Category Archives: Palaeoanthropology

A Thanksgiving Day Story: Fear, Loathing, Feasting, Family

What is Thanksgiving?

Thanksgiving is a feast. But what is a feast? Anthropology is all about examining ourselves through the lens of other cultures. Or, at least, that’s what we used to do back in the good old days. Let’s have a look at this great American holiday from this perspective and see what we see. Continue reading A Thanksgiving Day Story: Fear, Loathing, Feasting, Family

Falsehood: “If this was the Stone Age, I’d be dead by now”

It is generally thought that life expectancy in the past was less that it is today for our species as a whole and in the case of industrialized countries in particular. However, this belief counts as a falsehood not because it is untrue (it is, in fact, true) but because many people get this idea wrong in a few different ways. People often:

1) confuse life expectancy with lifespan;

2) underestimate the life expectancy of many past populations; and

3) think of the past compared to the present as a dichotomy, the present being one way, the past being the other way, failing to recognize diversity and variation in life history variables across our species and across time … life expectancy is seen as a measure of quality of life (which it may well be) that has tracked the one way progress of the human condition from a widespread past condition of short-lived misery to the present and much improved condition of living long and prospering.
Continue reading Falsehood: “If this was the Stone Age, I’d be dead by now”

How long is a human generation?

How long is a generation, you ask?

Short Answer: 25 years, but a generation ago it was 20 years.

Long answer: It depends on what you mean by generation.

In US-biased Western culture there is a Biological Generation, the Dynamic Generation, the somewhat different Familial Generation, what is sometimes called a Continue reading How long is a human generation?

Did humans evolve from apes?

The next installment of “Everything you Know is Sort of Wrong” will be on the falsehood: “Humans evolved from apes.” Or, if you prefer, “Humans did not evolve from apes.” Either way, you’re wrong. And right.

Confused? Great, then we’re half way there! Here’s the details. (This is part of the Skeptically Speaking broadcast.) Please post your questions and tune in on Friday.

An Evolutionary View of Humans 5: The Opposite Sex

Efe people
Ituri Forest
Anthrophoto is an
excellent source for
anthropology stock
photos

There have been many studies of what impresses us about members of the opposite sex, but to my knowledge these studies are largely centered on Western societies, and never of foragers. There has been consideration of this issue, but no large scale surveys. One of the reasons for this is that you can’t do large scale surveys in so-called “small scale” societies, because there are just not enough people.

But I can provide a few insights on what might be impressive to the ladies (things about men) in forager societies. Keep in mind, however, that this is strictly speculation, though informed speculation.

I had previously talked about sharing, and here I’d like to expand on one aspect of sharing, the so called “distribution and redistribution system,” and it’s meaning in relation to courting.

There is a pattern that has been observed in virtually all forager groups, whereby men divide up the spoils of the hunt in a certain, largely ritualized, way, then pass these packages of meat over to the women, who then redistribute the meat in a manner commensurate with the needs of members of the group. I’d like to describe how this works specifically with the Efe Pygmies as an exemplar for foragers in general. Many aspects of what I’m describing here are nearly universal among foragers. Moreover, I’m going to specifically talk about “group hunting” when several men are involved in one cooperative hunting episode. However, the principles involved here actually apply to other forms of hunting as well, to varying degrees.

The most common Efe group hunt is called “mota.” In this method of hunting, a number of men spread out in the forest to surround an area, with one man (the “beater”) going to the center of this area with one or more dogs. The dogs are released by the beater, sent out into this area and called back again and again. Game that is roused by the dogs are then subject to being shot at with arrows by the archers who had previously spread out. If an animal is hit, help from other hunters or from the dogs may be solicited, and the animal run to ground and dispatched.

The animals are usually carried back to near the camp (these animals are small and can be carried whole by one person) where two people (not the hunter himself) butcher the animal. The animal is cut into standard pieces: The head, each front limb and body quarter, each hind limb and body quarter, and an area of the middle of the animal including the last few ribs (this is considered to be the “special” part, possibly because it contains the backstrap/loin meat).

Sometimes the head is left with one of the forelimbs. Sometimes the back two quarters are kept together.

