Anthropology, Department of


Date of this Version



"Costs and Benefits of Monogamy and Polygyny for Yanomamö Women". Ethology and Sociobiology, 17:181-199. (1996)


Copyright © 1996 Elsevier Science Inc. Used by permission.


In this paper I analyze some of the economic costs and benefits of monogamy and polygyny for Yanomamö women. The evolutionary ecological model of resource defense polygyny predicts that when female choice is operative females will choose those males who control resources that will maximize a female’s reproductive success. A female will choose a polygynous strategy (i.e., become a co-wife) if a currently married male has more resources to offer than other unmarried males or monogamous males. This model has been successfully used to predict polygynous mating in tribal societies where males are stratified in terms of their ownership or control of land, cattle, or other wealth-producing resources (Borgerhoff Mulder 1985, 1987) and in state-level societies with extreme economic stratification (Betzig 1986). Not considered in these models are the large group of societies in which polygyny exists but where males are not differentiated in terms of wealth- or resource-holding ability. The subject of this analysis, The Yanomamö Indians of Venezuela occupying drainages south of the upper Orinoco River, have a moderate rate of polygyny (e.g., approximately 25% of all married men in my sample are married polygynously), yet ownership of land, domesticated animals, or other wealth-producing resources is absent. Potentially, this means that polygynous women may be at an economic disadvantage because they, in effect, must share the economic resources of a husband who has no more wealth than a monogamous husband. In this report I seek to determine some of the economic costs and benefits of being a polygynously married woman. The analysis focuses on the economic factors that potentially differentiate polygynous and monogamous households in terms of size of gardens, labor time of husbands and wives, and the flows of critical food resources to households. I find that the only statistically significant factor that differentiates monogamous households from polygynous households is that the latter receive more food resources from other households than the former. I conclude by suggesting that polygynous women avoid the potential costs of polygyny because they are economically subsidized by other households in the village owing to the high social status of their husbands.