What are the origins of marriage?

I’m not talking about our present day ceremonies or values, but the concept of marriage as a whole. Who originally came up with the idea of sticking two people together as a lasting couple, and when?

The earliest reference I could find were some ancient Greek traditions, but no timeline was provided. A procession brought the bride and her dowry to the groom’s house, and that was considered the ceremony. That doesn’t quite say that they were the originators of the whole husband/wife arrangement; only that they had a ceremony.

It’s a prehistoric concept, so we really can’t say. Although particularites vary greatly, the concept of a social, sexual, and economic union between individuals exists in every known human culture and has been around for much longer than we’ve been keeping track of such things. It’s sort of like asking what society first developed a cultural system of kinship. There could be some educated guesses as to roughly when this may have taken place, but it’s along the same lines as an educated guess about when we first developed language.

Yeah, any answers you get are going to contain a lot of guesswork insofar as we weren’t taking notes at the time.

Two lines of social theory – children’s lib and feminist theory – have independently arrived at the same conclusion, largely in conjunction with mainstream anthropology –

We “settled down” from being hunter/gatherers mainly when we had no choice. Living as hunter/gatherers was much less effort per obtained food, and the work was harder. Loosely speaking, as hunter/gatherers, being a pregnant female and/or having kids in tow didn’t translate into an inability to lend your skills and energies effectively to the process of gathering food, but with the dawn of agricultural civilization this stopped being so.

So marriage was a social institution arrived at with the dawn of agriculture by which, in order that a fellow might have access to sex, he had to prove that he could support the female if she were to become pregnant and less able to support herself, and furthermore support any kids that the two of them might have.

Or was it?

Many anthropologists have reported that their studies indicate that at nearly all phases of agricultural civilization, pregnant females and/or females with kids not only were able to work in the fields and whatnot but also had to, as the social systems being observed did not provide them with any relief from the necessity of doing so as a consequence of having a designated man. Which brings us to Theory II:

Marriage was a social institution arrived at with the dawn of agriculture by which, in order that a fellow might have access to sex, he had to prove that he could support the female if she were to become pregnant and less able to support herself, and furthermore support any kids that the two of them might have. But this had less to do with the needs of the female than the consequences for the societal leaders in primitive patriarchal societies of subjecting younger men to this situation. Indeed, the married men were not required to provide their wives with release from field labor and married women often had to work as hard as ever regardless of pregnancy or childbirth, but the young and potentially rebellious men were more inclined to do the hard work asked of them by the older men, and to submit to the older men’s societal authority, if refraining from doing so meant the women were not available to them, and so the older men learned the value of controlling women as a resource. And the women were mostly controlled by being held rigidly accountable for their pregnancies and killed in nasty ways in public if they turned up pregnant when unmarried or pregnant but not by their husband.

Yeah, really? The women put up with that shit?

Me, I tend to go with the theorists who go with a hybrid version of the two. They say the women went along with it (at least at first) because the men were expected to relieve them of the burden of working at full tilt in the fields when pregnant or with young kids, and perhaps also because the kids did better if they had well-placed fathers etc. And the men went along with it as young men in order to get access to women, access which was controlled as described above, and as older men because they benefitted from the system as a whole. And that to whatever extent women were eventually forced to work in the fields when pregnant or with young kids anyway, that would have been a later development.

Any way you cut it, the theory holds that prior to agriculture there was no need for marriage as an institution, and that therefore it probably did not exist except as an informal understanding along the lines of middle-school kids saying that so-and-so is going with you-know-who.

I took pretty copious notes getting my anthropology degree in undergrad, and I never came across either of those theories. They throw up some pretty big red flags: marriage coincided with the dawn of agriculture? By what reasoning? There has been mounds of ethnographic data collected on pre-agricultural hunter/gatherer and pastoralist societies, and none lacks a system of marriage. Marriage is central to kinship and descent; during the vast majority of human history when we were hunter/gatherers, we had no systems of marriage, kinship, or descent? Why do today’s pre-agricultral societies have them?

Okay, how about we narrow the time line, then. Does anyone know of the first recorded instance of some kind of marriage ceremony. Something more than a caveman hitting a cavewoman over the head and dragging her back to the cave by her hair. :wink: It might be something as simple as a public proclaimation that two people will be an exclusive couple for life, there doesn’t have to be a dress or ring, as far as I’m concerned.