Each of these parts is then given to a different man depending on a set of rules that specify a link between a man’s role in obtaining this meat and a particular body part. The rules vary from place to place and presumably time to time in Pygmydom, but it may be, for instance, that the man who called and organized the hunt, usually the beater, gets the front left limb, the guy who trained/owned the dog that ran down the animal a back quarter, etc. The only really consistent thing across the different rule sets is that there is usually a key hunter (the person who first shot the animal, for instance) who gets this middle back piece.

One striking aspect of this is that efforts are made and culturally determined to ensure that a lot of people were involved in the kill of any animal, even by a lone hunter. Here are some of the rules that ensure this:

1) No man carries his own arrows. The metal tipped arrows the Pygmies use for hunting ground animals are each made by someone else. Therefore, if you shoot an animal, another man besides yourself was “involved.”

2) The dog is owned by a particular person.

3) A ritual fire is burned before the hunt by a particular person.

4) The beater is a particular person. These three — dog owner, fire burner, and beater, may be the same person, two people, or three people.

5) The animal is supposed to be butchered by individuals other than the prime hunter.

6) The animal is supposed to be butchered OUTSIDE OF CAMP (even it it runs into camp and dies there … it would be dragged outside of the camp for butchery) by TWO people. (Not one, even though that would be possible.)

7) Oh, then there is the guy who shot the animal!

All of this ensures that even if you hunt alone, multiple people will be involved.

Now, we are guessing that the ladies are concerned with the hunting, and the meat, and thus with the quality of hunters, in some way. So the first approximation is that the women measure the hunting ability of the men and take this into account during courtship. Previous studies have not supported this idea.

One idea that may work is that the ladies pay attention to the man’s package. What I mean by this, is they notice what package of meat he comes in to the camp with, which would give the woman an idea of his role in the hunt, and thus information to assess his hunting ability.

However, there is a catch to this: I have observed that the men hardly ever walk into camp with the pieces of meat that actually represents what they actually did for the hunt. If this is a signal, the men are being dishonest.

One idea that may work to get past this problem is that the men are being dishonest but the women can’t figure this out. If the men came into camp and verbally claimed a certain role in the hunt, the women (and others) could easily detect the lie. But by simply carrying this package of meat into camp and not saying anything, and handing this meat over to a particular woman (someone they are trying to impress) they are not as easily caught in the lie.

However, I don’t believe this for a second. I think the women would still be able to tell who is being honest, or at the very least, the women would understand that the whole exercise is a charade, and simply not use this as information in choosing a mate.

So this brings us to one more idea that may help understand this, and I think the explanation for what is going on.

Suppose a young man is a typical hunter, and is courting a prospective mate who is hanging around in camp (visiting her sister, perhaps). As a typical hunter, there really is not much he can do to increase his role in the hunt, other than simply showing up and doing his job. Most of the hunters are excellent shots, and although older guys do better than younger guys, how you do over a series of a few hunts is also very largely a matter of luck.

But suppose this young guy comes into camp each day for two or three days in a row with a real nice package, something that would indicate an important role in the hunt. But he did not earn this package by what he did during the hunt. Instead, his male relatives and friends give him the package, knowing that he’s interested in the woman likely to be in camp on their return.

This indicates nothing about his hunting ability to the woman. But it does indicate something much more important: It indicates that he is not a complete jerk. It indicates that he has friends, that they will give him a break, and that he is part of a coalition of cooperative foragers. That is what makes a good mate.

Indeed, if women made choices among men based hunting ability, then they would be making poor choices. First, hunting ability might be important, but many other things are important as well. Second, as noted above, most forager men are pretty good at hunting. How well someone does is more a matter of luck than ability. So, hunting is not a trait that varies meaningfully or that can be assessed accurately.

Having said that, among the Efe, there is a form of hunting that is done by only some men, and that produces on its own about the same amount of meat as all the other hunting efforts combined, on an annual basis. This is the killing of an elephant. It is hard to do, far more dangerous than other forms of hunting, and highly productive. I suspect a lot of women would not be interested in such a mate. The guy must be crazy, after all. But some are. It is very rare to find Efe men with more than one wife (it is allowed but very uncommon). An Efe man does not usually have more than one wife, but when he does, it is often because he is an elephant hunter.

