Primitive Polyamory? Sex at Dawn and the Canela Amazon Tribe

Are we evolved to have multiple lovers at the same time?

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Canela Apanyekrá. Image Credit: Novos Indígenas No Brasil


Click to download transcript as PDF: The History of Sex, Primitive Polyamory

Are we evolved for polyamory? Way back in the paleolithic, when we were all hunter-gatherers, were we more like chimps with serial monogamy and a little on the side, or more like bonobos, getting it on with multiple lovers at the same time? In the best-selling book Sex at Dawn, Christopher Ryan and Cecilda Jethá argue we’re actually more like bonobos, evolved for multiple lovers. But is that really true? That’s what we’re talking about on today’s brief episode. I’m B. T. Newberg, and this is the History of Sex short shorts.

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I want to thank our Patreon patron Richard Liddle for making this episode possible.

Before we get started, I want to tell you about a fascinating podcast that you should definitely check out. It’s called The History of Byzantium, hosted by Robin Pierson. It chronicles the span of the Byzantine Empire, which carried on the eastern Roman Empire for another thousand years after the one in the west fell. You might be especially interested in his Backer Rewards series Women in the Roman World, telling all about the role of women in the later Roman Empire. Check that those special premium episodes for sale at the show’s website at

So these short shorts are tidbits and tangents off the mainstream, and frankly I can crack these babies out much faster than the main episodes. The main episodes take me like, at least a month, which is why we can only release them seasonally, but these short shorts I can produce faster because they’re more free-form, more loose, and most of the material is generated from the research of the main episode. So, here you go. I hope you enjoy them. Let’s get started.


So, I got the idea for our very first main episode, entitled What the Zombie Apocalypse Teaches Us About Sex, from a recommendation from Dan Carlin (that’s right, that’s a name drop!). When I interviewed Dan Carlin of Hardcore History for my other show Dead Ideas (ya know, no big deal!), he said I should check out a book called Sex at Dawn by Christopher Ryan and Cecilda Jethá – which I did, and which set my brain on fire. It’s an amazing book that I highly recommend, but which I also found can be wildly misleading. So, I want to talk a little about that today.

Now, before we really get into things, I want to draw a clear distinction between polygamy and polyamory. Polygamy is an anthropological term for multiple spouses in marriage, which most often manifests as one man, multiple wives. In contrast, polyamory is a modern Western term for a certain kind of lifestyle. Modern polyamory is not just anything-goes wild abandon. Multiple sexual partners is certainly an important part of polyamory, but the other part is the willing consent of all parties involved. Trust is the trick. You can still be faithful and committed to a partner by upholding your promises to each other, but those promises need not necessarily involve sexual exclusivity, in the opinion of polyamorists. So, it’s not just anything-goes. Rather, it’s a lifestyle, socially-sanctioned within the polyamorous community, that is or at least can be ethical.

Meanwhile, according to polyamorists, jealousy is an emotion that each individual needs to work out for themselves, and believe it or not, there can even be a feeling called compersion. Compersion is the joy felt in seeing a partner happy and fulfilled with other partners. It’s analogous to the feeling felt by parents when their child gets married, or by your best friend when you get married. And believe it or not, you can even feel both compersion and jealousy at the same time. Like a bridesmaid both happy and envious – beacuse we’re complex human beings, right? Pretty thought-provoking when you think about it.

That is how modern polyamorists tend to describe their lifestyle. So, what about primitive polyamory? What about a system of multiple lovers among hunter-gatherers? Well, the kinds of relationships among hunter-gatherers we’re going to talk about today likewise involve multiple sexual partners in a socially-sanctioned way. Now, mind you, values may be quite different in other cultures, and that can make the “consent” aspect a little difficult to parse in some cases (and we will see an instance of that today), but we’re still talking about a lifestyle of multiple partners that fits within the bounds of a culture’s ethics.

Now, the interesting question here is, are we evolved for this kind of lifestyle? That’s what Ryan and Jethá are getting at. So, above and beyond whether you can lead an ethical lifestyle like this, have we been specifically nudged toward it by evolution?

That’s where we can dive into our book. Sex at Dawn by Christopher Ryan and Cecilda Jetha made a big splash when it came out in 2001. Some of you may have heard of it, other’s maybe not. This is an amazing book that I highly recommend because it will light your brain on fire, but it is also wildly misleading in its presentation, as we will see. And that’s the main thing I want to talk about today. We’re not gonna come to any final answers about whether we are evolved for polyamory or not, but the main thing is I want to present this book so that you can do the research on your own, and do it informed and in the right way.

