Bridewealth (Robert Quinlan ANTH 468 Washington State U.)


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In our discussion of sexual selection we used the “cost of reproduction” as kind of metaphor for understanding gender differences in sexual motivation.  The theory alludes to receptive females as a kind of scarce commodity that males compete over.  Human reproduction is not only metaphorically economic. In many societies the commodification of women is institutionalized in a practice called bridewealth or brideprice.  Bridewealth is a payment that a man or his family makes to a woman’s family for rights to sexual “access” and rights to the products of her labor and her children’s labor.   In fact the majority of traditional societies around the world have some form of bridewealth (figure 1). 


·         Bridewealth is the opposite of dowry (a payment to the groom’s family). 

·         Brideservice is a form of bridewealth in which a man works for his wife’s family for a period of time (often several years) in exchange for marriage. 

·         Sister exchange is when two men marry each other’s sister.


Figure 1. Types of Economic Transactions at Marriage Across Cultures


We might try to understand bridewealth in terms of evolutionary theory.  In particular, we might ask what factors affect a woman’s “reproductive value”? 


Life history theory is a branch of evolutionary biology that deals with tradeoffs in the timing of reproductive events and the allocation of “effort” or resources to reproduction, growth, development and self preservation.  “Reproductive value” (or “residual reproductive value” or RV) is an important life history concept referring to the number of offspring that an organism (usually a female) can expect to produce over the remaining course of her life.  (1) Age is one obvious determinant of reproductive value:  A 19 year old woman might expect to have as many as 10 offspring in the rest of her life, while a 60 year old woman can’t expect to have any more offspring.  (2)  Physical condition might also affect reproductive value: Women in good condition should be able produce more offspring, while women in poor condition would have fewer offspring.  If we convert reproductive value into bridewealth payments, then we should expect younger women in better condition to fetch higher bridewealth than do older women in poorer condition. 


Recall, however, that ability to reproduce is not the only consideration that a male has when he decides whether or not to invest in a particular relationship.  One important consideration is whether the potential mate is likely to be faithful.  Any sign of potential infidelity (like promiscuity) should be cause for concern.  So, we expect men (and their families) to pay less for women whose potential fidelity is questionable.


People don’t only have reproductive value, they have economic value too. A woman’s economic contribution to her family might then influence her bridewealth.


Bridewealth among the Kipsigis of Kenya


Monique Borgerhoff Mulder studied the commodification of women’s reproductive value among the Kipsigis of Kenya.  The Kipsigis are “agro-pastoralists” which means that they grow crops and herd livestock for a living.  Kipsigis women cultivate maize, and men women and children are responsible for caring for cattle, goats and sheep. 


The Kipsigis are patrilineal, meaning that they trace descent through male links. They are also patrilocal, meaning that women move to their husband’s house or village at marriage.  Post-marital residence rules  [***] are important because the influence the amount of contact and help the men and women can give to their kin [***] or natal family (birth family).



Plate 1. Kipsigis women get water and firewood



Kipsigis men marry at about 23 years of age; woman marry at about 16 years on average usually within a year or two of menarche.   Around menarche girls undergo clitoridectomy or circumcision which is a rite of passage indicating entry into womanhood.


Plate 2. Kipsigis girls preparing for clitoridectomy

Courtesy of Prof. M. Borgerhoff Mulder


Marriages are arranged by parents.  Negotiations begin when the groom’s father contacts the bride’s father and makes an offer of bridewealth payment.  This first offer is always rejected in attempt to bargain for a greater payment. Several suitors usually will be negotiating with the bride’s father simultaneously.  The process of negotiating a payment often takes several months.  In the end the brides father makes a decision about which offer to accept in consultation with his wife and other close kin.  The average bridwealth payment was 6 cows, 6 goats and 800 Kenyan shillings, which is about a third of a man’s cattle, half of his goats and 2 months’ wages.  The groom’s father makes the payment from his own resources coming from the natural increase of his herds, any bridewealth payments made to him for his daughters, and cattle raiding (which still occurs in remote areas).  The bridewealth payment gives the groom rights to a woman’s children (whether they are his or not) and rights to products of his wife’s work.  Divorce is uncommon, though couples sometimes separate temporarily if the man becomes abusive.


Plate 3. Drinking beer at a Kipsigis wedding.

Courtesy of Prof. M. Borgerhoff Mulder


Plate 4. Kipsigis (or maybe Nandi) in clitoridectomy costume circa 1920.

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A young woman migth have sex before marriage during the course of negotiations. About 4% of women get pregnant before marriage. If bride-to-be becomes pregnant before marriage there are several possible outcomes: (1) The bride’s father will try to force his daughter’s mate into marriage.  This seems to be the preferred solution. If a marriage cannot be arranged, then (2) the daughter could remain in her father’s house for her entire life and have illegitimate children.  This is not an attractive option for most Kipsigis, though if a man has no sons who will bring in wives for agricultural labor, then he may encourage his daughter to stay with him.  (3) The bride-to-be can have her baby and resume negotiations after the child is born.  The woman’s illegitimate children will go with the mother to live with her new husband.  The Kipsigis call women with illegitimate children “accompanied” brides.  Pregnancy before the settlement of marriage negotiations can affect the bridewealth payment.  If the groom’s father is wealthier than the bride’s father (BF<GF) then pregnancy decreases the brides value (figure 2).   If the bride’s father is wealthier than the groom’s father (BF>GF) then pregnancy actually increases the bride’s value (figure 2).  This finding suggests that getting a prospective bride pregnant can be an influential and strategic factor in bridewealth negotiations.  (Can you think of other examples of where people might use pregnancy to influence marriage considerations?)


