Tag Archives: foragers

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”

Affluence Without Abundance

My father in law is an excellent amateur mixologist. I don’t drink alcohol very often, but we’re all up at the cabins, so last night I had a paper plane. And I believe this is what led to a night of strange and extensive dreams, and in my dreams was my recently deceased PhD adviser, Irv DeVore. (Irv was not dead in the dream.) DeVore is famous for having initiated, with Richard Lee, the first scientific study of extant living foragers, and they worked with the Ju/’Honasi of Botswana/Namibia/South Africa.

So, it was strange to have the lingering dream on my mind as I opened the latest Science magazine to see a review, by Alan Barnard, of a recent and interesting book on those people: Affluence Without Abundance: The Disappearing World of the Bushmen.

A vibrant portrait of the “original affluent society”–the Bushmen of southern Africa–by the anthropologist who has spent much of the last twenty-five years documenting their encounter with modernity.

If the success of a civilization is measured by its endurance over time, then the Bushmen of the Kalahari are by far the most successful in human history. A hunting and gathering people who made a good living by working only as much as needed to exist in harmony with their hostile desert environment, the Bushmen have lived in southern Africa since the evolution of our species nearly two hundred thousand years ago.

In Affluence Without Abundance, anthropologist James Suzman vividly brings to life a proud and private people, introducing unforgettable members of their tribe, and telling the story of the collision between the modern global economy and the oldest hunting and gathering society on earth. In rendering an intimate picture of a people coping with radical change, it asks profound questions about how we now think about matters such as work, wealth, equality, contentment, and even time. Not since Elizabeth Marshall Thomas’s The Harmless People in 1959 has anyone provided a more intimate or insightful account of the Bushmen or of what we might learn about ourselves from our shared history as hunter-gatherers.

Barnard says:

The book is full of illuminating observations from the Bushmen themselves. In one passage, for example, Suzman relates an encounter with ?Oma, one of the resettlement community’s most established residents, who once served as a foreman when Skoonheid was still a working farm: “If you are foreman,” ?Oma tells Suzman, “then you are the eyes and the ears of the baas [boss] on the farm. You are the chief of the workers and are in charge when the baas is away.” Despite better pay and greater social standing among the white farm owners, ?Oma never entirely succeeded in securing the respect and deference he demanded from his fellow Ju/’hoansi. Today’s Bushmen are part of two worlds, one guided by the group’s traditional commitment to egalitarianism and the other based on subjugation.

In general, anthropological commentary is kept to a minimum, but Suzman’s descriptions are full of insight. “To them everything in the world is natural and everything cultural in the human world is also cultural in the animal world, and ‘wild’ space is also domestic space,” he writes, for example, in chapter 7. “So while Ju/’hoansi consider the litter to be an irritation, few see it as pollution—at least in the way the tourists do.”

Suzman’s frequent reflexivity (e.g., “I never hunted with /I!ae. I was too clumsy, loud, and slow.”) makes the book far more interesting than typical accounts full of statistical detail, academic references, and the like. The book offers few references, and details are limited to those that make for good reading. There are, however, several useful (albeit simple) maps of the areas described and a brief explanation of how to pronounce clicks.

The review is here, but I’m not sure if you can see it without a subscription.

Critique of Rebecca Watson's Talk: Haters gonna hate.

Whinging About Skepchick

A critique of a talk by Rebecca Watson is very likely heavily influenced by the critiquer’s membership in one group or another as defined by The Great Sorting. This not because Rebecca is a polarizing person. It is because she has been outspoken on issues that tend to polarize people, like feminism. This polarization is enhanced by the fact that a break-off group of skeptics have chosen to join the haters rather than the thinkers and doers. Also, she leads a group of women who have tried to open up the Skeptical Community to having more female participants and to more frequently address women’s issues, and this has led to significant push back. As you listen to Rebecca’s recent talk on Evolutionary Psychology or read critiques of it, especially those that specifically call her talk “science denialism” or “creationism” or some other absurd thing, keep that in mind. Continue reading Critique of Rebecca Watson's Talk: Haters gonna hate.

