the Cuminapanema River, Brazil, also practice polyandry.
- In the Lake Region of Central Africa, "Polygyny ... was uncommon. Polyandry, on the other hand, was quite common."
- "The Maasai are polyandrous".
- Among the Irigwe of Northern Nigeria, women have traditionally acquired numerous spouses called "co-husbands."
- Guanches from Gran Canaria practized polyandry before the Spanish conquest. According to European accounts, during a great famine in 14th or 15th century, girls were killed after coming to life in order to equilibrate demography. This resulted in a surplus of males and a shortage of females, which led to the adoption of polyandry, allowing a woman to marry a maximum of five men.
- In August 2013, two Kenyan men entered into an agreement to marry a woman with whom they had both been having an affair. Kenyan law does not explicitly forbid polyandry, although it is not common custom.
- In the reign of Urukagina of Lagash, "Dyandry, the marriage of one woman to two men, is abolished."
- M. Notovitck mentioned polyandry in Ladakh or Little 'Tibet' in his record of his journey to Tibet. ("The Unknown life of Jesus Christ" by Virchand Gandhi).
- Polyandry was widely (and to some extent still is) practised in Lahaul-Spiti situated in isolation in the high Himalayas in India.
- In Arabia (southern) "All the kindred have their property in common ...; all have one wife" whom they share.
- The Hoa-tun (Hephthalites, White Huns) "living to the north of the Great Wall ... practiced polyandry." Among the Hephthalites, "the practice of several husbands to one wife, or polyandry, was always the rule, which is agreed on by all commentators. That this was plain was evidenced by the custom among the women of wearing a hat containing a number of horns, one for each of the subsequent husbands, all of whom were also brothers to the husband. Indeed, if a husband had no natural brothers, he would adopt another man to be his brother so that he would be allowed to marry."
- "Polyandry is very widespread among the Sherpas."
- In Bhutan in 1914, polyandry was "the prevailing domestic custom.". Nowadays polyandry is rare, but still found for instance among the Brokpas of the Merak-Sakten region.
- "A 1981 survey ... in Muli found 52% of the marriages engaged in monogamy, 32% practiced polyandry (brothers sharing a wife), and 16% practiced polygyny (sisters sharing a husband)."
- Among the Gilyaks of Sakhalein Island "polyandry is also practiced."
- Fraternal polyandry is permitted in Sri Lanka under Kandyan Marriage law, often described using the euphemism eka-ge-kama (literally "eating in one house"). Associated Polyandry, or polyandry that begins as monogamy, with the second husband entering the relationship later, is also practiced and is sometimes initiated by the wife.
- Polyandry was common in Sri Lanka, until it was banned by the British in 1859.
- Reporting on the mating patterns in ancient Greece specifically Sparta, Plutarch writes: "Thus if an older man with a young wife should take a liking to one of the well-bred young men and approve of him, he might well introduce him to her so as to fill her with noble sperm and then adopt the child as his own. Conversely a respectable man who admired someone else’s wife noted for her lovely children and her good sense, might gain the husband’s permission to sleep with her thereby planting in fruitful soil, so to speak, and producing fine children who would be linked to fine ancestors by blood and family."
- "According to Julius Caesar, it was customary among the ancient Britons for brothers, and sometimes for fathers and sons, to have their wives in common."
- "Polyandry prevailed among the Lacedaemonians according to Polybius." (Polybius vii.7.732, following Timæus)
- "The matrons of Rome flocked in great crowds to the Senate, begging with tears and entreaties that one woman should be married to two men."
- The gravestone of Allia Potestas, a woman from Perusia, describes how she lived peacefully with two lovers, one of whom immortalized her in this famous epigraphic eulogy, dating (probably) from the second century.
- Among the Kanak of New Caledonia, "every woman is the property of several husbands. It is this collection of husbands, having one wife in common, that...live together in a hut, with their common wife."
- Marquesans had "a society in which households were polyandrous."
- Friedrich Ratzel in The History of Mankind reported in 1896 that in the New Hebrides there was a kind of convention in cases of widowhood, that two widowers shall live with one widow.
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There is at least one reference to polyandry in the ancient Hindu epic Mahabharata. Draupadi married the five Pandava brothers, as this is what she chose in a previous life. This ancient text remains largely neutral to the concept of polyandry, accepting this as her way of life. However, in the same epic, when questioned by Kunti to give an example of polyandry, Yudhishthira cites Gautam-clan Jatila (married to seven Saptarishis) and Hiranyaksha's sister Pracheti (married to ten brothers), thereby implying a more open attitude toward polyandry in Vedic society.
The Hebrew Bible contains no examples of women married to more than one man, but its description of adultery clearly implies that polyandry is unacceptable and the practice is unknown in Jewish tradition. In addition, the children from other than the first husband are considered illegitimate, unless he has already divorced her or died (i.e., a mamzer), being a product of an adulterous relationship.
Joseph Smith and Brigham Young, and other early Latter-day Saints, practiced polygynous marriages. The practice was officially ended with the 1890 Manifesto. Polyandrous marriages did exist, albeit in significantly less numbers, in early LDS history.
Polyandrous marriages were practiced in pre-Islamic Arabian cultures, but were outlawed during the rise of Islam. Nikah Ijtimah was a pagan tradition of polyandry in older Arab regions which was condemned and abolished during the rise of Islam.
Polyandrous behavior is quite widespread in the animal kingdom. It is prominent in many species of insects and fish (for example pipefish; see Polyandry in fish). It is also found in other animals such as birds (for example dunnocks), whales, and in some mammals such as house mouse.
- Legal status of polygamy
- Polyandry in India
- Polyandry in Tibet
- Sacred prostitution
- Sexual conflict
- Sexy son hypothesis
- Sperm competition
Types of mating, marriage and lifestyle:
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While prospects for conflict are unclear, other problems including human trafficking, prostitution and polyandry—men (usually relatives) sharing a wife—are certain to get worse.
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