Tag Archives: Hunter-Gatherers

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.

Why I ate a Pangolin

The Lese people practice swidden horticulture in the Ituri Forest, Congo (formerly Zaire). Living in the same area are the Efe people, sometimes known as Pygmies (but that may be an inappropriate term). The Efe and Lese share a culture, in a sense, but are distinct entities within that culture, as distinct as any people living integrated by side by side ever are. The Efe are hunter-gatherers, but the gathering of wild food part of that is largely supplanted by a traditional system of tacit exchange between Efe women and Lese farmers, whereby the Efe provide labor and the farmers provide food. The Efe men also work on the farms sometimes, but their contribution to the family’s diet is more typically from foraged goods, including plants but mostly animals, and during a particular season of the year, the products of honey bee nests.

For several years, in the 1980s and early 90s, I lived in Zaire (now Congo) for several months out of each year (generally between May and January, roughly), and for much of that time I was in the Ituri with the Lese and Efe. During that time, I spent much of the time in the forest with the Efe (very few of the researches on that long term multidisciplinary project did that — most spent their time with the Lese for various reasons).

To go from our study site to the grocery store (which was not really a grocery store because they did not exist in that part of Zaire, but a city with markets) was about a week’s trip or more. Only a few days of that was driving, the rest fixing the broken truck, doing the shopping, etc. So, one did this infrequently. There was no local market during my time there, though one opened up 10 clicks away for a while, at which one might or might not be able to buy a chicken or a yam, if you showed up early.

I (and this pertains to most of my colleagues as well, only a few of us would be at the site at a time) would buy sacks of rice and beans and other long term food items in the city, and carefully curate them at the base camp, a small village constructed of wattle and daub leaf-roofed huts and outhouses. When I went to the forest just to live with or observe the Efe, I would bring the exact amount of food I would need to survive if all I did was feed myself. This way my presence would not affect the Efe’s food budget. But, this is a sharing culture and it would have been very bad for me to just eat that food. I feely shared my food with my fellow camp members, and they shared their food, and my food was almost exactly the same as their local food (rice was grown there) except I would have beans and they are not local. Otherwise, the same.

This meant that I ate what they ate.

Other times, I would hire Efe and maybe one Lese to go with me to the forest to carry out research. I’d be careful to hire them for limited amounts of time to not disrupt their lives too much, but there was very little difference between them working for me and, say, getting honey during honey season. I would only ask them to work with me for a few hours a day and they would otherwise forage. On these trips, I brought more food, for them, because our geographic location and the work we were doing interfered with their normal food getting activities, so I made up for that. But still, during these times we ate plenty of forest foods.

So, what do the Efe (and their Lese compatriot) eat?

Locally, the plant diet is insufficient nutritionally, and often, children are undernourished. There is a hunger season during which the plants from the forest and gardens are rare or absent at the same time, and this is often the death season. No one dies form starving, really (though that apparently can happen) but they have another dangerous disease, and the lack of food may put an ill individual over the top. During one bad hungers season, a small family attempted mass suicide, and mostly succeeded.

Locally, there is no beef, or as is the case a couple of hundred clicks away in most directions, commercially harvested fish. They have goats but the are ceremonial and seem to be never eaten. The Lese have chickens, a few, and they are eaten now and then. The wild animal foods they eat are incredibly important. Without that, they would be in very bad shape.

The most common animals they eat, as in day to day and mundane, are a form of antelope called the Blue Duiker, and monkeys, usually Mangabeys. During a certain season they eat a fair umber of another animal, like but not exactly a duiker, called a water Cheverotain. But since food supply is so unpredictable, they are always on the lookout, and they eat everything. A song bird or bat that flies too close may be batted down with a machete, a Honey Badger that stumbles up on a group of resting Efe may be chased own, an Elephant Shrew that happens on a camp will be dispatched by an archer and cooked up. The only time I ever saw the Efe not go after an animal that happened to show up is when a small herd of elephants came along, and the Efe made a lot of noise to chase them off, while at the same time making plans to hide in the nearby hide-from-the-elephant trees (yes, they have them.) And snakes. Something odd going on there with snakes (see below).

