What Is Polygamy? - Definition, History & Lesson

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Instructor: Tara DeLecce

Tara has taught Psychology and has a master's degree in evolutionary psychology.

Relationships in which two people are exclusive to one another seems to be the norm in America, but across different time periods and cultures the practice of polygamy is more popular. Read on to find out exactly what polygamy means and what all it entails.

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Definition of Polygamy

Polygamy is defined as a mating system in which an individual has more than one mate simultaneously that can either be male or female. Polygamy is a more general term that encompasses the practice of having multiple mates and should not be confused with the more specific terms of polygyny (having multiple female mates) or polyandry (having multiple male mates).

Polygamy Across History

The most widely recorded polygamy occurred after the beginning of widespread agriculture among civilizations (which included China, India, the Middle East, and parts of Western Europe). This allowed men to own vast amounts of property and be able to gain many resources from their farms. As a result, the men with the most land and resources gained the most social power and they typically had hundreds, if not thousands of wives. As civilizations advanced, the rulers of kingdoms and empires would be the most powerful men with thousands of wives since they had sufficient resources to support them. This left most of the poor men in society with no wives at all.

Other forms of polygamy existed as well. In the time of very early humans when we lived as hunters and gatherers and before official civilizations developed, people lived in tribe-like formations consisting of about 8-10 members. There is some evidence to suggest that these tribes of early humans practiced multi-male and multi-female mating systems. On some occasions, there would be mating amongst all members of a tribe. This sharing of mates still continues in contemporary South American hunter-gatherer tribes. Specifically, in one such tribe, it's the custom that a bride-to-be must mate with all of her husband-to-be's male relatives before she enters into a sexually exclusive relationship with him.

Polygamy didn't just occur amongst heterosexual societies either. In ancient Greece, for example, it was quite common for older high-status men to be married to women and still have sexual relationships most typically with young adolescent males. These relationships would often end, however, once the male reached full maturity and gained higher social status. During this period in history, men and women had little in common which led men to believe that marriage was more of a business contract designed to produce children whereas more romantic relationships occurred between men.

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