Anthropology, Department of


First Advisor

Raymond B. Hames

Date of this Version

Summer 7-30-2010

Document Type



A thesis presented to the faculty of the Graduate College at the University of Nebraska in partial fulfillment of requirements for the degree of Master of Arts

Major: Anthropology

Under the supervision of Professor Raymond B. Hames

Lincoln, Nebraska, August 2010


Copyright 2010, Kathrine E. Starkweather


Polyandry has occurred all over the world, among human societies at all levels of social stratification, employing all types of economic strategies. While the classical cases that appear in Southeast Asia among stratified, agricultural societies have been thoroughly studied, very little has been written on the non-classical cases. This thesis surveys fifty-two non-classical cases of polyandry and investigates the conditions under which non-classical polyandry most often occurs. This thesis also tests the following five sets of hypotheses, which were derived from theories related to both classical and non-classical polyandry: the Imbalanced Sex Ratio Hypotheses; the Prolonged Male Absence Hypotheses; the Adult Male Mortality Hypothesis; the Male Economic Production Hypothesis; and the Father Effect Hypothesis. Based on the results of these tests, a few trends seem to be descriptive of the non-classical polyandrous groups in this sample. First, the majority of the societies are egalitarian bands or tribes, practicing hunting and gathering and slash-and-burn horticulture. The presence of polyandry among these groups suggests that polyandry likely existed throughout human evolutionary history. Also, it seems that a skewed sex ratio in favor of males is an important factor contributing to the practice of non-classical polyandry, as are prolonged male absence, high adult male mortality, and high male economic production. Although prolonged male absence and adult male mortality seem to pose similar problems, the data and the case studies in this thesis suggest otherwise. It appears that non-classical formal polyandry is employed as a male reproductive strategy when instances of prolonged male absences occur, in that polyandry may function as a form of mate guarding while the primary husband is away. On the other hand, when adult male mortality is high, it seems that non-classical informal polyandry is a female reproductive strategy, utilized to ensure an investing father for children if the primary father should die. In all cases, however, it appears that non-classical polyandry is one possible solution for men to make the best of a bad situation.

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