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Women With More Than One Man

The Pimbwe Perspective

Wissenschaftskolleg zu Berlin
Source: Wissenschaftskolleg zu Berlin

Footbound and clitoridectomized, cloistered and guarded, veiled and burqaed, beaten and burned. Women in history have been all that. But across space and time, many women have been relatively free. Sexually and otherwise.

My friend, the Dutch anthropologist Monique Borgerhoff Mulder, has studied the Pimbwe of western Tanzania since the end of the last century. She’s worked in a village at the north end of the Rukwa Valley, where most Pimbwe rely on maize as a staple subsistence and cash crop, with hunting, fishing, honey production and a few other crops on the side. Making a living is hard. Rainfall is seasonal; food and labor are often in short supply.

Traditionally, Pimbwe marriages were mostly monogamous, with bridewealth payments and low divorce rates. These days, with high poverty and outmigration, marriages are often defined by cohabitation, and divorce and serial monogamy have become more common. So has polygynous marriage, once the sole purview of chiefs.

About half of the men and women in Monique's 20-year longitudinal census marry more than once. But men who are considered “hardworking” are less likely to be divorced, and women who are considered “hardworking” are sought after as second or third or fourth spouses. As a result, controlling for number of years married, multiple partners fail to produce more surviving children for husbands, but multiple partners do produce more surviving children for wives. In short: “Men suffer reproductively from multiple marriages in a way that women do not.” It's not a common phenomenon, she writes; but "increasingly transactional sex and mate switching is recognized as a way women in tight economic situations make ends meet" (Borgerhoff Mulder 2009: 139; personal communication).

Sex differences in reproductive skew for H sapiens often lie at the low end of the mammalian and primate distributions. Borgerhoff Mulder and colleagues have found that though most H sapiens societies allow polygyny, monogamy can be the rule for the majority (Ross, Borgerhoff Mulder et al. 2018); and that, compared to most other mammals, and to most other primates, sex differences in skew across contemporary human societies are small. “We refer to this claim as the reproductive egalitarianism hypothesis” (Ross, Borgerhoff Mulder et al. 2019, in prep.).

In some societies of the past, it may have been otherwise. Even now, in full-time foraging societies—from the Aché of Paraguay, to the Pumé of Venezuela, from the Ju/’hoansi of the Kalahari, to the Aka Pygmies of the Central African Republic, from the Hadza of Tanzania’s Lake Eyasi, to Australia’s Meriam Islanders—reproductive variance among men is consistently greater than reproductive variance among women. Hunters and gatherer societies are polygynous societies.

In the societies of history, polygyny took off. In the Near East, where civilization probably began, Solomon was remembered as the collector of 1,000 women (1 Kings 11:1-3); and the Persian emperor, Xerxes I, had 118 sons. In Egypt, Rameses II saved places in his tomb for dozens of children; Roman emperors hoarded, and often took advantage of, thousands of slaves. In India, Ashoka, the “Sorrowless” emperor, won his throne over the bodies of 99 brothers; and in China, Marco Polo counted 47 sons by the wives and concubines of Khublai Khan. In Aztec Mexico, Nezahualcoyotl, who ruled over Texcoco and was a friend to Moctecuhzoma I, was remembered as the father of 57 daughters and 60 sons; and in Peru, Garcilaso, who was the son of an Inca noble, estimated that most emperors had 200, or 300, or 400 children by thousands of carefully guarded women. As Guamán Poma, another son of Inca nobles, confessed, the “poor Indian” took whatever was left (Betzig 2020).

But for plenty of women, in plenty of times and places, serial polyandry would have been the best option. It is for the Pimbwe, and it may be for many of us.


Borgerhoff Mulder, Monique. 2009. Serial monogamy as polygyny or polyandry? Marriage in the Tanzanian Pimbwe. Human Nature, 20: 130-150.

Ross, Cody, Monique Borgerhoff Mulder et al. 2018. Greater wealth inequality, less polygyny: Rethinking the polygyny threshold model. Journal of the Royal Society Interface, 15.

Ross, Cody, Monique Borgerhoff Mulder et al. 2019. Humans have small sex differences in skew compared to non-human mammals, in prep.

Betzig, Laura. 2020. Differential Reproduction. In Todd Shackelford, ed., Sage Handbook of Evolutionary Psychology, in press.