One of the focal points of my research was to look at how animals reacted to the Efe’s presence, and it is striking. Since the Efe will kill and eat almost anything they encounter, most of the animals are very careful to avoid the Efe, and even the Efe’s habitually used trails.

There is a certain amount of elephant hunting. Pygmies, generally, are the African elephant hunters, and apparently, have been so for a very long time. The importance of elephant is very under-appreciated by most experts. The data show that most of the food the Efe eat is plant food, and animal food makes up a percentage of their diet typical for tropical or subtropical African hunter gatherers. But those data never include elephant. I’ve estimated that the total amount of elephant meat they eat over medium periods of time, left to their own, is about the same as all the other meat combined. This happens because when someone does kill an elephant (a rare event compared to the daily killing of a duiker or other more common mammal), everyone from everywhere shows up and gorges on that meat for a few weeks.

So, even though most researchers would classify elephant as uncommon in their diet and therefor not a major contributor to the diet, they’ve simply got that wrong. It is a big deal.

Beyond that, the range of animals is huge, because the number of species native to the area is huge. Oddly, the Efe I was with (and these were more than one distinct group) didn’t seem to eat snakes, tough I know that others do. These Efe also often have a particular species of snake as their totem animal, and you don’t eat your totem animal. So, maybe that is the reason.

Because Efe live the life they live, one without the privilege of access to unlimited supplies of cattle flesh, swine meat, domestic birds, and commercially caught or raised fish, they have a wide dietary niche. Because they live in a remote part of the African rain forest, this list includes a lot of animals many may have never even heard of, or that most regard as exotic, though they are very common there. They live a life where the plant foods often fail them, and collectively do not provide a sufficiently nutritious diet, so they do not have the privilege of eschewing meat, and in fact, perhaps with the knowledge that meat is the real hunger-killer in their environment, they prefer to spend as much time as they can chewing meat.

And I spent a lot of time sharing their culture and ecology with them, and in so doing, had the privilege of getting much closer to truly experiencing another culture than most ever get. Close enough, in fact, to know that I wasn’t even close, and knowing that is a privilege the dilettante missionary or subscriber to National Geo can not have.

Aging: Even Opie. An evolutionary perspective

I’m not going to say that Ron Howard is old or anything, but he isn’t Opie any more. (And, in fact, it has been fascinating and inspiring to watch his career, by the way.) Anyway, Howard produced a new documentary with National Geographic called “Breakthrough: The Age of Aging, which premieres Sunday, November 29 at 9 pm et on National Geographic Channel. And, pursuant to this, National Geographic’s web site is sponsoring a Roundtable on the topic. The roundtable addresses the question, “By treating aging as a disease are we just prolonging the inevitable or can we change the course of our lives?”

The short answer to this is, I’m not really sure, but I think it is helpful to put aging, and changes in human patterns of aging, in a broader anthropological and evolutionary perspective.

LOS ANGELES - Priya Balasubramanian studies the science of aging.??(photo credit:  Asylum Entertainment)
LOS ANGELES – Priya Balasubramanian studies the science of aging.??(photo credit: Asylum Entertainment)
People have long lived long, even hunter gatherers in the Stone Age, as to modern hunter gatherers. In fact, hunter gatherers may have had longer and healthier lives than some of their errand cousins who went and invented agriculture and animal husbandry. In some cases we know from archaeology that populations engaged in early experiments with agriculture experienced dramatic decreases in overall health, and presumably, life span. This may have been a combination of larger groups sharing more diseases, unsanitary conditions developing in a more settled lifestyle, and a diet based on a smaller range of foods one ends up when casting off the foraging way of life. Eventually, in regions where this has been observed, things got better, either as a result of cultural adaptation or genetic changes.

