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True   Likely   Speculative
Human Uniqueness Compared to "Great Apes": 
Relative Difference
Human Universality: 
Population Universal (Some Individuals Everywhere)
MOCA Domain: 
MOCA Topic Authors: 

Mating systems are culturally-prescribed rules and conventions for who mates with whom, when, and how lasting and exclusive the nature of sexual relationships may be. There is no single universal human mating system, rather, substantial variability in patterns of reproductive practices and family systems are observed across cultures. Culturally-condoned mating systems span the range of variation from exclusive monogamy to polygyny, with rare instances of polyandry reported. Exclusive monogamy is rare in mammalian species and uncommon among primate species, and is not observed among great ape species. By contrast, monogamous pair-bonds are valued by some human cultures, wherein romantic love and sexual exclusivity are culturally reinforced.


Timing of appearance of the difference in the Hominin Lineage as a defined date or a lineage separation event. The point in time associated with lineage separation events may change in the future as the scientific community agrees upon better time estimates. Lineage separation events are defined in 2017 as:

  • the Last Common Ancestor (LCA) of humans and old world monkeys was 25,000 - 30,000 thousand (25 - 30 million) years ago
  • the Last Common Ancestor (LCA) of humans and chimpanzees was 6,000 - 8,000 thousand (6 - 8 million) years ago
  • the emergence of the genus Homo was 2,000 thousand (2 million) years ago
  • the Last Common Ancestor (LCA) of humans and neanderthals was 500 thousand years ago
  • the common ancestor of modern humans was 100 - 300 thousand years ago

Possible Appearance: 
3,000 thousand years ago
Probable Appearance: 
2,000 thousand years ago
Definite Appearance: 
100 thousand years ago
The Human Difference: 

Whereas primate groups generally follow species-specific patterns of mating behavior, human cultures show much greater variability between populations. In gorillas, for example, groups are defined as unimale, multi-female "harems" wherein a single male has sexual access to a range of females. In chimpanzees and bonobos, multiple males may mate with a female who is sexually receptive. Often, culturally-prescribed rules and conventions are in place to limit sexual access to females to a single male, who may couple monogamously or have multiple sexual and/or domestic partners. However, polyandry, wherein a female takes multiple partners, has been reported much more rarely. In one such example, women in Tibet and parts of India may take multiple husbands from a single family (fraternal polyandry) as a means of maintaining limited agricultural land within a single family. 


Universality in Human Populations: 

Sophisticated rules for marriage often govern human reproduction, and reflect culturally-constructed ideas about the degree of relatedness individuals may have to each other. Incest taboos are common in human cultures, likely related to incest-avoidance mechanisms that exist in other species. However, sexual relationships between members of the same clan or moiety may be considered incestuous irrespective of individuals’ genetic relatedness.  

Mechanisms Responsible for the Difference: 

In humans, the high metabolic demands associated with pregnancy and lactation make it very difficult for a mother to provide for her own and her offspring’s nutritional needs. Provisioning of a mother by the father of her offspring may be one way to help offset the demands of caring for a young child, contributing to higher rates of offspring survival, and thus, enhancing differential reproductive fitness. In humans, the interbirth interval (described as the length between the birth of offspring) is shorter on average, facilitated by the capacity to share responsibilities for caring for offspring with a partner or other members of a social group.

Bipedal locomotion may have served to free the hands of early hominids to carry food resources to group members, such as mothers, who cannot provide sufficient calories to meet their own nutritional needs, fostering greater provisioning of partners by males and encouraging paternal investment and monogamous mating systems. Monogamous relationships are predicted to occur more frequently in cultures where males provide contribute a higher proportion of calories to the local diet.

Possible Selection Processes Responsible for the Difference: 

 Patterns of mating systems may reflect certain ecological conditions. Among cultures where pathogen load is high, polygyny is especially common. Monogamy, by contrast, is more common in cultures where pathogen stress is low. Sex ratios may additionally favor the development of different mating strategies such that increased competition between males for reproductive access to females favors greater paternal investment in offspring. High mortality rates due to ecological factors may also have developmental effects contributing to learned attachment styles, such that uncertain offspring survivability corresponds to insecure attachment styles, recapitulated in more unrestricted sociosexuality in adult relationships. Alternately, variable seasonality and demanding environments may favor the emergence of biparental care to meet the demands of raising offspring in marginal areas.

Related MOCA Topics


  1. Sex, love and oxytocin: Two metaphors and a molecule., C Carter, Sue , Neurosci Biobehav Rev, 2022 Dec, Volume 143, p.104948, (2022)
  2. Human behavior. Sex equality can explain the unique social structure of hunter-gatherer bands., Dyble, M, Salali G D., Chaudhary N, Page A, Smith D, Thompson J, Vinicius L, Mace R, and Migliano A B. , Science, 2015 May 15, Volume 348, Issue 6236, p.796-8, (2015)
  3. Is the Romantic–Sexual Kiss a Near Human Universal?, Jankowiak, W., Volsche S., and Garcia J. , American Anthropologist, 07/2015, Volume 117, Issue 3, p.535-39, (2015)
  4. Pair-bonding, romantic love, and evolution: the curious case of Homo sapiens., Fletcher, Garth J. O., Simpson Jeffry A., Campbell Lorne, and Overall Nickola C. , Perspect Psychol Sci, 2015 Jan, Volume 10, Issue 1, p.20-36, (2015)
  5. Sociosexuality from Argentina to Zimbabwe: a 48-nation study of sex, culture, and strategies of human mating., Schmitt, D. P. , Behav Brain Sci, 04/2005, Volume 28, Issue 2, p.247-75; discussion 275-311, (2005)
  6. The Mating System of Foragers in the Standard Cross-Cultural Sample, Marlowe, F. W. , Cross-Cultural Research, Volume 37, p.282-306, (2003)
  7. The evolution of human mating: trade-offs and strategic pluralism., Gangestad, S W., and Simpson J A. , Behav Brain Sci, 08/2000, Volume 23, Issue 4, p.573-87; discussion 587-644, (2000)
  8. The evolutionary ecology of attachment organization., Chisholm, J S. , Hum Nat, 1996 Mar, Volume 7, Issue 1, p.1-37, (1996)
  9. Measures of Polygyny in Humans, Low, B. S. , Current Anthropology, Volume 29, Issue 1, p.189-194, (1988)
  10. The origin of man., Lovejoy, C O. , Science, 01/1981, Volume 211, Issue 4480, p.341-50, (1981)