Our ancestors were polygynous until about three hundred thousand years ago

Tuesday, January 31st, 2023

Rob Henderson opens his piece on Reverse Dominance Hierarchies with a quote from Blueprint: The Evolutionary Origins of a Good Society, by Nicholas A. Christakis:

Our ancestors were polygynous until about three hundred thousand years ago, primarily monogamous until about ten thousand years ago, primarily polygynous again until about two thousand years ago, and primarily monogamous since then.

Henderson continues:

Homo sapiens in our current form arose around 300,000 years ago. Out of 300,000 years, only about 8,000 of those years were humans in primarily polygynous arrangements.

So for 97% of our history, humans have primarily been monogamous.


  1. Brutus says:

    This documentary shows how some polygynous practices have survived into modern times with China’s ethnic minorities. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=1lbtuH7MuIY
    (Warning: it has some R-rated content and is not for children.)

  2. Slovenian Guest says:

    Not just monogamous but in marriage-like arrangements; hence you could argue that marriage is just a legal recognition of natural order.

  3. Captain Duh says:

    Its a cycle. Men give women power through monogamy, women abuse it, society falls, polygammy comes back and society is rebuilt, women complain and weak men bring in monogammy, women become whores and society falls again. Rinse repeat.

  4. Kgaard says:

    That’s a pretty strong claim that humans were monogamous between 300,000 and 10,000 years ago. What happened 10,000 years ago that would have shifted things to polygynous again? It doesn’t make sense. But I will read his book.

    I mean we know that native Americans and Africans are/were polygynous until 200 years ago (or to this day).

  5. Gavin Longmuir says:

    Surely the drive for polygamy was the ratio of men to women? It is a fairly reasonable guess that — in the world of yesterday — there was a surplus of breeding-aged women. Men did the dangerous things like hunt large animals and defend the tribe from enemies, and many of them died in the process. Hence the surplus of women.

    Since children were (are?) critical for the survival of the tribe, they could not allow breeding-aged women to fail to produce. Hence polygamy.

    Note that some theory like this was behind the early Mormon use of polygamy on the American frontier.

    Once civilization brought a fairly even balance of men & women, monogamy was safer for society than an arrangement where some men had a surplus of female company while others had none.

  6. Altitude Zero says:

    As Kgaard points out, the term “Our Ancestors” is doing a lot of questionable heavy lifting here. ‘Our Ancestors” comprise a lot of different people doing a lot of different things over time.

  7. Phileas Frogg says:


    I haven’t read the book either, but after a moments consideration there’s a kind of logic to it. Very small hunter-gatherer tribes would need an incredible amount of trust and mate regulation to function. One guy going rogue and sleeping with four other men’s mates could destroy the entire group irreparably and doom everyone, necessitating monogamy as a norm.

    Meanwhile about 10,000 years ago we see the Agricultural Revolution with the rise of sedentary farming, lots of time between harvests to get into trouble, and hierarchical stratification meaning that laws began to be applied unequally. High-trust male hunting bands where everyone needed to pull their weight and fulfill all duties are replaced with Priest-Kings on top, their warriors beneath them, and everyone else beneath them. The more Chad positions would obviously try to monopolize more women in those circumstances.

    Then we have the rise of Universal Abrahamic Faiths, and that’s all she wrote for the last 2,000 years.

  8. Michael van der Riet says:

    Men get killed in battle. As Gavin says, this results in a shortage of men. Even today in some societies, loss of husband means end of game for the widow. She has no right of inheritance. If you read the Koran, Fourth Surah, men are enjoined to marry widows, especially of kin, to save them and their children from starvation. King David who reputedly had nine hundred wives or something was the husband of last resort. Those Israelites of old were a warlike bunch and men were getting killed all the time. A man could go off to battle knowing that in the event of his death, his family and his genes would be taken care of.

  9. Jim says:

    “Our ancestors” is doing a lot of work here.

    Secondly, how much of this historiography takes into account the antediluvian civilizations?

  10. Pseudo-Chrysostom says:

    History is full of patriarchal peoples because the matriarchal peoples all get defeated in wars with patriarchal peoples and get genocided as a result.

    Namefags in general, and namefag academics especially, always have to dance around the P word in the atlantic empire (amongst other things), and this neuters the clarity of their expression at best.

    (As for what it does at worst, well, see for yourself https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=6Oy0uuTEiOY)

  11. Kgaard says:

    I found the arguments in Chris Ryan’s “Sex at Dawn: The prehistoric origins of human sexuality,” to be more compelling. Polyamory is the base case. Monogamy appears during periods when women are not economically self-sufficient and can’t defend themselves physically. But when both those conditions are met (like in modern cities today, or in certain hunter gatherer societies or hoe agriculture) polyamory returns.

    Ryan proposes that the problem of jealousy is obviated by group boinking, and that physiological evidence of this still can be seen in modern men and women.

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