No Need For Maury In Mali

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Menstrual hut visits by Dogon women: a hormonal test distinguishes deceit from honest signaling

By:
Beverly I. Strassmann

In humans the interests of males and females may conflict with respect to the attribution of paternity. If a female has conceived through adultery, or changes mates while she is in early pregnancy, she may protect her reproductive investment by misassigning paternity. In Mali, West Africa, Dogon males attempt to prevent female deception by mandating honest advertisement of menstruation (Strassmann, 1992). This advertisement takes place at a menstrual hut where women are on display to all the members of their husband’s lineage.

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Knowledge of the timing of menstruation is pivotal because no other physiological event is as useful in paternity assessments. In this article I use hormonal data and a census of menstrual hut visits to quantify female compliance with the menstrual taboos. The sample includes 93 women who provided urine samples twice weekly for 10 weeks. Analysis of urinary steroid hormone metabolites (pregnanediol-3-glucuronide and estrone-3-glucuronide) demonstrates that the women went to the menstrual huts during 86% of all menses and, with the exception of one woman who may have been spotting, they never went to the menstrual huts during pregnancy or amenorrhea. Thus the menstrual taboos of the Dogon were effective in eliciting honest signals of female reproductive status (pregnant, amenorrheic, or cycling). This study is the first to use hormonal data to test the honesty of a human behavior in a nonlaboratory setting. It also establishes the feasibility of urinary enzyme immunoassays as a tool for studying human reproduction in remote populations.

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