The basic premise of the book is: maybe we were evolved not for monogamy but for polyamory. Ryan and Jethá don’t use the word “polyamory”, but they pretty clearly mean a socially-sanctioned lifestyle involving multiple lovers, and not necessarily within the bonds of marriage, so “polygamy” doesn’t really cover it; it really feels more like they’re talking about a kind of polyamory for which they argue we might be evolved).

The jumping off point is the fact that although we are normally thought of as being most closely related to chimpanzees, on the evolutionary tree we are actually equidistant with both chimps and bonobos (our lineages diverged at roughly the same time, and we don’t know exactly which one we descend from, so it could be either). Now, the key insight here is that while chimps are monogamous with a little on the side, bonobos are straight-up polygamous (they don’t have marriage, but in terms of mating). So, the thought seems to be: maybe we are evolved to be polyamorous, but developments since agriculture have forced us into a monogamous mold, and that’s why we have so much difficulty staying “faithful” to one another (faithful in the monogamous sense). Hmm. Interesting question.

The problem is, Ryan and Jetha cherry-pick like they are at a cherry orchard, so that their evidence to make it look like many pre-agricultural societies are unproblematically polyamorous, when that is in fact anything but the case. In fact, many of the tribes they talk actually argue against their thesis once you get the fuller picture. And that’s the part you need to be prepared for in approaching this book. So, let’s take a look at one of those tribes as an example: an Amazon tribe called the Canela.

And looking at the Canela – you know, they are a fascinating people, so this will be worth the whole episode just in itself.

So, here’s what Ryan and Jethá say about the Canela (this is on p. 120 of my copy of the book, and it’s in the context of talking about marriage and virginity issues):

Among the Canela, explain Crocker and Crocker [the anthropologists that they’re citing], viriginity loss is only the first step into full marriage for a woman. There are several other steps needed before the Canela considers a couple to be truly married, including the young woman’s gaining social acceptance through her service in a festival men’s society. This premarital service includes sequential sex with 15-20 men. If the bride to be does well, she’ll earn payments of meat from the men, which will be paid directly to her future mother-in-law on a festival day.

Done. That’s the whole paragraph that they give on the Canela. And just reading that you’re like, wait, what? Tell me more! Well, the only other place they talk about the Canela in their book is page 146, where they write:

Anthropologist William Crocker is convinced that Canela husbands are not jealous, writing: “Whether or not they tell the truth about not minding, they join other members in encouraging their wives to honor the custom of ritual sex with 20 or more men during all community ceremonies.

And then Ryan and Jetha comment:

Now anyone who can pretend not to be jealous as his wife has sex with 20 or more men is someone you do not want to meet across the poker table!

In other words, they’re saying yeah, you’re telling me they just pretend not to be jealous? No, they’d have to be master deceivers. They’re just not jealous. That’s the point they’re making: in this society, jealousy is not a problem.

And if that were true, oh my god, wouldn’t that completely turn on its head your conceptions about emotions and sexuality and everything about our species and how we relate one gender to another. That would be amazing.

But is it really true? Let’s find out.

As it turns out, an anthropologist named Lynn Saxon has written an entire book enumerating all the things that Sex at Dawn gets wrong or presents misleadingly. Saxon’s book is called Sex at Dusk, you can find it on Amazon. So let’s go now to Saxon’s book and see what the Canela are really like.

Saxon writes:

“The Canela are a tribe living in a single circular village of about 1000 people. Females stay in their natal home, while males move to the home of their wife. Couples are instructed not to be sexually jealous. Girls have their first sex between the ages of 11 and 13, and the young male, perhaps 10 years older, that she has that first sex with automatically becomes her husband. There are many steps she has to go through before her marriage is secure, the final one being the birth of a child.” (p. 120)

Alright, so we already see that it’s a pretty different kind of sexual setup that this tribe has going on here. Let’s continue:

“After a few months of marriage where the couple might not see much of each other, the girl is then expected to accept sexual invitations from other men. After doing so, she is then assigned along with another girl to a men’s society during a summer festival…” (p. 120)

Here’s what Ryan and Jethá must have been talking about.

“…and is expected to allow perhaps as many as 25 men to have sex with her sequentially. She now wins her maturity belt, which after a brief period of seclusion, is painted by her female inlaws. Her role now is predominantly to provide sex to motivate men to work and bond. Sometimes she receives some meat from them or other small gifts for her female kin.” (p. 120)

Okay, so now I’m wondering how consensual all this is, but let’s go on and find out:

“When a girl or woman does become pregnant and has sex sex during the pregnancy with a number of other men, these other men are also considered fathers, though with fewer obligations than the husband, to the child.” (p. 120)

So, that’s a partible paternity belief, as we discussed in our main episode on sex and hunter-gatherers.

