Which Came First, Polygamy or Monogamy? Part 1

Post Author: Bill Pratt 

According to William Tucker, in his book Marriage and Civilization: How Monogamy Made Us Human, human beings were hunter-gatherers for thousands of years before settling down in larger population groups and becoming agricultural societies around 10,000 years ago.

Over the last couple hundred years, as anthropologists have discovered and studied ancient hunter-gatherer people-groups that still exist today, the evidence is over-whelming: they are monogamous. Tucker writes:

As explorers pushed farther into the forgotten corners of the world, however, they discovered a few remaining tribes that were still practicing hunting-and-gathering— the Bushmen of the Kalahari Desert, the Pygmies of Central Africa, the Aborigines of Australia. This led to an astonishing revelation. All turned out to be monogamous!

The monogamy of hunter-gatherers leads to an amazing egalitarian ethic among their groups. Tucker quotes Richard Wrangham and Dale Peterson:

In general , hunter-gatherer people evince some of the most delightful and admirable ethics found anywhere. They may possess only a few rough and worn objects and little food beyond what is about to be eaten, but whatever one individual has is usually shared. People cooperate, and they promote cooperation. When one man tries to make himself better than his fellows, he is scorned, so that no one can become the “big man” or a petty tyrant over others. Hunter-gatherer societies are capable, anthropologists agree, of an “extreme political and sexual egalitarianism.”

So how did polygamy arise among human populations?

Apparently, it was the invention of agriculture and the accumulation of property and permanent wealth that had caused primitive agriculturalists to take up polygamy, as wealthier men began to acquire more women. By the 1930s, European anthropologists such as A. R. Radcliffe-Brown were arguing that polygamy was in fact a backsliding, arriving only after hunter-gatherer norms had broken down. With the loss of communal hunting, male members could now be excluded from the tribe without great consequence.

When wealthier men no longer needed to collaborate and cooperate with less wealthy men, they started taking more women. Polygamy was the result.

In part 2, we will take a more in-depth look at what caused the demise of the hunter-gatherers and why the practice of monogamy came under attack.