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Global phylogenetic analysis reveals multiple origins and correlates of genital mutilation/cutting



Genital mutilation/cutting is costly in terms of health, survival and reproduction, and the long-term maintenance of these practices is an evolutionary conundrum. Previous studies have suggested a mate-guarding function or various signalling functions of genital mutilation/cutting. Here we use phylogenetic comparative methods and two global ethnographic samples to study the origins and socio-ecological correlates of major types of female and male genital mutilation/cutting. Male genital mutilation/cutting probably originated in polygynous societies with separate residence of co-wives, supporting a mate-guarding function. Female genital mutilation/cutting originated subsequently and almost exclusively in societies already practising male genital mutilation/cutting, where it may have become a signal of chastity. Both have originated multiple times, some as early as in the mid-Holocene (5,000–7,000 years ago), considerably predating the earliest archaeological evidence and written records. Genital mutilation/cutting co-evolves with and may help maintain fundamental social structures, hindering efforts to change these cultural practices.

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Fig. 1: Geographic distribution of the major types of FGM/C and MGM/C in the EA sample.
Fig. 2: Geographic distribution and phylogenetic reconstruction of ancestral states of FGM/C and MGM/C for the EA sample.
Fig. 3: Coefficient plots with parameter estimates from the PLR models for the EA sample.
Fig. 4: Flow diagrams depicting CE between GM/C and PLR predictors in the EA.

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This research was supported by the Czech Science Foundation grant no. 18-23889S and Grant Agency of University of South Bohemia grant no. 048/2019/P (G.Š.). The funders had no role in study design, data collection and analysis, decision to publish or preparation of the manuscript. We thank L. S. T. Ho for advice on the regression analyses, M. Lang for helpful comments on the manuscript and E. Nelson for English proofreading.

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Authors and Affiliations



J.Z. and P.D. conceived the study. G.Š. and P.D. collected, curated and analysed the data. All authors contributed to developing the methods, interpreting the results and writing the paper.

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Correspondence to Pavel Duda.

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Nature Human Behaviour thanks Mhairi Gibson, Ruth Mace and Simon Greenhill for their contribution to the peer review of this work.

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Extended data

Extended Data Fig. 1 Geographic distribution of the major types of FGC and MGC in the SCCS sample.

a) clitoridectomy; b) excision; c) infibulation; d) male circumcision; e) superincision.

Extended Data Fig. 2 Geographic distribution and cultural evolution of FGC and MGC in the EA sample.

Left: geographic distribution of FGC in the EA sample and reconstruction of ancestral states using stochastic character mapping. Right: geographic distribution of MGC in the EA sample and reconstruction of ancestral states using stochastic character mapping.

Extended Data Fig. 3 Coefficient plots with parameter estimates from the phylogenetic logistic regression models for the SCCS sample.

a) FGC; b) clitoridectomy; c) excision; d) infibulation; e) MGC; f) male circumcision; g) superincision. Each plot includes best-fitting models for a given practice as indicated by different symbols. The point estimates represent bootstrapped mean parameter estimates, and the error bars represent bootstrapped 95% CIs based on 2,000 simulations. The parameter values are on the log odds scale.

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Supplementary Tables 1–8, Figs. 1–18 and Methods.

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Šaffa, G., Zrzavý, J. & Duda, P. Global phylogenetic analysis reveals multiple origins and correlates of genital mutilation/cutting. Nat Hum Behav 6, 635–645 (2022).

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