Tag Archives: polygyny

The Puzzle of Polygamy

Actually there are several puzzles about African polygamy:

  1. Why is it relatively high in tropical Africa? Oddly, Madagascar is the great exception: tropical, near Africa, but little or no polygamy. This makes me think that polygamy has deep roots, since Madagascar was settled by a separate population of Austronesians.
  2. There is a belt of high polygamy from West Africa to Tanzania, elsewhere in Africa it is present but at lower levels. Why does it vary? A paper by James Fenske* tests several hypotheses.
    • Inequality among men. It turns out that current inequalities among men are not predictive, but historical indicators of inequality on the eve of colonial rule (taken from the Ethnographic Atlas) do predict polygamy today.
    • Women supporting themselves by farming? It seems that polygamy is least common in those parts of Africa where women have historically been most important in agriculture. But I would add, even if it does not explain variation in Africa, this surely has to be part of the reason Africa as a whole has much polygamy compared to Eurasia.
    • The slave trade, taking men away, leaving more women. Correlation with the slave trade is not robust. Angola sent many slaves but has lowish polygamy.
  3. Polygamy has declined over the past half century. Why? Fenske tests several hypotheses and concludes that falling child mortality explains much of the decline in polygamy across sub-Saharan Africa. The mechanism I suppose is that now women are more confident they can successfully raise children in a monogamous marriage. But is this cause or consequence? Monogamy means more paternal investment, which should lessen child mortality.

The puzzles multiply.

James Fenske, “African polygamy: past and present” (pdf here)


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Burkina Faso Wins! (Polygamy Edition)

Emmanuel Todd has gathered some interesting data on polygamy (actually polygyny) rates.

The world champion is Burkina Faso! Over half of its married women have co-wives. (What do all the leftover men do?)

Arab and African Polygamy Rates

(% of married women with co-wife)


Jordan 2002 6.8
Yemen 1997 7.1
Morocco 2003-04 4.7


Sudan 1978-79 20.2
Sudan   (North) 9.3
Sudan   (Darfur) 37.9
Mauretania 2000-01 11.6


Chad 1996-97 39.2
Chad   Muslims 35.6
Chad   Catholics 46.8
Chad   Animists 51.4
Mali 1996-97 44.3
Burkina   Faso 1998-99 54.7
Ivory   Coast 1994 36.6
Ivory   Coast Catholics 24.7
Ivory   Coast Muslims 44.5
Ivory   Coast Animists 47.2




In Arab countries 5-10% of women are in polygamous marriages. In black Africa, 30-55% of women. The highest levels are in interior West Africa.

Another difference: Arab-style marriage of parallel cousins [father’s brother’s daughter] is uncommon in Africa. Instead cross-cousin [between the children of brother and sister] or exogamous marriage is the norm.


Youssef Courbage and Emmanuel Todd, A Convergence of Civilizations: The Transformation of Muslim Societies (Columbia UP, 2011) p. 44.


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Is the West Best? Monogamy Edition

Most societies recorded by anthropologists are polygynous. (Around 85% by one count.) The few monogamous ones are almost all found in harsh environments. Once agriculture arose, almost all farming societies were polygynous as well as almost all complex societies or civilizations – with one big exception: the West. Europe was peculiar from antiquity onward. Ancient Greece was monogamous, so was Rome, and the Christian middle ages.

Did this make any difference to the history of Western civilization? I think it did.

For one thing, monogamy means more marital equality among men. This probably has an elective affinity with political liberty and democracy. More equality in marital resources seems to go along more equality in politics. European rulers, however despotic they may have been, could not accumulate vast harems.

Also, monogamy means less competition among men to secure more wives. Men can devote less time and effort to getting wives and more to other activities. Unrelated men can cooperate together.

Plus, monogamy probably induces men to devote more paternal investment to their children.

Some argue that the West, or Western civilization, is not a coherent thing, that it has no distinctive identity. Well, monogamy is one thing that is both distinctively Western and which stretches back over more than two millennia.

Consider Western monogamy a long social experiment. Was it a success? It has been adopted far and wide so that betokens major success.


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Polygyny: The 16,000 Wives of Krishna

Laura Betzig illustrates how widespread polygyny was in history.

The Jews were polygynous. The Old Testament recounts

Abraham had a son by his wife, Sarah; he had another son by Hagar, who was Sarah’s maid; and he had 6 sons by Keturah, after Sarah died. But some of his grandsons outdid him. Jacob had 12 sons by 4 women—6 by his wife, Leah; another 2 by his wife, Rachel; and another 4 by Bilhah and Zilpah, his wife’s maids.

David lived in an ivory palace, surrounded by ladies of honor and virgin companions; the Bible names one of his daughters, and 19 of his sons. But his son, Solomon, was much more ambitious than he was. “He had seven hundred wives, princesses, and three hundred concubines; and his wives turned away his heart” (1 Kings 11:3).

The Hindus were polygynous. The Mahbharata tells us

pretty girls dance “by the thousands” when Arjuna marries the flawless princess, Draupadi. And the lord Krishna, whose 8 wives give him 80 sons, captures thousands of women from the evil Narakasura. After which, his first wife is flattered: “You live long with tremendous beauty and welfare. You are considered and worshipped as eldest of all 16,000 wives of Krishna.”

But in Europe, things were somewhat different. Charlemagne had several concubines and 4 wives. Wikipedia says Charlemagne had eighteen children over the course of his life with eight of his ten known wives or concubines. But the 4 legitimate wives were successive not concurrent. This was serial monogamy with some concubinage. It was not a harem.

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