Figure 2. Effect of pregnancy on bridewealth payment among Kipsigis


The practice of bridewealth may seem primitive to us, but wedding customs in the U.S. indicate that an engagement ring should cost about 2 months wages, and the average wedding now costs nearly $30,000!  American customs at least reflect an expression of wealth transfer or financial endowment associated with marriage.  Traditionally in the U.S. the bride’s family is supposed to pay for the wedding, which makes the American custom more like dowry than bridewealth.  Still the parallels suggest at least a partial convergence of economic and reproductive potentials – in other words Americans often express the value of a long-term sexual and reproductive relationship, marriage, in terms of wealth.  Marriage of course has other important economic, social and emotional components, but these other aspects are tied in part to the sexual relationship between two people.


What about variation in Kipsigis women’s bridewealth value?


As predicted by life history theory, Borgerhoff Mulder found a significant of inverse correlation (r = -.24) between bride’s age at circumcision and the bridewealth paid for her.  Women marry about a year or two after circumcision. That means older brides yielded lower bridewealth. If you imagine age plotted on the horizontal (x-axis) of a two dimension graph and bridewealth plotted on the vertical (y-axis), then imagine a line that slopes downward as age increases (figure 3): That is the relationship between age and bridewealth.  You can visualize a correlation coefficient or “r” of -.24 compared with other values by following the link.


Figure 3. Correlation between Kipsigis brides’ age at circumcision and her bridewealth payment.  Each dot represents one bride.

In a second test of the association between reproductive value and economic value, Monique compared the proportion of “plump” versus “skinny” women whose family received a high bridewealth payment. As you might imagine, it is not terribly attractive to be “skinny” in a subsistence economy in sub-Saharan Africa.  Many debilitating or deadly diseases, like AIDS for example, are associated with “wasting” or severe weight loss.  Also, among most mammals large body size is associated with greater fecundity; hence, Monique predicted that plump women would obtain higher bridewealth payments than did skinny women.   The data support her prediction from life history theory: Plump women were more likely to obtain a high bridewealth payment than were skinny women (figure 4).


Figure 4. Probability of obtaining a high bridewealth payment for plump and skinny Kipsigis women





Plate 5. Kipsigis woman cooks maize.

Courtesy of Prof. M. Borgerhoff Mulder


Monique also predicted that questions about a potential bride’s fidelity might also influence her bridewealth value.  After all, a woman’s reproductive value makes no difference to her mate if he is not sure that he is the father of her offspring.  If a woman had premarital sex, became pregnant and her father was unable to settle bridewealth negotiations, then one assumes that there may have been some question about the paternity of the offspring.   The results showed that brides “accompanied” by illegitimate offspring obtained lower bridewealth than did woman who did not become pregnant before marriage (figure 5).  Of course, this is not unequivocal evidence that concerns about fidelity were at play; however, Prof. Borgerhoff Mulder also found that accompanied brides were more likely to be beaten by their husbands, suggesting that there was some concern about coercing and controlling her behavior.


Plate 6. Kipsigis women.

Courtesy of Prof. M. Borgerhoff Mulder


Figure 5.  Bridewealth payment for women with and without illegitimate children


Finally, not all issues about a Kipsigis woman’s value are about her reproductive value.  Recall that Kipsigis are patrilocal.  Though bridewealth gives a man rights to the products of his wife’s labor, there is one exception:  At harvest time a woman is expected to return to her natal family and help with the harvest.  The ability to help her natal family becomes less likely the further a woman moves away at marriage.  Families whose daughter marries a man in a distant village can expect to lose her labor; hence, we might predict that they would seek compensation for the loss of their daughter’s future labor by demanding higher brideweath.  The data supported this prediction: Women who married men from distant locals tended to obtain higher brideweath than did women who married men from nearby (figure 6).


Figure 6. Bridewealth payment by husband’s distance from bride’s natal home





Bridewealth is a common practice cross-culturally.  The value of a bride is consistent with her reproductive value.  Age and physical condition are two important considerations.  Questions about a bride’s fidelity and economic value may also be important.  An evolutionary behavioral ecology approach can help us understand seemingly exotic cultural practices.  Finally, if any heritable traits are consistently associated with a woman’s brdiewealth value, then male-choice (in addition to male-male competition and female-choice) could be an important force in sexual selection among humans.


Further reading: M. Borgerhoff Mulder 1988. Kipsigis bridewealth payments. In L. Betzig et al. (eds.) Human Reproductive Behavior: A Darwinian Perspective. Cambridge U. Press, pp. 65-82.