I would think it likely that marriage goes a long way back. The reasons for it are to be found in Dawinian evolution. It is quite possible that humans had the concept of marriage before they even had a word for it.

Human children take years to develop to the point where they can support themselves or significantly contribute to a group.

This makes it pretty much essential that a man contributes to the welfare of young children. For the woman, it is vitally important to her reproductive success that she gets such contributions, this is probably the reason why human females (unlike most other animal species with some interesting exceptions) remain sexually receptive at times when they cannot conceive.

For a male who is contributing to the support of offspring, it is important for his reproductive success that the children are his. It is not surprising that humans generally and males in particular have a strong instinct for sexual jelosy.

So, for both sexes, monogomy makes sense for reproductive success - unless of course you can get away with adultery.

The institution of marriage helps to resolve tensions that would otherwise exist in a group of humans and therby releases resourses for productive activities such as hunting and gathering.

If you want the first recorded instance of a marriage, look at Genesis 2:21-24. Two people by the names of Adam and Eve were married to each other.

Yeah, but the people who believe that also believe it only took place a mere ~6,000 years ago. Way too short a time for what we’re talking about. :smiley:

Documented history goes back farther than the Bible. Nor does the Bible account for the marriage concept in other cultures.

Marriage certainly predates agriculture. Every known hunter-gatherer society had marriage, from Inuits to Yanamamo to !Kung to Tasmanian aborigines. Of course “marriage” doesn’t always mean exactly the same thing in different cultures, and in most hunter-gatherer societies marriage is a lot looser and less formal than it was in, say, Victorian England.

Humans have an interesting and unique social structure among mammals. The two most common mammal social structures are harems and solitaryness.

In harems, females form a social group. Female offspring join the group, male offspring are expelled once they reach breeding age. The males either become solitary or form bachelor herds. The harem has one sexually mature male, who defends his status against other males. If he loses a confrontation against another male he loses his status, if he wins he keeps it. I say confrontation rather than fight, because in many or most cases physical violence is not engaged in…one of the males judges that he is incapable of winnng a physical fight and runs away. Gorillas have this structure.

Solitary animals are, well, solitary. The come together only during mating season, although male and female territories may overlap. Males confront each other over access to females during mating season, but it is also common for every member of the species to behave aggressively towards any other member of the species that enters into their territory at any time. Orangutans have this structure.

Also present are mixed groups. All sexes form a social group, and during mating season dominant males mate with the females and attempt to exclude subordinate males. Chimpanzees have this social structure.

Some species have long term mated pairs, where each pair jointly controls a territory. This system is common among birds, but less so among mammals. Gibbons have this social structure.

But humans have long-term mated pairs WITHIN mixed groups. Again, this occurs in birds, but is very uncommon among mammals. If you read a lot of natural history stories for kids, you often see the authors imposing human social patterns on animals that have radically different patterns. In any case, just as among humans, pair-bonded birds often commit “adultery” and mate and produce offspring with individuals they are not pair-bonded too. Happens all the time. Humans are different than most mammals in that sexually mature males tolerate the presence of other sexually mature males around “their” females.

The interesting thing about social structures is that they influence the evolution of the species. When males confront other males over mating rights, males typically are larger than females. When male-male confrontations are rare, males and females are about the same size. Male and female gibbons are identical in size, while male gorillas are 2 or 3 times the weight of females. Humans are in between…the average male is 20-30% larger than the average female. That indicates a large pair-bonding component but with some male-male competition mixed in. And you can see that pattern played out every weekend at your average country-western bar.

Social structure also has an effect on testes size and sperm production. Mammals with harems typically have small testes and produce small amounts of sperm. Among mammals where females have the opportunity to mate with several males during mating season, males have large testes and produce many sperm, because of sperm competition. Gorillas and gibbons have very small testes, chimpanzees have very large testes, and humans have medium-sized testes. Again, this indicates that humans have evolved in an environment where a male human has a certain amount of sexual exclusivity with a female, but sometimes faces sperm competition.

From this, we can conclude that our current social structure is probably very long standing. We didn’t have a chimpanzee-like or gorilla-like or gibbon-like or orangutan-like social structure anytime in the recent past. Exactly when humans evolved our current structure that includes “marriage” is unknown, but it probably is at least as old as fully modern Homo sapiens. Beyond that we don’t know, but fossil evidence shows that Australopithecines had much more pronounced sexual dimorphism than modern humans. That is evidence that they had a different social structure, perhaps along the lines of the gorilla.