Primitive Cultures are Simple, Civilization is Complex (A falsehood) I

This is yet another in a series of posts on falsehoods. To refresh your memory, a falsehood is a belief held by a number of people that is in some way incorrect. That incorrectness may be blatant, it may be subtle, it may be conditional, it may be simple, it may be complex. But, the unraveling of the falshoodosity of the belief is a learning experience, if it is accomplished in a thoughtful manner and without too much sophistry. In order for a falsehood to “work” as a learning opportunity it is important to define the statement in terms of the thoughts the falsehood invokes in the target audience, which may be very different than the logic intrinsic to the statement itself. For instance, with the present falsehood, I will argue that civilizations actually are complex and primitive cultures actually are simple, when looked at in a certain way. However, most people look at this issue a different way, and get it wrong. Yes, I will be deconstructing some of your cherished beliefs if you are a run of the mill Caucasoido-occidentalonormative middle class suburbanite. Which I’m sure you’re not, but if you were…
Continue reading Primitive Cultures are Simple, Civilization is Complex (A falsehood) I

Stealing Genes and Hypergyny

This post was originally titled “Mail Order Brides and Hypergyny.” I was prompted to revisit the post because it received a a rather astonishing comment that I chose not to allow, but I did post it on my Facebook page where any attention it would receive would be from the thoughtful people that make up my Facebook community rather than just anybody out there on the Internet. Also, I recently received a complaint from a reader that Scienceblogs.com has been showing a lot of ads for “mail order brides,” and this post was originally partly a response to that.

I should also mention that in the years between 2009 and 2014 it is possible that the term “mail order brides” has been legitimately problematized. I don’t know that it has, it just seems like it must have been. For example, Wikipedia says “The term “mail-order bride” is both criticized by owners (and customers) of international marriage agencies and used by them as an easily recognizable term.[2] It has been pointed out that there is a discrepancy between how international adoptions are regarded (“saving a child”) and how international marriages are regarded (“buying a wife”).” citing Lilith, Ryiah (2000–2001), Buying a Wife but Saving a Child: A Deconstruction of Popular Rhetoric and Legal Analysis of Mail-Order Brides and Intercountry Adoptions 9, Buff. Women’s L.J., p. 225F Schaeffer-Grabiel (2005), When the mail-order bride industry shifted from using a magazine. If you have any comments on that please leave them below.

Original Post, Mail Order Brides and Hypergyny:

Seymour had a mail order bride and he was very proud. Seymour was a night watchman that I got to know because I was forever lurking around at night, passing through alarmed doors and making a nuisance of myself and, usually, keeping just one step ahead of Seymour, who’s main objective in life was to find a reason to throw me out of the building. The one time he actually had the drop on me, found me without ID, with no instructions that people would be working late in the lab, on a weekend that people were not supposed to be in the building because of work being done on the fire alarm system, he made his move and told me to get out or I’d be arrested.

I had no choice.

I engaged in a conversation with Seymour, which no one had ever done before, and after a half hour he went way forgetting that his main goal in life was to throw me out of the building. But in the mean time, I learned about his mail order bride. From Korea.

I’ve noticed that Scienceblogs.com has been running ads for hot Russian mail order brides. These ads are rather funny on the surface; They seem to be parodies of such things that they represent. But if you click on one (and I certainly did … expecting to end up at The Onion) one learns that this is the real thing. These are real ads for real Russian women who really want to marry you. If you are Seymour.

I’ve told you before that I mostly avoid commenting on the advertisers for Scienceblogs.com. Hear no evil, see no evil, speak no evil. One of the most evil corporations on the planet is one of our sponsors, and no one ever seems to notice or complain. My blog is editorially independent (as are all the other scienceblogs.com blogs) and I am free, if I choose, to blog against the big evil corporation, and in fact, have done so to a limited extent.

At first, I found it rather shocking that none of my fellow Sblings seem to be blogging about the mail order bride ads. Then I realized that they must all be using ad blockers.

