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Polyandry (Greek: poly—many, andras—man) refers to a form of marriage in which a woman takes two or more husbands at the same time. Polyandry is prohibited by Hinduism, Judaism, Christianity and Islam and it is illegal in most countries, including those that permit polygyny. Even in cultures where it has been known, it is and has been extremely rare, and then only in particular and limited circumstances. In those cultures, the husbands were almost always from the same family. For example, the form of polyandry in which a woman is married to two or more brothers is known as fraternal polyandry, and it is believed by many anthropologists to be the most frequently encountered form.
Polyandry refers to a marriage in which sexual relations centre on the single wife and both/all men know of the existence of the other husbands. When the existence of an additional male is unknown it may be described as an affair.
According to inscriptions describing the reforms of the Sumerian king Urukagina of Lagash (ca. 2300 BC), the former custom of polyandry in his country was abolished, on pain of the woman taking multiple husbands being stoned with rocks upon which her crime is written.
Polyandry in Tibet was a common practice and continues to a lesser extent today. Polyandry in India still exists among minorities, and also in Bhutan, and the northern parts of Nepal. Polyandry has been practised in several parts of India, such as Rajasthan, Ladakh and Zanskar, in the Jaunsar-Bawar region in Uttarakhand, among the Toda of South India, and the Nishi of Arunachal Pradesh.
It also occurs or has occurred in Nigeria, the Nymba, and some pre-contact Polynesian societies, though probably only among higher caste women. It is also encountered in some regions of Yunnan and Sichuan regions of China, among the Mosuo people in China, and in some sub-Saharan African such as the Maasai people in Kenya and northern Tanzania and American indigenous communities. The Guanches, the first known inhabitants of the Canary Islands, practiced polyandry until their disappearance. Polyandry was practiced in Celtic societies as women were allowed to own property and marry more than one husband. The Zo'e tribe in the state of Pará on the Cuminapanema River, Brazil, also practice polyandry.
In other societies, there are people who live in de facto polyandrous arrangements that are not recognized by the law. Saskatchewan Canada is the only jurisdiction in North America to have "judicially sanctioned" polyandrous unions at a family law court level.
Polyandry is a controversial subject among anthropologists. For instance, Pennsylvania anthropologist Stephen Beckerman points out that at least 20 tribal societies accept that a child could, and ideally should, have more than one father, referring to it as "partible paternity." On the other hand, in Tibet, which is the best-documented cultural domain within which polyandry is practiced, certain polyandrists themselves testify that the marriage form is difficult to sustain.
In other parts of the world, most traditional societies have been drastically altered or destroyed, so the incidence of polyandry in the past may not be accurately known. In India, among Tibetan refugee groups who fled the Chinese takeover of their country, polyandry is seldom encountered.
The Hebrew Bible prohibits polyandry. For a woman to have sexual relations when she is married to another (which would include a situation such as polyandry) would constitute adultery. Leviticus 20:10 provides that "both the adulterer and the adulteress must be put to death." In addition, the children from that relationship are considered illegitimate (i.e., a mamzer).
There is at least one reference to polyandry in the ancient Hindu epic Mahabharata. Draupadi marries the five Pandava brothers. This ancient text remains largely neutral to the concept of polyandry, accepting this as her way of life. However, in the same epic, when questioned by Kunti to give an example of polyandry, Yudhisthira cites Gautam-clan Jatila (married to seven Saptarishis) and Hiranyaksha's sister Pracheti (married to ten brothers), thereby implying a more open attitude toward polyandry by the then Indian society.
Some forms of polyandry appear to be associated with a perceived need to retain aristocratic titles or agricultural lands within kin groups, and/or because of the frequent absence, for long periods, of a man from the household. In Tibet the practice was particularly popular among the priestly Sakya class but also among poor small farmers who can ill afford to divide their small holdings. As to the latter variety, as some males return to the household, others leave for a long time, so that there is usually one husband present.
An extreme gender imbalance has been suggested as a justification for polyandry. For example, the selective abortion of female fetuses in India, it has been suggested, results in related men sharing a wife. Gender imbalance in remote communities has also been reported as leading to several men "sharing" a woman, thereby reducing hostility among the men competing for the woman's attention.
Fraternal polyandry (from the Latin frater—brother) is a form of polyandry in which two or more brothers share one wife or more. It is also termed adelphogamy, but this term also has other meanings.
Fraternal polyandry is found in certain areas of Tibet and Nepal, where polyandry is accepted as a social practice. The Toda people of southern India practice fraternal polyandry, but monogamy has become prevalent recently.
Apart from the famous example of fraternal polyandry in the Mahabharata between the five Pandava brothers and Draupadi, there are other instances, both in Hindu history and folklore. For example, in Mahabharata itself, when questioned by Kunti to give an example of polyandry, Yudhisthira cites Gautam-clan Jatila (married to seven Saptarishis) and Hiranyaksha's sister Pracheti (married to ten brothers), thereby implying a more open attitude toward polyandry by the then Indian society. In contemporary Hindu society, many social scientists have expressed a fear of critical compulsion of polyandry in the near future, due to the rise such marriages in the agrarian societies in Malwa region of Punjab to avoid division of farming land.