“Male bonding within this single community is effected through quite severe training of youths, plus the bonding through sharing of wives, and sequential sex during summer festivals with childless girls assigned to them for this purpose. Youths also go through various internments, instruction, and discipline to train them for military-style obedience. Sex is actually the most effective means of social control, especially social control of young men. The Canela were once fierce fighters, and their socialization and intergenerational authority is based on their need for military discipline. They do, though, have to be instructed not to be jealous. The loss of warfare led to youths no longer submitting to control by the elders, and ultimately the male-male bonding and the suppression of sexual jealousy broke down.” (p. 120)

Huh. Okay. So, what’s that sex like, I wonder? Well, Saxon reports:

“Crocker concludes, and I have to agree, that female orgasm does not occur. The majority of the sex is for male gratification, and as masturbation is strictly forbidden for both sexes, the fact that most sex lasts for a matter of seconds is perhaps not too difficult to believe. Canela sex involves no kissing and no touching of genitals. The man simply squats between the legs of the woman who is not to move, his hands to either side of her body for support.” (p. 120)

So, what about, like… how consensual is this? Do these girls just accept this as part of their society? Do they look at it like a duty they have to perform although they don’t want to? Do they ever actually refuse? What’s that like? Let’s find out.

“It is perhaps no wonder that girls and women might volunteer for sequential sex as it is only after a series of short copulations that might actually experience some pleasure. About every other year, there is an occurrence where a girl will not agree to sequential sex and so she is forced to comply by a group of men each having sex with her to “tame” her, basically a punitive gang rape. She knows she has no choice, and that even if injured, she will gain no sympathy. She has been raised to know what is expected of her, and that she will have to comply. She is also told that she may even come to enjoy it, and especially to enjoy sex with a long-term lover in time.” (p. 120)

Oof. Yeah, so by this point, with that fuller context, we’re getting a much better picture of this tribe. This is not a tribe of easy-going, free-loving hippie commune party-goers here. This is like a military installation of highly disciplined and highly sexually-repressed people who have these outlets that are highly restricted and duty bound.

Yikes! That really turns on its head the argument that Ryan and Jethá were trying to make in their book Sex at Dawn.

So, that’s the kind of thing you have to watch out for when you read a book like that. Again, I still highly recommend the book because it will set your brain on fire, but an absolute must is to also read Lynn Saxon’s Sex at Dusk at the same time.

By the way, I get nothing from either of these authors. This is not a sponsored plug. I just found it interesting, so I’m passing it on to you.

Now, to return to the issue of polyamory, what we just saw among the Canela you might call polyamory of a sort, but it’s a pretty far cry from the modern Western kind for which consent is a key tenet. I want to be clear about that.

Nevertheless, the question remains whether we might be evolved for a multiple lovers-type situation. For that, you’ll just have to check out these two books and decide for yourself. There’s a whole lot more presented as evidence that we don’t have the time to get into here. Suffice to say I’m not entirely convinced, and most experts in the field aren’t either, but it remains a fascinating question, which I just wanted to bring up to you here.

Anyway, that’s our episode for today. I hope you do check out these books, just make sure you read both at the same time, so you can be informed you make up your mind about whether we are evolved for polyamory.

I’m B. T. Newberg, and I’ll see you next time for another of our short shorts.



Beckerman, Stephen and Valentine, Paul. Cultures of Multiple Fathers: The Theory and Practice of Partible Paternity in Lowland South America. Gainesville, FL: University of Florida Press, 2002.

Ellsworth, Ryan. “Partible Paternity and Human Reproductive Behavior.” (Dissertation). University of Missouri-Columbia, 2014.

Ryan, Christopher, and Jethá, Cecilda. Sex at Dawn: How We Mate, Why We Stray, and What It Means for Modern Relationships. New York: Harper, 2010.

Saxon, Lynn. Sex At Dusk: Lifting the Shiny Wrapping from Sex at Dawn. CreateSpace, 2012.

Symons, Donald. The Evolution of Human Sexuality. New York: Oxford University Press, 1979.

Audio Credits

Podcast theme music mixed from “Gregorian Chant”, “Mystery Sax”, and “There It Is” by Kevin MacLeod. Short Shorts theme music mixed from “Gregorian Chant” by Kevin MacLeod and “Short Shorts” by the Royal Teens.

Episode theme music: “Tikopia” by Kevin MacLeod

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