For my part, as you may have noticed, almost everything I encounter lately seems to remind me of a story from the Congo. (I wonder why that is?) So I can tell you a little about hypergyny in the Congo.

Let’s get two things straight:

1) Mail order brides are participating in hypergyny. Hypergyny is where females (gynos) marry “up” (hyper).

2) You will see the term “hypergamy” used and that is simply incorrect. There can be no such thing as hypergamy as a practice because that means everybody marries up. How would that work? The term is “hypergyny.”1

Hypergyny can occur in a lot of different cultural systems, and in fact wherever there is a) differential wealth and b) males tend to control big hunks of that wealth and the associated power (and no, it is NOT all about power … wealth and power are historically interchangeable enough that we should be cautious about making such distinctions) there will be hypergyny because there will be women who either choose it or are forced into it. In this form, and exploiting the ongoing conversations about rape, hypergyny can be understood by reference to the sexual interactions between allied forces liberating Europe from the Nazis and the local women. In Italy, Allied men tended to rape the women. In France, the women seemed happy to sleep with the men. For food. The difference? Well, lots of things were different, but to oversimplify somewhat, there was a big difference in how much people were starving at that particular moment between Italy and France.

Hypergyny is sleeping with the man over a longer term. For food and everything.

The most benign form of hypergyny of which I am aware (not counting mail order brides …. I’m not sure where I want to put that phenomenon on any scale of severity) is that found among the Efe Pygmies (and other Pygmies) in Central Africa.

Here, there are two integrated but distinct cultural entities: Villagers and Foragers. The Villagers are not Efe. They may be Bantu or Central Sudanic speakers (where I worked, they were Central Sudanic Lese). Villagers are farmers who often hunt, Efe are both foragers and farm laborers. The fact that there are material overlaps between the cultures does not make these cultures overlapping in all ways, or hard to distinguish, or flexible in membership. They are as solidly different as any caste might be.

The rules: Any Villager man and woman can marry. Any Forager man and woman can marry. Any man may have more than one wife.

A Villager woman can never marry a Forager man, but a Forager woman may marry a Villager man.

Often, but by no means always, the Forager woman who marries a Villager man is a second (or maybe even third) wife of that man, in a polygynous marriage.

If a Forager woman marries a Villager man, they live in the village as villagers. The woman takes on the cultural trappings of the village much more than other Forager women do. The children are Villagers. If the woman leaves her husband and goes back to the forest, she can not take the children with her. They remain as villagers.

The women can decide to do this or not. Their decision is usually a matter of personal lifestyle preference. The forest means freedoms not available in the village and you get to go camping all the time, and there are rich cultural traditions that live mainly in the forest, and that is where your family is. In the villages, you get a roof that will hardly ever leak.

One of the effects of this system is that men among the Foragers marry on average quite late owing to the a shortage of women.

In this way, there is a slow and steady gene flow from Forager groups to Villager groups, which led me to propose some years ago the Gene Stealing hypothesis. The relationship I describe here occurs in many different places and times. It seems to occur more often in tropical regions, and it seems to occur virtually all the time where the indigenous group (in this case the Forager) is hypergynous to the invading group (in this case the Villagers, who moved into the area hundreds of years ago).

The invading group is not adapted to local disease to the extent that the indigenous group is. But they can ensure that among their children there will be an elevated rate of such adaptation, by coming up with this pattern. This works much better than just killing off the locals or driving them out. You take their genes but keep them distinct as a locally adapted specialist group.

Indeed, there is evidence that something like this may have happened in the middle east with the Natufian culture, and I’ve wondered about the relationship between Modern Humans and Neanderthals in this regard.

I know, I know, that is a long way from pictures of Hot Russian Babes that may or may not be in the right sidebar.

Or maybe not….

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1There is a way in which hypergamy, which is widely used much to my annoyance, makes sense: If you have hypergyny and hyperandry, then the two together could be hypergamy, much like polyandry and polygyny are polygamy. But that is not what is going on with these terms.

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.