Biologically speaking, nuptial gifts are contributions – other than genetic materials – provided by a donor to a recipient during courtship. These materials are often designed to improve the fitness of the recipient, but can also be of little value or even no value (Lewis et al. 2014). In modern human mating, nuptial gifts exist most notably in the form of engagement and wedding rings.
Several species of insects, birds, and mammals are known to give or exchange a diverse range of gifts during courtship or copulation including, but not limited to: nongametic organic materials, food items, and apparently worthless tokens (LeBas and Hockham 2005). In human mating, nuptial giving has existed for most of recorded history (Cronk and Dunham 2007). Modern human courtship often involves men offering prenuptial and nuptial gifts which are of high cost to provide, but of little or no tangible benefit to the female recipients (Sozou and Seymour 2005). Engagement rings and wedding bands are often given as examples of such nuptial gifts.
In some cultures, traditions of bride price or bride service, which is a payment by the groom or his family for the bride, are still practiced (Anderson 2007). Also common in some cultures is the dowry, which is a payment of property, gifts, or monetary wealth transferred from the bride’s family to the groom and his family. Over time, cultural practices can slowly shift between bride price and dowries, depending on the culture and the location (Anderson 2007). The specific practice of giving wedding rings dates back to early recorded history and engagement rings have been given since the Middle Ages, but only in the twentieth century have these practices become commonplace (Cronk and Dunham 2007).
Evolutionary Development and Benefits
In many taxa, nuptial gifts are known to improve several aspects of female fitness (Brockmann et al. 2012). In some specific species, however, males can replace a gift of value, such as food, with a worthless gift and females will still accept it and mate for a certain period of time (LeBas and Hockham 2005). In humans, this is arguably mirrored by the historical shift from bride prices – which transferred tangible property or money to the bride’s family – to engagement rings and wedding bands, which are of relatively little inherent value to her or her family.
The above parallel with worthless gifts is not to say that engagement rings and wedding rings do not serve a purpose. Engagement and wedding rings can be used as bonding devices between partners (Cronk and Dunham 2007), and it is generally known that engagement rings are a sign of increased relationship commitment. Research has linked the quality of nuptial gifts with the overall value of the mates involved (Cronk and Dunham 2007). The amount spent on engagement rings reflects certain aspects of both male and female mate quality. Specifically, males with higher incomes spend more on engagement rings, which can indicate more resource control (Cronk and Dunham 2007). Younger women, who tend to have higher mating and fertility potential, and women with higher incomes are also given more expensive engagement rings (Cronk and Dunham 2007). These patterns indicate that investment in a nuptial gift can be a reflection of perceived male and female mate value. The connection between ring value and mate value can give women valuable information about male levels of commitment to a relationship and the extent to which he may or may not invest in her and her potential offspring (Cronk and Dunham 2007; Sozou and Seymour 2005).
In most taxa, nuptial gifts evolved to improve aspects of female fitness and increase the male’s chances of mating, but the history of human nuptial gifts is more complicated. Varying by region, human marriage traditions have slowly shifted from wealth transactions such as bride price and dowry, which provide tangible benefits to at least one party, to the giving of engagement and wedding rings. Wealthier males, unsurprisingly, tend to spend more money on nuptial gifts, and wealthier females with higher mating potential tend to receive more expensive gifts. Both of these patterns are consistent with the idea that the price of nuptial gifts reflects perceived mate value. Even though engagement rings and wedding bands have almost no practical utility, these gifts may provide women with clues as to a potential partner’s commitment to their relationship and her potential offspring.