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