An Evolutionary View of Humans 1: Introduction
An Evolutionary View of Humans 2: Sleep
An Evolutionary View of Humans 3: Remembering Names
An Evolutionary View of Humans 4: Sharing
An Evolutionary View of Humans 5: The Opposite Sex

An Evolutionary View of Humans 4: Sharing

Efe people
Ituri Forest
Anthrophoto is an
excellent source for
anthropology stock
photos

One of the biggest differences between our nearest living relatives (The common chimpanzee, Pan troglodytes) and humans is our unique sense of the importance of a social contract. We have a concept of ownership, possession, exclusivity of access, etc. when it comes to material goods such as tools or resources, and of course, sexual relationships. It has been argued that this is a feature that can be found in primates. In a classic series of experiments done by Kummer with baboons, he showed that one male baboon perceived an ongoing sexual liaison between another male and a particular female. As long as the paired male was in sight, the focal baboon would not make sexual advances towards the paired female even though she was in a state of sexual receptivity. This was the case even when the focal male and the paired female were enclosed in a cage together, with the paired female enclosed in a different cage a safe distance away. Similar observations have been made in other primates including chimpanzees in captivity and in the wild.

However the presence of a vague ability to perceive danger — that you will likely be severely attacked by a large male under certain circumstances — is expected in social primates. What Kummer’s experiment may really demonstrate is that baboons don’t “get” cages.

The evolution of a sophisticated mechanism or set of mechanisms in hominids (humans and their upright ancestors) that elaborates on this capacity is what we would expect from an evolutionary perspective. We are upright using our hind limbs mainly for locomotion, and thus different from other apes, but at the same time the nature of our uprightedness (that we can also use overhead bars and straps on a bus or subway for stability, for instance) is a feature of our positional behavior that relates directly to the fact that apes tend to suspend below branches rather than walk atop them (as to Old World monkeys).

In other words, I don’t think that a trait observed in one species is not unique and not the result of adaptive evolution just because a mild form of the trait is observed in other closely related form. Such a situation — total uniqueness — is simply not expected most of the time.

Tropical and subtropical human forager groups all exhibit what we call a “sharing ethic.” Typically, this is manifest as social rules whereby if one person asks another for a particular thing, it is simply given. Both stinginess and gloating (over possession of something) are culturally proscribed. A person is judged by others on the basis of many things, but near the top of the list is a strong sharing ethic. It is even likely that people show off by trying to be the better sharer, and in some cases, the better not-shower-offer.

From a biological perspective it is thought that sharing is necessary in foraging societies because the nature of foraging is such that no one individual can maintain a sufficiently consistent food supply over medium to long term on the basis of their own efforts. Only by division of labor (often by sex) and sharing, whereby one person with a surplus distributes that surplus one day, and in return benefits from the largess of others on other days, can an individual avoid periods of starvation that would sometimes last days or weeks (and thus possibly be fatal).

This argument, however, is weak on its own, because most (all?) tropical and subtropical foragers do have access most of the time to resources that are consistent over long periods. In most of these groups, females are able to obtain in a given day sufficient food for their immediate needs and the needs of their offspring. Males, on the other hand, tend to forage for resources that result in occasional abundance dispersed among days of an inadequate supply. Were humans to stop sharing in these groups, this could work out as long as everybody (males included) foraged in the female style.

However, the resources that males tend to obtain from the wild (mainly meat from hunting), despite their irregularity, may serve a critically important role – or more than one role. For example, basic cellular function, especially as related to growth and the immune system, require the synthesis of many proteins that are built from amino acids. Some of these amino acids are synthesized in one’s own cells, others are not and must be ingested … typically in the form of proteins in a variety of plant foods as well as animal foods. The amino acids are not interchangeable. Almost all proteins are made from a list of 20 amino acids that occur in varying degrees of abundance in various plant foods. If you eat only plant foods, there will always be one amino acid that is the rarest of those needed, so you must ingest a larger than optimal quantity of foods. But if you eat meat, you are ingesting a perfectly balanced set of amino acids. In other words, a very efficient way of growing and in certain ways maintaining your body is to eat other animal bodies.

So, it may turn out that the highly variable sources of “balanced” proteins … mainly meat from hunting … are a critical resource for this (and other) reasons. So while day to day energy needs cannot be met among these forager groups from hunting (that comes mainly from the plant foods), the needs of growth and immune system function and general cellular processes can be met with this variable food supply. But only if it is shared.

