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Polyandry in Historical and Contemporary Anthropological Contexts

What is Polyandry in Anthropology

Polyandry, the custom of a woman being married to multiple men at the same time, is a unique sort of marriage that has been reported in various cultures throughout history. While it is less widespread than polygyny, the practice of a man having several wives, it remains a source of wonder for anthropologists, sociologists, and other scientists interested in human relationships and cultural norms.

The study of polyandry reveals insights into the multiplicity of human civilizations and challenges typical Western ideas of marriage and family. Through an analysis of historical and contemporary anthropological situations, this essay seeks to offer a thorough explanation of polyandry and its cultural importance. By researching the cultural, economic, and social variables that have formed the practice of polyandry throughout numerous civilizations, this article will give insight on the intricacy of human relationships and the range of cultural practices around the world.

Exploring the Influential Factors Behind the Practice of Polyandry

Polyandry, the practice of a woman having several husbands, has been witnessed in distinct civilizations throughout history and across different areas of the world. The factors that have formed the practice of polyandry are many and multifaceted, encompassing cultural, economic, and sociological dimensions.

One cultural component that has been associated with polyandry is the inheritance system. In cultures where property is distributed equally among male heirs, having several partners for a woman helps assure that the family’s land remains together and does not become broken over generations (Nanda, 1990). This has been witnessed in cultures in the Himalayan region of Nepal and India, where polyandry was previously prevalent.

Economic considerations have also played a role in the practices of polyandry. In some societies where resources are scarce, like the Tibetan plateau, having several marriages may be a strategy to pool resources and enhance the prospects of survival (Crook, 1997).

Social issues such as gender inequalities and population pressures may also lead to the practicing of polyandry. In places where there are more males than women, polyandry may be a way to ensure that every woman has a husband (Levine, 1988). In contrast, in cultures where there are more women than males, polyandry may be a strategy to regulate population rise (Crook, 1997).

Overall, the practise of polyandry is affected by a number of cultural, economic, and sociological causes that varies from civilisation to civilizations. knowledge these characteristics is crucial for acquiring knowledge into the range of human social and cultural activities.

Exploring the Practice of Polyandry: A Comparative Case Study Analysis Across Diverse Societies

The Nyinba of Nepal: In this culture, polyandry is prevalent due to a lack of arable land and a desire to retain property within the family. Nyinba women are typically responsible for the bulk of agricultural labor, and a lack of land means that it is more economically viable to have multiple partners to work the same plot. (Foster, 1987)

The Nuer of South Sudan: Among the Nuer, polyandry is practiced to retain social and economic relationships between families. A woman may take multiple partners from distinct lineages, building a network of links that may be relied upon in times of need. Polyandrous marriages also assist to spread income around the group, because brothers generally share the same woman. (Evans-Pritchard, 1940)

The Mosuo of China: This civilisation practices what is usually known as “walking marriage,” in which women have multiple love and sexual partners during their lifespan, but do not stay with any one man permanently. The Mosuo have a matrilineal system of inheritance and property ownership, and the technique of walking marriage allows for greater female autonomy and control over resources. (Chamberlain, 2004)

The Tibetans: Polyandry has been traditionally used among Tibetans in particular regions as a technique of retaining landholdings together and preventing fragmentation of property. In addition, it was considered that a woman’s sexual wants may be better handled by multiple partners. However, polyandry has been waning in prominence in recent years due to altering society and economic situations. (Levine, 1988)

The Hijras of India: The hijra community in India is formed of those who identify as neither male nor female and who regularly indulge in sex work. Polyandrous marriages are sometimes done within the hijra community, particularly in circumstances where multiple hijras desire to build a family unit together. (Nanda, 1990)

The Inuit: Polyandry has been described among various Inuit societies in the Arctic, particularly during times of food scarcity when multiple men may share a woman as a manner of pooling resources and ensuring survival. In other cases, polyandry has also been adopted as a method to build relationships between families or institutions. (Birket-Smith, 1929)

The Marquesans: In some sections of the Marquesas Islands in French Polynesia, polyandry has been used historically as a tactic to regulate population expansion and minimize inbreeding. A lady would marry multiple men who were not romantically related to one other, and each guy would take turns living with her and fathering her offspring. (Kirkpatrick, 1983)

Polyandry: A Critical Evaluation of its Societal Implications and Gender Dynamics

Polyandry, the habit of one woman having several partners, has been a topic of curiosity and discussion in anthropology. While it is generally considered as a rare and odd event, it has been found in several societies around the world, including Tibet, areas of India, and among several Native American tribes.

One argument against polyandry is because it goes against the common Western view of monogamy as the typical type of marriage. However, from a cross-cultural approach, it is evident that monogamy is not the single or even the most popular kind of marriage. In fact, researcher George Murdock stated that out all 1,167 civilizations investigated, only 186 were strictly monogamous (Murdock 1967).

Another complaint of polyandry is that it is economically unfeasible, because it would be difficult for multiple men to sustain one lady and any offspring. However, in cultures where polyandry is prominent, as in the Tibetan province of Zanskar, the practice is often tied to the economic imperative of preserving landholdings (Levine 1988). By preserving land in the family, polyandrous marriages aid prevent fragmentation and assure the survival of the household.

There are also sociological and cultural aspects at play in the practice of polyandry. In many societies where it is done, it is viewed as a technique to maintain family bonds and preserve social harmony (Crook and Crook 1988). In the situation of fraternal polyandry, where a woman marries multiple brothers, it may also operate to keep brothers together and avoid the splitting up of inheritances.

It is vital to highlight, however, that polyandry is not without its obstacles and disputes. In some instances, it may rise to jealousy and conflict among the spouses, as well as worries surrounding inheritance and succession. Additionally, there are questions surrounding the possibility for exploitation and coercion of women in such settings.

In conclusion, while polyandry may look uncommon and irregular to persons from Western cultures, it is a legitimate and significant type of marriage in many places around the world. By examining the economic, social, and cultural variables that affect its practice, we may better appreciate the range of human interactions and the ways in which they reflect the values and aims of diverse cultures.

Frequently Asked Questions about Polyandry


Birket-Smith, K. (1929). The Eskimos. Copenhagen: Gyldendal.

Chamberlain, A. F. (2004). Demystifying the Mosuo: The reality of China’s “last matrilineal society”. Ethnology, 43(4), 363-387.

Crook, J. (1997). The polyandrous ideal. Ethnology, 36(3), 249-258.

Evans-Pritchard, E. E. (1940). The Nuer: A description of the modes of livelihood and political institutions of a Nilotic people. Oxford University Press.

Foster, G. M. (1987). Women, sex, and marriage in the Himalayas. Journal of Anthropological Research, 43(2), 143-170.

Kirkpatrick, J. (1983). The legacy of the Marquesas: French Polynesian sexuality and the colonization of Tahiti. In S. Ortner & H. Whitehead (Eds.), Sexual meanings: The cultural construction of gender and sexuality (pp. 265-291). Cambridge University Press.

Nanda, S. (1990). Neither man nor woman: The hijras of India. Belmont, Calif: Wadsworth.

Drishti Kalra - Author at Anthroholic
Drishti Kalra

Drishti Kalra is an Assistant professor at DCAC College in the Department of History, at Delhi University. She is also a PhD Research scholar at the Department of History at Delhi University. She has also been employed as a Research Assistant on two projects at the Max Planck Institute in Germany and JNU. Currently, she is also working as a Research Associate at the DU Centenary Project on the "History of Delhi University". She has lately held positions with institutions such as The Telegraph, Médecins Sans Frontières, Intern, and Hindu Business Line.

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