Sunday, February 24, 2008

Agriculture, female self-reliance, and non-tropical environments

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.


Anonymous said...

So what you seem to be saying is that in exploiting different environments, humans have developed differing cultural and genetic approaches (because surely, modification of some genes must be involved in changing things like willingness to engage in hard work or long-term planning on the part of one sex or the other).

Bob said...

I hope I'm not embarrassing myself, but the first sentence of the post should read "less polygynous." ... or has my reading comprehension failed me?

Anonymous said...

Merde! It should be "less polygynous." Thanks for the logic check.

I think some kind of gene-culture evolution has taken place, as I argued in a previous post. I also agree that seasonal environments should select for future-oriented resource allocation, i.e., resources must be allocated to meet both current and future needs.

Anonymous said...

It seems to me that females will seek ways in which they can be resource sufficient or to create resource sufficiency for their female offspring.

One such way is welfare.

I think some kind of gene-culture evolution has taken place, as I argued in a previous post.

Well, surely, gene-culture evolution must be going on, since culture is simply one more form of environment.

Those with the requisite hardware that allows them to more quickly bootstrap their way into the local culture have an advantage.

Anonymous said...

It would seem that stability in the environment benefits women.

They like predictability.

It would seem that more men benefit from unpredictability. That is, more men get to reproduce.

Anonymous said...

As John Hawks says, in a different context:

This is the kind of test that ought to fail in most wild populations. Without a shift in the adaptive landscape, the fraction of new mutations with potential adaptive value is bound to be small -- because species are optimized to the environments that they have occupied for a long time.

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