When we look into the past, it is too easy to compress our ancestry into a caricature of primitive humanity, and based that conception on the wrong model. For example, it is said that “people were shorter back then.” Often, that is true, but the shorter people were actually poor urban dwellers in late medieval European settlements where diet was poor and disease demanded more energy of the immune system than average, so growth was sacrificed. If we look at pre-agricultural foraging populations, we often see relatively tall people. This is a bit enigmatic because so many modern forager groups are short statured. The explanation for that is probably that forager groups who are still around today, or have been extant over the last century or so, eek out their existence in relatively marginal habitats, the better parts of the landscape taken over by farmers and herders.

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See: “If this was the Stone Age, I’d be dead by now”
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So, we should expect that prehistoric lifespan varied across time and space, and as I noted, there were probably always elderly people, but just not too many of them, compared to today. It has become axiomatic to note in modern day conversations that many of our diseases, in the West, are “diseases of civilization.” This is a combination of health effects, but one of the most important is the lack of disease of the past because they have been addressed, at least for now, at least for a subset of the human population. Antibiotics alone probably allow a much larger proportion of the human population to survive long enough to experience age-related disease.

A good part of Howard’s documentary is about the science of aging. We want our scientists to figure out how to beat aging, or at least, slow it down. But this is not easy. Humans are primates, and primates are mammals. The very earliest mammals probably evolved to die young. That seems counterintuitive but it really isn’t. Life History Theory predicts that organisms will be selected to produce some sort of balance (or bias, imbalance) of three major energy shunting systems: growth, maintenance (including the immune system), and reproduction. Humans reproduce slowly, producing one (or two) offspring at a time, and putting a lot of effort into each one. This goes along with a long lifespan, because in order to produce a small number of high-quality offspring one must take some time. This, however, places additional demands on the immune system. In order to keep up with evolving microbes and the overall ravages of time, we need to spend a fair amount of effort on keeping from being too sick. And, we happen to be large, for a primate. That probably relates to predator pressure and a few other factors. So while we are selected to live a long time compared to the average primate (and certainly, the average mammal) we can only go just so far.

But perhaps more importantly, we (humans, and to a somewhat lesser extent, primates in general) are modified versions of mammals, and there are indications that mammals were never originally designed (by natural selection) to live long lives. Early mammals were probably small, and small goes along with a short lifespan in the mammalian world. Remember, those early mammals were living along side dinosaurs! (There were large early mammals but modern mammals, including all the more recent large one, probably evolved from a subset of them that were on the small side.) In a world where the smallest dinosaurs were larger than the largest mammals (or close to that) mammals were probably more often prey than predator. The best strategy if the most likely cause of death is being scarfed up by something larger is to live fast, have one or two litters of offspring, and do the whole “circle of life” thing really fast.

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See: How Long Is A Human Generation?
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One strong piece of evidence that a live fast and die young strategy applied to early mammals is the fact that mammal females are born already containing all the egg cells they will ever produce. This is the primary determinant of reproductive lifespan for human females. Organisms that are born ready to reproduce tend to have that strategy of rapid early reproduction followed by an early death. One of the more extreme examples of this is aphids. Aphids have two modes of reproduction, but in one of them, female aphids are born gravid. While human females are not born pregnant, they are born with the eggs ready to go.

Not only have humans (following the primate lead) extended their lifespan and slowed down their reproduction, but they ave added, apparently, another phase of life: Post reproductive. Human females in foraging societies around the world are productive members of their families after they have stopped being fertile. This seems to not make sense from a Darwinian perspective. Why not just keep reproducing until you die? Probably for two reasons. First, they can’t, because human lifespans are already extended to the limit of our phyolgeneticaly constrained abilities. Second, that post-reproductive period probably enhances Darwinian fitness. Studies have shown that elder women in foraging societies contribute significantly to the health and wellbeing of their own children’s offspring. Grandmothers are an adaptation!

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.