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Himba Pastoralists, Omuhonga Basin, Namibia

all pictures: © Brooke Scelza


  • Senior researcher: Brooke A. Scelza
  • Research Team:
    • Sean Prall (UCLA),
    • Brenna Henn (UC Davis),
    • Jacob Sheehama (U. Namibia)
    • Richard McElreath (MPI)
  • Site founded: 2010

Site Details

The Himba are a group of traditional pastoralists living in the northwest corner of Namibia in a part of the Kunene region referred to as the Kaokoveld. The fieldsite for this project is in the Omuhonga Basin, about 150km from the main district town of Opuwo. Kaokoland has an arid climate, with a rainy season that typically runs from November to May. Droughts are not uncommon and can last several years. The area is very sparsely populated, with a density of only about 1 person per 2km2.

The Himba are closely related to the Herero, a Bantu group who arrived in Namibia in the middle of the 16th century. The two groups share a language (Otjiherero) and many cultural institutions, including a double descent system of inheritance, patrilocal residence, polygyny and levirate marriage. The Himba continue to rely mainly on pastoral production for majority of their calories. They herd cattle, goats and sheep. During the rainy season women also have gardens where they grow maize, sorghum and melons. Market integration is still limited, although elders are eligible for pension payments and items like cell phones and vehicles are becoming increasingly common.


Our work focuses on two core areas: 1) the costs and benefits of female multiple mating; 2) female social support networks. The first project, funded by a NSF senior award ($344,526), tackles the "legacy of the coy female," which, building from the work of Bateman and Trivers, posits that unlike men, women will rarely gain from having multiple partners. This stereotype persists, despite a rich ethnographic record of formal and informal polyandry and cross-cultural studies noting high frequencies of female infidelity and divorce in many societies. The widespread practice of female multiple mating indicates that women may benefit from having multiple partners. Determining what these benefits are and when women are most likely to seek them is the focus of my work.

Our second major research area, examines the various ways that women elicit support in both production and reproduction, focusing on the trade-offs and demographic dynamics that affect the availability of support partners. Much of this work has focused on the mother-adult daughter relationship and the importance of support during the perinatal period, but we have also studied the effects of fosterage and how women's perceptions of polygyny are affected by the alternative sources of support they have available to them. In addition to these specific projects, we have also cultivated a longitudinal database that includes various measures of health and well-being. 

Selected Publications

B.A. Scelza, S.P. Prall, N. Swinford, S. Gopalan, E. Atkinson, R. McElreath, J. Sheehama, B. M. Henn (in press) High rate of extra-pair paternity in a human population demonstrates diversity in human reproductive strategies. Science Advances.

Brooke A. Scelza, Sean P. Prall and Kathrine Starkweather (2019) Paternity confidence and social obligations explain men's allocations to romantic partners in an experimental giving game. Evolution and Human Behavior, https://doi.org/10.1016/j.evolhumbehav.2019.10.007

Scelza BA, Prall SP, Levine NE. 2019 The disequilibrium of double descent: changing inheritance norms among Himba pastoralists. Phil. Trans. R. Soc. B 374: 20180072. http://dx.doi.org/10.1098/rstb.2018.0072

Scelza BA,Prall SP. 2018. Partner preferences in the context of concurrency: what Himba want in formal andinformal partners.Evolution and Human Behavior39:212-219.

Prall SP, Yetish G, Scelza BA, Siegel JM. 2018. The influence of age and sex specific labor demands on sleep inNamibian agro-pastoralists.Sleep Health4(6):500-508.

Prall SP, Scelza BA. 2017. Child fosterage and sex-biased nutritional outcomes among Namibian Pastoralists. American Journal of Human Biology29(6): e23058.

Scelza, B. and Sean P. Prall. "Partner preferences in the context of concurrency: What Himba want in formal and informal partners." Evolution and Human Behavior (2017) DOI: 10.1016/j.evolhumbeh.2017.12.005

Prall, Sean P., and Brooke A. Scelza. "Child fosterage and sex‐biased nutritional outcomes among Namibian pastoralists." American Journal of Human Biology (2017).

Scelza, Brooke A. "Perceptions of Polygyny: The Effects of Offspring and Other Kin on Co-Wife Satisfaction." Biodemography and social biology 61.1 (2015): 98-110.

Scelza, Brooke A., and Joan B. Silk. "Fosterage as a system of dispersed cooperative breeding." Human Nature 25.4 (2014): 448-464.

Scelza, Brooke A. "Female mobility and postmarital kin access in a patrilocal society." Human Nature 22.4 (2011): 377-393.

Scelza, Brooke A. "Female choice and extra-pair paternity in a traditional human population." Biology Letters (2011): rsbl20110478.