Sunday, 25 September 2011

#2 Conception with two fathers, how does that work?

FACT OF THE DAY: In many Amazonian cultures, people believe that a child can be fathered by more than one man

This is such a brilliant find – I just love it. It’s so different, and as you will see, it seems like a very rare example of an occasion where women have got one over on the men.

I first came across a few passing comments to this belief in a book by Sarah Blaffer Hrdy and have now  managed to follow up some of her references to find out more.

It’s not a strange one-off, it is found far and wide throughout the Amazon in hunter-gatherer cultures living thousands of miles apart – for example the Bari and Yanamami of Venezuela, the Canela, Mehinaku and Awawete of Brazil, the Ache of Paraguay and the Matis of Peru.

The exact details differ depending on the specific group but the basics are the same – they believe that any men that a woman has sex with around the time of conception are that child’s fathers, plural!
Any ‘extra’ fathers who are believed to be responsible for the child’s creation, are expected to provide that child with food, especially sharing any meat they hunt. As a result children with more than one father have a better survival rate than children who just have one.

It seems that men and women marry and live as a family, and the husband will always be the principal or social father of the wife’s children.  However, around the time of conception and just after it, the wife will specifically seek to have sex with one or more other men, usually with her husband’s consent. 

It’s a mystery how this belief ever came about, especially as it’s known that children can be conceived by just one father. It clearly helps the mother as she has more food for her children (not to mention some unusual license to spice up her sex life). The community as a whole must benefit if more children survive - but it seems that the men suffer by having to share the game they have hunted more widely. What’s in it for them?

Possibly some sort of sexual prowess is a compensating factor for the men, and in general this belief seems to be acknowledged with humour among these peoples. While the Mehinaku joke about it as an ‘all male collective labour project’ the Ache even have specific vocabulary to describe the intricacies of it; ‘miare’ means “the father who put it in”; ‘peroare’ means “the men who mixed it”; ‘momboare’ means “the ones who spilled it out” and ‘bykuare’ means “the father who provides the child’s essence”. 

The Canela of Brazil are another group who have this belief, and are a pretty remarkable society. There are only 1,300 of them living in one large village in the middle of nowhere in the Amazon, and studying them has been a life’s work for this one guy, Bill Crocker, who started his field work with them in 1957 and was still going in 2000. Its not clear if he is the one obsessed with sex, or the Canela are the ones obsessed with sex, but there is a lot of sex in his observations. Boys and girls start being sexually active very early, have sex with older women or men to “gain strength” from them, girls are expected enjoy group sex with groups of men learning “to create group joy with her body” and it goes on. Although unfortunately he never tells us (maybe he never asked) how the women feel about all this sex.

Anyway, back to multiple fathers. So among the Canela, Crocker says that ”during her pregnancy, a woman begins to think about whom she wants as contributing fathers for the ‘biological’ formation of her foetus, and looks around for chances to have love trysts with such men”. She chooses men based on their abilities to hunt and farm as well as their personality traits, all of which are believed to be passed through their semen to the child. She arranges “to have sex privately with each of these men in the usual manner” (note that there is a usual manner for such things!), who have little choice but to comply especially once she has told them she is pregnant as refusing a pregnant woman is believed to cause a miscarriage. At the birth of a child there is normally some way that contributing fathers are forced to acknowledge paternity and therefore, their responsibility towards that child. 

The Bari living in the Venezuelan Amazon are not as promiscuous as the Canela and the only time most women would take a lover is during early pregnancy - with her husband’s knowledge. A detailed study of 111 Bari women found that two thirds of them had taken a lover for at least one of their pregnancies. Between them they had given birth to a total of 897 children (which incidentally means an average of at least eight successful pregnancies each!) a quarter of which had secondary fathers. Their study showed that children with secondary fathers definitely benefited; 80% of them survived to the age of 15, compared to just 64% with a single father.

The researchers suggested that the small amounts of extra animal protein the children get from their secondary fathers makes a crucial difference to survival. I wonder if it isn’t more to do with the mothers – maybe it’s the alpha mothers who go out and take a lover, and they are more likely to be healthy themselves and have help in looking after their children.

In comparison to many of the customs around the world which seem to allow men to take advantage of women (men marrying many wives, women waiting hand and foot on their husbands who sit under the trees chatting), this is a nice example of the reverse.

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If you want to read more yourself, have a look at:

Beckerman, S et al (1998) The Bari partible paternity project; preliminary results  Current Anthropology 39(1):164-167

Crocker, W and Crocker, J (1990) The Canela: An ethnographic introduction Smithsonian Contributions to Anthropology

Blaffer Hrdy, S (1999) Mother Nature; A History of Mothers, Infants and Natural Selection  United States of America : Pantheon Books

Hill, K and Hurtado, M (1996) Ache Life History: The ecology and demography of a foraging people New York : Hawthorne


  1. Hi Janet!

    This is FABULOUS! I love your blog! Thanks so much for stopping by mine and commenting :) I am reading your posts in order so I am on my way to catch up now... I'll definitely be reading avidly and sharing!!

  2. Thanks so much Emily, thats really nice to hear - I feel the same about your blog!

    I might continue this conversation by email, I saw you put your address on your blog.

    Thanks again, Janet