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Anthropologist Jack Goody's comparative study of marriage around the world, using the Ethnographic Atlas, demonstrated a historical correlation between the practice of extensive shifting horticulture and polygyny in the majority of Sub-Saharan African societies.
Drawing on the work of Ester Boserup, Goody notes that in some of the sparsely populated regions where shifting cultivation takes place in Africa, much of the work is done by women.
He notes Dorjahn's (1959) comparison of East and West Africa, showing higher female agricultural contributions in East Africa and higher polygyny rates in West Africa, especially in the West African savannah, where one finds especially high male agricultural contributions.
Goody says, "The reasons behind polygyny are sexual and reproductive rather than economic and productive" (199), arguing that men marry polygynously to maximize their fertility and to obtain large households containing many young dependent males." Polygyny also served as "a dynamic principle of family survival, growth, security, continuity, and prestige," especially as a socially approved mechanism that increases the number of adult workers immediately and the eventual workforce of resident children.
In some countries where polygamy is illegal, and sometimes even when legal, at times it is known for men to have one or more mistresses, whom they do not marry.An elderly cultivator, with several wives and likely several young male children, benefits from having a much larger workforce within his household.By the combined efforts of his young sons and young wives, he may gradually expand his cultivation and become more prosperous.Historically, polygyny was partly accepted in ancient Hebrew society, in classical China, and in sporadic traditional Native American, African and Polynesian cultures.
In India it was known to have been practiced during ancient times.
The task of felling trees in preparation of new plots is usually done by older boys and very young men.