The problem this presents is actually psychological (or maybe I should just say neurological … brain based). Apes don’t share much. When chimpanzees forage — and they typically forage for relatively rare, high quality foods — they benefit by foraging alone because this reduces competition with other chimpanzees. They do not bring the food they find to any other place than where they found it in order to consume it.

In contrast, human foragers do two critically important things. First, they bring much of the food they forage to a central place — the forager “camp” as we call it. Since all the foragers in a given group (by definition) live in the same camp, they are therefore bringing this food into direct competition with other foragers. If they were chimps, the dominant chimps would just take the food from the lower ranked chimps, or small coalitions of cooperating individuals (usually males) would take any of the food they wanted from any of the other chimps.

The second thing foragers do is to process much of this food. This processing is often essential to make these food items edible. In other words, human foragers are finding items (plant parts) that are not edible by humans, and thus constitute a kind of VERY low quality food (zero or near zero caloric value) and by processing — including cooking with fire — turn this stuff into medium or high quality food.

The only way to do this second thing (turning the inedible into the edible) is to do the first thing, to have a central place foraging style. And the only way to do this is to have a social ethic that manages the concepts of possession, ownership, sharing, and so on.

How does this ethic emerge in an individual? A little introspection and reference to experience can help answer that question. Sharing, being fair (the opposite of “cheating”), a capacity to learn and live by certain social ethics and so on, emerge over several years in children with the continuous, time consuming, and energetically costly efforts of adults.

What are the social mechanisms that are at work in this aspect of childrearing?

Are there ways in which adults, who are at a stage in their lives when they are looking for possible mates, evaluate each other with respect to these behavioral qualities? Are there aspects of the human dating/mating/marriage rituals and patterns that demonstrate this?

Are there ways in which adults demonstrate these qualities, and if so, how do others ascertain if these demonstrations are false vs. honest indicators of a sharing ethic?

How does this play out in social relationships other than mating/marriage?

Are there conditions in which sharing is the inappropriate behavior? If so, how do individuals or subsets of society balance a sharing ethic and what might be called a selfish ethic?

Do the manifestation of these behaviors vary across age and gender, or social class?

Humans are different from chimps in these critical aspects of behavior, and these differences are manifest in both ecological and reproductive aspects of human culture and society. Modern foragers demonstrate the human condition, and the way in which these problems have been solved through adaptive behaviors. What kinds of problems emerge in other kinds of human societies that have emerged only recently in human prehistory, such as agricultural societies where the value of land on which food is grown, or the efforts put into crop tending, create a new kind of resource — immobile, big, and vulnerable? What kinds of problems emerge in pastoral (i.e., cattle-keeping societies) in which the key resource is potentially VERY mobile, but still big and vulnerable? What are the resources that Western Industrial societies rely on and how is that managed? In other words, what would a list of evolutionary discordances — differences between the normal foraging way of life and other ways of life — look like?

An Evolutionary View of Humans 1: Introduction
An Evolutionary View of Humans 2: Sleep
An Evolutionary View of Humans 3: Remembering Names
An Evolutionary View of Humans 4: Sharing
An Evolutionary View of Humans 5: The Opposite Sex

An Evolutionary View of Humans 2: Sleep

Efe people
Ituri Forest
Anthrophoto is an
excellent source for
anthropology stock
photos

There has been much recent discussion on sleep in the blogosphere, and everyone, especially those who sometimes have trouble sleeping, is interested in so called sleep disorders.

My understanding of modern sleep disorder theory is the following (very oversimplified): Each person has a “normal” amount of sleep that they seem to need each night. “Better” sleep is uninterrupted. You will feel lousy if you don’t get your sleep. However, if you miss the “normal” amount of sleep several nights in a row, you only need one “good night’s sleep” to totally readjust and get back to feeling normal again. (You don’t have to make up all the hours you missed … heavens, there IS a free lunch!)

Most tropical or subtropical foragers live in flimsy dwellings (or no dwelling on some nights) clustered tightly together, so, for instance if one person snores everybody hears it (though snoring is rare among foragers in my experience). My point is simply that everyone is physically close.

Even in warm areas, it gets cold at night, so there are fires. Fires have the upside of making you warm, but a couple of downsides as well. First, they need to be tended frequently. Second, adults and especially children can fall or roll into them and get badly burned.

