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Friday, November 12, 2010

Ancient Amazonian Women Got Around, Science Says

Posted By on Fri, Nov 12, 2010 at 10:40 AM

Okay, not exactly, but you get the idea
  • Okay, not exactly, but you get the idea
Women in ancient societies in lowland South America would probably get some nasty shaming in today's society for their sexual practices -- but their habit of multiple sex partners was considered a boon to their children.

A preponderance of those societies, new scholarship from the University of Missouri points out, believed that if a woman had multiple sexual partners, each of the men was partially the father of any resulting child. The phenomenon is known as partible paternity, and it meant that children had a higher chance of survival, since having more than one father meant more resources for the kid.

"This study and others have shown that humans are very flexible in terms of mating and parenting," the study's lead author, Robert Walker, assistant professor of anthropology at Mizzou, tells the Daily RFT. "Humans are very diverse. Within humans, you see almost as much diversity as you do across other primates."

Contemporary American society, for example, generally expects monogamy between a woman and man. But across history and geography, many other couplings and child-rearing strategies have been in use and accepted.

"'Pragmatic' is a good term for it," Walker says of the practice. "Things happen. People die. People don't maintain your expectations. It's probably good to have some flexibility. You could do better getting investments from multiple males."

Walker and his co-researchers examined ethnographies from 128 lowland South American societies, and found that 53 societies believed in multiple fathers, 23 didn't and that data wasn't included for the other 52 societies.

"We had known for quite a few years now that there were quite a few societies in South America that that this idea that one kid could have multiple fathers," Walker says,
"but there wasn't any sort of systematic study to see how prevalent it really was. We were really surprised."

So the women get more resources and the kids get more protection. What do the men get? Is it as simple as a commodity exchange -- food for lovin'?

According to the research, no. If it were that simple, the secondary fathers would likely just disappear from the scene, but they didn't. And the secondary dads underwent the same cultural taboos and rituals -- known as couvade -- as the actual dads did around the births of the children.

"We had these two studies where kids had higher survival rates if they had more than one dad," says Walker. "There's some long-term social relationships going on between these lovers."

Not to mention the simple pleasure of it all.

Walker does say that even in these multiple-father situations, marriage remained a constant. In fact, some type of overarching commitment between people is a fairly universal part of most societies, he says. But the level of tolerated, expected and enjoyed sexual coupling outside that marriage institution varies along a whole spectrum, from prude to promiscuous.

The study was published in the journal Proceedings in the National Academy of Science.

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