In my last post, I argued that hunter-gatherers became less polygynous with increasing distance from the equator. Second wives became costlier because longer winters restricted food gathering and increased female dependence on male provisioning (Frost, 2006; Kelly, 1995, pp. 262-270; Hoffecker, 2002, p. 8; Martin, 1974, pp. 16-18).
How did this situation change with the advent of agriculture? In the tropics, year-round agriculture made women self-reliant in feeding themselves and their children. It thus became less costly for men to take second wives. In fact, the cost of polygyny became negative—a man stood to gain from getting as many wives as possible.
In non-tropical environments, however, women were self-reliant at best only in summer and autumn. By early spring, the larders were bare in most farming societies, as in Europe five hundred years ago:
Rates of conception fell off dramatically in late winter and early spring, when stocks of food ran low, rising sharply in early summer when food again became abundant. This was a society in which there was but a thin margin of safety most of the time. (Danborn, 2006, p. 10).
The food scarcity could be lessened in two ways: 1) by increasing food production during the growing season and storing the produce for off-season consumption; and 2) by domesticating animals as a year-round food source. Both strategies, however, tended to increase male participation in agriculture and thus decrease female self-reliance.
With respect to the first strategy, Burton and White (1984) note:
With many dry months and a shorter growing season there is more time pressure in planting and harvesting crops, and this increased time pressure may account, in part, for increased male participation in cereal crop agriculture. Maclachlan (1983) provides ethnographic data on a South Indian intensive farming system which support the seasonality hypothesis. He argues that a narrow “seasonal window” puts a premium on the labor of young men; the time pressure of soil preparation is so great that physically demanding tasks must be done very rapidly, and under these circumstance, the physical strength advantage of young men over all other members of the population makes them the best candidates for farm labor.
The second strategy also tended to decrease female self-reliance. Animal husbandry, as its very name suggests, was a male preserve, in part because of the strength needed to handle animals and in part because of a deep-seated belief, going back to hunter-gatherer times, that only men should kill animals (Cauvin, 2000, p. 133).
Only one animal—the guinea fowl—has ever been domesticated in sub-Saharan Africa, despite an abundance of large birds and mammals that would have made interesting candidates for domestication (Murdock, 1959, p. 70). It is also in this same region that women have been the most self-reliant in feeding themselves and their children and where polygyny has been the most common.
Burton, M.L. and D.R. White. (1984). Sexual division of labor in agriculture. American Anthropologist, 86, 568-583.
Cauvin, J. (2000). The Birth of the Gods and the Origins of Nature. Cambridge University Press: Cambridge.
Danborn, D.B. (2006). Born in the Country. A History of Rural America. 2nd edition, JHU Press.
Frost, P. (2006). European hair and eye color - A case of frequency-dependent sexual selection? Evolution and Human Behavior, 27, 85-103
Hoffecker, J.F. (2002). Desolate Landscapes. Ice-Age Settlement in Eastern Europe. New Brunswick: Rutgers University Press.
Kelly, R.L. (1995). The Foraging Spectrum. Diversity in Hunter-Gatherer Lifeways. Washington: Smithsonian Institution Press.
Maclachlan, M.D. (1983). Why They Did Not Starve: Biocultural Adaptation in a South Indian Village. Philadelphia: Institute for the Study of Human Issues Press.
Martin, M.K. (1974). The Foraging Adaptation — Uniformity or Diversity? Addison‑Wesley Module in Anthropology 56.
Murdock, G.P. (1959). Africa. Its Peoples and Their Culture History. New York: McGraw-Hill.