A typical night with the Efe is, I strongly suspect, typical of any night with any tropical or subtropical forager group. At any given moment in time, somebody is asleep and somebody is awake. Those who are awake are often talking. Sometimes they are talking to each other, but often they are just talking. Telling a story that someone may or may not be interested in. I suspect that part of the constant noise making (and what may make Africa different from Australia, by the way, if you know about Australian forager ethnography) is that you don’t want to be too quiet for too long else wandering dangerous animals …. a leopard, a suid, an elephant … may stumble into your camp and cause trouble.

The person or persons who is/are awake shifts throughout then night. It is not systematic … people are not really keeping watch … it just seems to happen. Individuals sleep when they are comfortable, and become uncomfortable as the fire cools, wake up, adjust the fire, and either stay up for a while or fall back to sleep. If one child is keeping his or her family awake, this affects the entire group. And so on.

Naps during the day (as you might expect since everybody gets a poor night’s sleep by Western standards every night) are common.

Here it is in a nutshell. The Efe, and I again suspect this is typical for foragers, spend the entire 24 hour cycle sometimes awake and sometimes asleep. During the night, “asleep” is more common than “awake” and during the day “awake” is more common than “asleep.” To foragers, it’s all napping.

One could criticize this description by pointing out how it conflicts with modern medical views of sleep. But you would be wrong. It is the case that modern medical views of sleep need to be adjusted to take into account the realties of what humans have probably always done for hundreds of thousands of years (since the first control of fire, perhaps).

An Evolutionary View of Humans 1: Introduction
An Evolutionary View of Humans 2: Sleep
An Evolutionary View of Humans 3: Remembering Names
An Evolutionary View of Humans 4: Sharing
An Evolutionary View of Humans 5: The Opposite Sex

An Evolutionary View of Humans 1: Introduction

Efe people
Ituri Forest
Anthrophoto is an
excellent source for
anthropology stock
photos

Humans have been indistinguishable as far as the fossil record shows from today’s Homo sapiens for a minimum of about 120,000 years. Bones of Homo sapiens from back this far fit into the range of modern humans. But the archaeological record suggests that our species – just as it is today – goes back farther. The kind of material culture that the 120,000 year old humans (in Africa) had goes back to 250,000 years. But some of the key aspects of that material culture … mainly in the way stone tools are made … go back even farther, perhaps between 350,000 and 500,000 years, in southern Africa.

(Interesting aside: People often wonder if Neanderthals evolved into modern humans. That questions seems a little dumb when we consider that the earliest modern humans predate the earliest Neanderthals.)

Humans invented agriculture (domestic plants and animals) only about 10,000 years ago or so, and at that time some groups started to live in permanent settlements. But even so, many humans continued to practice hunting and gathering as their only, or at least primary, means of subsistence. A mere 4 or 5 thousand years ago, half of the human species probably lived this way.

In other words, humans evolved as hunter-gatherers and have mostly been hunter-gatherers for for more than Continue reading An Evolutionary View of Humans 1: Introduction

Man the Hunter and Human Evolution

hunting, human evolution

Hunting and Human Evolution


I’ve never been that big of a fan of hunting as the explanation for everything that happened in human evolution, and I’ve tended to explore other areas more. This has led some to believe that I’m simply against acknowledging any role of hunting in human prehistory and evolution. This of course is not true at all, but I do think the issue needs to be addressed in a more complex and subtle way than it usually is. The present comments are a tiny contribution towards a much larger requirement of thought and discussion.

Why is hunting thought to be a key factor in human evolution? Partly because it was once widely believed that among the primates, only humans ate a fair amount of meat (not counting insects). If human hunting and meat consumption was unique among primates, then the evolution and effects of this behavior could easily be understood as vitally important. Moreover, a lot of fieldwork and thinking about human evolution centered on Europe, where cave paintings of animals were common, with some hunting themes seemingly represented in these paintings.

Of course, the uniqueness of human hunting behavior is now understood to be a gross overstatement. There is hunting of mammals and the like by several primates, and in particular, chimpanzee hunting (mainly of monkeys) is fairly common.

We now know that almost all of the important events that have happened in human evolution (since the chimp-human split) happened in Africa, and that the European record, while interesting, is not the primary record for these events. Therefore, one would think that the European bias would be somewhat reduced in current thinking (the fact that it is not is of great interest, but I’ll not go into that here!).

