Anthropology, Behavioral Genetics, Biology, Cultural Change, Cultural Traits, Culture, Evolution, Extended Family, Family, Genetics, Human Nature, Hunter/Gatherers, Marriage, Nuclear Family, Psychology, Relationships, Sexuality, Society

Traditional Marriage, Circa: Stone Age.

In many small-scale societies, there’s an institution that looks like marriage, where people “pair bond,” but there’s philandering on the side by both men and women. They’ll often just cycle to another pair bond. It’s not uncommon for hunter gatherers to have three, four or five pair bonds in the course of their life, while getting children from each one.

Joseph Henrich

So far as I know, our species of human has been around for about 260,000 years.  According to several scientists, it’s a reasonable guess that, for most of that time, we lived as hunter/gatherers and had marriages that resembled those Henrich describes as common in small-scaled societies today.

It also seems a reasonable guess that people in our ancestral societies most often married for romantic love.  Hunter/gatherers tend to have very few possessions, so marrying someone for their goods is a relatively bad idea.  People might have married to create alliances between families and groups, but hunting/gathering marriages tend to be comparatively short lived — so marrying to create alliances between groups might not always be an especially attractive idea.   And humans seem emotionally tailored by evolution for romantic love.  For those and other reasons, I think it’s safe to say our ancestors most often married for love.

I suspect that was not only the traditional pattern of marriage in our own species of human, but also the traditional pattern of marriage in our precursor species.  In other words, when we think of traditional marriages — the kind of marriages we would have if left to nature — we should think of folks most often marrying for love, now and then screwing around on each other, and eventually traveling on to a new wife or husband.   All within the context of having kids who would — to a large degree — be raised with help from the entire band.

In my opinion, marriages were very unlikely to differ from that model until about 10,000 years ago, with the beginnings of agriculture.   Once you start growing crops, owning the cropland is not far behind.  And once you have landowners — and inheritances — then you have all sorts of pressure to marry for possessions, or for alliances, and not necessarily for love.  You also have extraordinary pressure to stay married at almost all cost.  And you now have agricultural surpluses that can support extra wives.  The extended family becomes more important than the band, but the nuclear family — a byproduct of the Industrial Revolution — is still more than 9,000 years in the future.

Anyway, just some Sunday morning thoughts on traditional marriages.

13 thoughts on “Traditional Marriage, Circa: Stone Age.”

  1. “People might have married to create alliances between families and groups, but hunting/gathering marriages tend to be comparatively short lived — so marrying to create alliances between groups might not always be an especially attractive idea.”

    Then again, Paul, hunter-gatherers might have perceived their own lives as quite long. We think of ours that way, but who knows if our descendants in 200 years won’t be living into their 120s on average?

    Marriages to create alliances between families and groups are for the survival of the groups, or really, the offspring. Whether it’s ending a war, turn two small hunting territories into a larger one with more diverse fauna, or seeking allies against a third family or group, the focus was probably on the future, not unlike similar Feudal System alliances. There’s only prerequisite for thinking about the future in this way is having offspring.

    I agree that the pressure to make marriages last probably became greater with the advent of crop-growing and the need for stable property boundaries. Women had to become monogamous lest the offspring of some male other than her husband attempt to claim the real estate. True, illegitimate offspring did not enjoy inheritance rights. However, there was no certain way to know the identity of a child’s father. Men were the property owners, so they could sire “by-blows” and use their discretion about making future provision for them. This would not have been in the form of land, however. Future provision would have consisted of finding good places in life for them. For boys, perhaps clerical or ecclesiastical positions, or a position in either the father’s or another landowner’s household. Men were less likely to “own” their illegitimate daughters. If they did, they might arrange marriage at the social level of the child’s mother or service in a noble house.

    Under English Common Law of the period, the description of property ownerships between husband and wife ran like this: “By marriage, the husband and wife are one person in law”. As Blackstone added in his Commentaries, “The very being or legal existence of the woman is suspended during the marriage.”

