Dani Marriage Patterns

Dani marriage patterns reflect a pervasive moiety structure and a system of polygyny based on bridewealth payments.


All Dani are divided into two exogamous patrilineal divisions, or moieties, named Wida and Waija. Accordingly, a Wida man or woman is forbidden to marry or have sexual relations with Wida member of the opposite sex and must marry into the opposite moiety. Waija people must follow the corresponding rules for their group.


Dani men are allowed to marry more than one wife but women are restricted to a single husband. Heider's 1963 census figures indicated a significant amount of polygyny, as 30% of adult males had two or more wives. From the women's perspective, however, the rate was much higher, as 70% of wives were involved in polygynous marriages. Most multiple marriages involve two or three wives, but one man was recorded as married to nine women.

Wives Men % Women %

Number of Wives/Husband

0 56 38
1 49 33 49 30
2 23 16 46 28
3 14 9 42 25
4 5 3 20 12
9 1 1 9 5
Total 148 166

Polygyny among the Dani is based on an unequal age of marriage between the sexes. Almost all women are married shortly after puberty and may even perform a wedding ceremony before then, as sexual relations are allowed only several years after the initial rites. Men, however, wait many years after maturity before marriage. (Heider's figures showed that almost 40% of all adult men are unmarried at any one time.) Thus the Dani system supports a high rate of multiple marriage but also allows almost all males to get married during the course of their lifetimes. This arrangement is quite widespread in polygynous systems.

Bride Payments

The Dani system of polygyny is supported by the process of accumulating wealth in the form of pigs, shells, and stone valuables and is, in turn, closely integrated into the male ranking or "big man" system. Thus both wives and the objects though which they are acquired stand as a sign of male status. The actual exchange of bride payments takes on a complex character spread over a number of transactions between the husband's and wife's family during the course of the marriage. Occasions for exchange include:

  1. The wedding: at which a girl is dressed in an adult woman's skirt to mark her maturity and sent to her husband's household.
  2. The consumation of the marriage: at which the husband is given permission to begin sexual relations with his wife.
  3. The birth of a child of the marriage
  4. A son's inititiation
  5. A daughter's marriage
  6. A child's death
Items Donated by:
Groom's Agnates Bride's Agnates
Wedding 4 pigs economic services
Consumation 6 je stone
shell bands
sexual services
3 pigs
Birth of Child 1 pig je stone
shell bands
Son's Initiation 2 pigs je stone
shell band
Daughter's Wedding 2 pigs je stone
shell band
Death of a child je stone
shell band

The transactions involved in the course of the marriage reflect not only the exchange of values but the use of wealth to validate and perpetuate social relationships between the sets of affines involved. Thus in many of the presentations, one group returns the same types of goods (pigs, shells, stone) that it has already received with little net advantage.

© Brian Schwimmer
University of Manitoba
Date Created: October 1, 1997