Fraternal polyandry achieves a similar goal to what primogeniture did in 19th-century England. Primogeniture dictated that the eldest son inherited the family estate, while younger sons had to leave home and seek their own employment. Primogeniture maintained family estates intact over generations by permitting only one heir per generation. Fraternal polyandry also accomplishes this, but does so by keeping all the brothers together with just one wife so that there is only one set of heirs per generation.
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Fraternal polyandry is permitted in Sri Lanka under Kandyan Marriage law, often described using the euphemism eka-ge-kama (literally "eating in one house") . Associated Polyandry, or polyandry that begins as monogamy, with the second husband entering the relationship later, is also practiced and it sometimes initiated by the wife.
In the field of behavioural ecology polyandry is a type of breeding adaptation in which one female mates with many males. Another opposite breeding system to this is polygyny in which one male mates with many females (e.g., lions, deer, some primates, and many systems where there is an alpha male).
A common example of this can be found in the Field Cricket Gryllus bimaculatus of the invertebrate order Orthoptera (containing crickets, grasshoppers, and groundhoppers). Females in this species will mate with any male close to them, including siblings. Widely shown in frogs (Agile frogs, Rana dalmatina), polyandry was also documented in polecat (Mustela putorius) and other mustelids. Related to sexual conflict, Thierry Lodé found possible explanations for polyandry include mate competition and inbreeding avoidance.
Polyandry also occurs in some primates such as marmosets, mammal groups, the marsupial genus' Antechinus and bandicoots, around 1% of all bird species, such as jacanas, insects such as honeybees, and fish such as pipefish. In effect polyandry will reduce the effective population size of a given closed population.
Some New World monkeys, for example Goeldi's Marmoset, have been observed living in polyandrous groups. Although groups may contain more than one female, the dominant female suppresses ovulation in subordinates, causing her to be the only one capable of reproduction. A Goeldi's Marmoset female regularly births more than one offspring, and her eggs are separately fertilized by more than one male. Paternal investment is high among Goeldi's Marmosets, and males often carry infants on their backs even if they are not the father of the infant. It has been suggested that multiple male mates were related, and therefore cooperation in caring for each other's young is adaptive; however, researchers tagged and tracked Goeldi's Marmosets over time, and noticed that unrelated males migrated to new groups to cooperate with nonrelatives as well as with relatives to care for young. It has also been suggested that females select cooperative males, and that the multiple offspring of Goeldi's Marmosets require paternal care for survival.
Current research suggests that polyandry is the dominant social structure in the Callitrichidae subfamily of New World monkeys.
The callitrichidae family includes marmosets and tamarins, two groups of small New World monkeys found in South America. Wild groups usually consist of three to ten individuals, with one reproductively active female, one or more reproductive males, and several nonreproductive helpers that can be either male or female. Interestingly, cooperative polyandry is not the only mating system found in these primates. Polyandrous, monogamous, and polygynous groups can be found within the same population, and a group can even change mating systems, making it the most flexible mating system of any non-human primate. Unlike most primates who typically give birth to single young, twins are the average litter size for tamarins and marmosets. The entire group participates in raising the offspring, sharing the responsibilities of infant carrying, feeding, and grooming. The presence of nonreproductive helpers appears to be the most important factor in determining which mating system is used, as ecological and environmental variability have not been found to have a significant impact. Goldizen (1987) proposed the hypothesis that monogamy in callitrichidae should develop only in groups with nonreproductive helpers to help raise the young, and in the absence of these helpers, both polyandrous males and females would have higher reproductive success than those in lone monogamous pairs. Indeed, in studies of Saguinus fuscicollis, common name saddle-back tamarin, no monogamous lone pairs have ever been seen to attempt a breeding cycle.
The term has gained some currency in sociobiology, where it refers, analogously, to a mating system in which one female forms more or less permanent bonds to more than one male. It can take two different forms. In one, typified by the Northern Jacana and some other ground-living birds, the female takes on much the same role as the male in a polygynous species, holding a large territory within which several males build nests. Subsequently, the female lays eggs in all the nests, and plays little part in parental care. In the other form, typified by the Galápagos Hawk, a group of two or more males (which may or may not be related) and one female collectively care for a single nest. The latter situation more closely resembles typical human fraternal polyandry.
These two forms reflect different resource situations: polyandry with shared parental care is more likely in very difficult environments, where the efforts of more than two parents are needed to give a reasonable chance of rearing young successfully.
Honeybees are said to be polyandrous because a queen typically mates with multiple males, even though mating is the only interaction that they have (the males die off, while the queen uses stored sperm for eggs she fertilizes).
Polyandry in primates and other mammals is usually correlated with reduced or reverse sexual dimorphism—females larger than males. When males of a species are much larger than females, polygyny is usually practiced. As size difference decreases, or the females are larger than males, a species is more likely to practice monogamy or polyandry. The great apes (gorillas, orangutans, and chimpanzees) are dimorphic and practice polygyny. Male and female gibbons (lesser apes) are similar in size and form monogamous pairs. Human males and females are less dimorphic in body size than other polygynous great apes. Conversely, birds of prey - which show distinct reverse sexual dimorphism—tend to be monogamous for long periods or mate for life; some species like the Snail kite will choose new mates every year, polygyny is noted in many Harriers and polyandry has been observed in the Harris' Hawk (notable for being the only bird of prey to regularly live and hunt in family and social groups) and the aforementioned Galapagos hawk.