But I think the most important reason for hunting taking center stage in the study of human evolution, to what appears to be an unjustified level, has to do with the nature of “Man” and the nature of “Hunting.”

Have you ever been hunting, or been along with others while they did so? I’ve accompanied both North American game hunters (armed with firearms) and Efe foragers (armed with arrows and spears). Most of my time has been in the latter pursuit, and in a few instances, I joined the hunt not just as an observer but as a participant/observer.

I don’t think hunting is a normal human activity in the same way that hunting is a normal lion activity, or a normal wolf activity. Humans seem to react to hunting in a very powerful way, similar to how humans react to violence in general (and hunting seems to be fairly violent) or to certain kinds of sporting events (as observer or as participant). A lot of yelling and screaming and jumping around can ensue under certain conditions. Yes, most forager groups disdain bragging and avoid giving too much credit to any individual for being a great hunter, but the visceral reaction to, say, a near miss or to those moments when the hunted animal turns on the hunter (usually only briefly and to the animal’s final chagrin), is powerful and can’t be covered up or put into the background by cultural norms of modesty.

The Real Reason We Hunt?


Richard Wrangham thinks that it is possible that hunting by chimpanzees is more important as a form of male bonding than it is as a form of food acquisition. He bases this assertion on two things. First, the chimpanzees at Kibale, where he works, seem to hunt more when there is abundant non-meat food (i.e., fruit). Hunting is not used by these chimps as a way to supplement their diets. Hunting is not part of a sensible ecological strategy for garnering energy from the environment, but rather something that is done when one has the extra time and energy. The second part of his argument (as I understand it) is that one of the most critically important things a male chimpanzee can do, in evolutionary/fitness terms, is to be adept at cooperating with other males of it’s group, to facilitate the act of killing extra-group chimpanzees. The experience of hunting monkeys and the male-male interaction that relates to this primes and prepares the chimps for this important yet rare event. Hunting monkeys is training for being an effective, fierce, demonic male chimp.

Is this the case in humans? There is no way to know this at this time. There certainly are groups of human foragers (in the ethnographic present) who rely so much on meat that hunting is basically a form of subsistence, no matter what other function it may have. Even when plant foods are abundant, meat is still important to almost every group of forager (and non-forager, likely) as a source of “complete proteins.” All traditional human hunting is imbued with ritual and ceremony that exceeds that generally linked with gathering. So in the end, there is evidence that hunting can be and often is an ecologically important activity for human foragers. There is also evidence that hunting is (probably) always an important social activity, mainly among men.

[Ask me later: Why a photograph of the Afrikaans Language Monument in this particular place, at this particular time…]

“Man The Hunter”


So, now, return to the idea that the “man the hunter” concept is something that derives from the nature of “Man” and the nature of “Hunting.” As you may have guessed, I’m not using the incorrect gender non-neutral term “Man” to refer to humans. I’m talking about men. Guys, to be more exact. Guys, for various reasons including insecurity about reproduction as well as food and subsistence, etc., tend to invent methods of bonding that can sometimes be quite elaborate. In many societies, throughout time, hunting has probably been one of these methods. Certainly, many of the male scholars who first looked into human evolution were themselves hunters (shooting quail on the moorland, big game in East Africa, etc.) and had a good, Victorian understanding of this process of bonding.

When a 19th or 20th century guy archaeologist holds a beautifully made, often phallic-shaped obsidian spearhead in his hands, feeling it’s heft and running his fingers along the still sharp, elongated, stone-hard edge, he is bonding with another guy, of a much earlier time period, who could probably have killed his quarry just as effectively with a sharp stick, but opted instead to produce, carry around, display, and use this really cool piece of gear. So it’s a guy thing, and it’s a gear thing. It’s sort of a guys-with-gear thing.

Hunting isn’t likely the driving force in human evolutionary change, but it can certainly be an important human activity that is related to human evolutionary change.

One final brief note on something to be addressed at another time: The assumption that hunting by men is central to human evolution has led many to assume that hunting drove the evolution of tool use, and thus, tool use is a male thing. This contradicts the best evidence we have about technology in primates, which suggests that females, not males, are the tool makers, tool users, and the teachers (or at least facilitaters) who pass this ability on to subsequent generations. So, gear, it turns out, may be more of a girl thing after all.