    While hunter-gatherer men would have enjoyed the advantages of physical strength over hunter-gatherer women, a woman who unhappy with her lot might well have been able to leave a man if her family or another man interceded on her behalf. The advent of the formal business structures of agriculture and land ownership made for a more stable society. While this meant that while women were less likely to find their circumstances repeatedly and randomly changed– to be blunt, they were less likely vulnerable to repeated kidnaps by a series of males– there was no means of escape from an undesirable situation.


    1. Then again, Paul, hunter-gatherers might have perceived their own lives as quite long. We think of ours that way, but who knows if our descendants in 200 years won’t be living into their 120s on average?

      When I said hunting/gathering relationships were short lived, I was not referring to the life spans of the participants, as you seem to think. Instead, I was referring to Henrich’s point that hunter/gatherers tend to have three, four, or five marriages in the course of their lives. Those would be marriages each of a few years duration.

      Second, I don’t know of any documented cases among the few existing hunting/gathering groups of marriages in those groups being similar to feudal system alliances. Maybe it happens, but if it does, it does not seem to be the most common thing.

      There is very strong evidence that among our ancestors the most typical pattern was for the male to stay with his birth group, but for the female to travel. Now, there could have been all sorts of reasons she traveled. But maybe she was kidnapped. That is quite common among some small scale societies today. Kidnapping, however, does not typically set up alliances, so far as I know.

      Among many Native American nations, when a woman was kidnapped into a band or tribe, she was allowed some choice in whom to accept as a spouse.


  2. I agree that marriage, until very recently from the big picture perspective, probably looked very different, much more fluid. However, I think our idea of romantic love may also be a very recent invention. It seems likely that our hunter-gather ancestors hooked up not only because of what we would recognize as love but also because of the man’s ability to hunt and protect and the woman’s ability to gather and care for children. A hunter-gatherer may not have had wealth, but I’m sure there were some calculations going on about how well a potential mate could provide for their needs.


    1. Absolutely, Jonathan! People have always gotten married for various reasons — including reasons having nothing to do with love. We can be all but certain that 50,000 years ago, some folks were marrying for looks, or because someone was a superior hunter, or because they were a superior gatherer, etc. — Marrying without any feelings of love for their spouse.

      But we can also be all but certain that some folks were marrying for romantic love. Why? Because romantic love is based on neurochemicals that would almost certainly have been present 50,000 years ago. It would have taken something along the lines of divine intervention for them not to be present, since they are found in our relatives too, and thus must have been around for millions of years.

      Don’t forget that marrying for romantic love does not, say, stop a man from falling in love with a woman because she is good looking.


    1. Quite an interesting article, Justin. Thanks for sharing that!

      I find there’s a number of points that I disagree with you on, but in some respects we’re in agreement. More important, you’ve given me something to think about. Thanks!


  3. I would like to request a clarifying point while not straying from the topic in this thread: are you suggesting that humans were created or came from an evolutionary process (species hopping)? If so, how do you reconcile that with the scriptures?


      1. I’m not trying to hijack this thread so I’ll be a brief as possible, but the so-called Theory of Evolution is not backed up by either credible science or scriptures. So, I’m not sure how the OP concludes that humans have been around for hundreds of thousands of years.

        As far as we know, Adam and Eve did not have children while they were in the Garden of Eden (as they were as little children), and any other people that may have been with them, would have been created in the image of God, not through a species-hopping evolutionary process. All this square-peg-in-a-round-hole hunter/gatherer posits are just fantastic history, not rooted in reality.


      2. Appearances notwithstanding, the OP did open up the evolution debate when he wrote: “And humans seem emotionally tailored by evolution for romantic love.”

        As I stated earlier, I wanted clarification from the OP and I suppose from this group on the belief or non-belief of evolution. I’m assuming that the OP was referring to the common teachings of the theory of evolution, and not it’s base definition of “change or changing”. I believe from your response Paul, assuming you speak for the group and I don’t know if you do, but if the group does believe in the fantastic idea of evolution(species hopping), then there really isn’t much common ground for me to continue to participate with this topic.

        If I’ve made an error in interpretation about this group’s beliefs, then I apologize. I just prefer to participate in a debate with some form of foundation – this is just a personal preference and is not meant as an ad hominem.


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