Easy Chair — From the June 2015 issue

Shooting Down Man the Hunter

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Sooner or later in conversations about who we are, who we have been, and who we can be, someone will tell a story about Man the Hunter. It’s a story not just about Man but about Woman and Child too. There are countless variants, but all of them go something like this: In primordial times men went out and hunted and brought home meat to feed women and children, who sat around being dependent on them. In most versions, the story is set in nuclear units, such that men provide only for their own family, and women have no community to help with the kids. In every version, women are baggage that breeds.

Though it makes claims about human societies as they existed 200,000 or 5 million years ago, the story itself isn’t so old. Whatever its origins, it seems to have reached a peak of popularity only in the middle of last century. Here’s a chunk of one of the most popular versions from the 1960s, Desmond Morris’s The Naked Ape:

Because of the extremely long periods of dependency of the young and the heavy demands made by them, the females found themselves almost perpetually confined to the home base. . . . The hunting parties, unlike those of the “pure” carnivores, had to become all-male groups. . . . For a virile primate male to go off on a feeding trip and leave his females unprotected from the advances of any other males that might happen to come by was unheard of. . . . The answer was the development of a pair-bond.

This narrative, in other words, traces the dominant socioeconomic arrangements of the late Fifties and early Sixties back to the origins of our species. I think of it as the story of the 5-million-year-old suburb. Proto-human males go off — all of them, since apparently none are old or sick or sitting around talking about the fantastic eland they got last week. They go out all day every day, carrying their spears and atlatls to work and punching the primordial time clock. Females hang around the hearth with the kids, waiting for the men to bring home the bacon. Man feeds woman. Woman propagates man’s genes. So many of these stories, as women anthropologists later pointed out, are worried about female fidelity and male power. They assuage these worries by explaining why females are faithful and males are powerful: monogamy is exchanged for gobbets of meat.

I learned something about this bizarre fantasy of evolutionary biology at the end of the Nineties, while writing a book about the history of walking. I came across the work of physical anthropologist C. Owen Lovejoy, who had been writing about the evolution of human walking in academic journals for over a decade. He deployed a more technically complex version of Morris’s tale about pair-bonds: “Bipedality figured in this new reproductive scheme because by freeing the hands it made it possible for the male to carry food gathered far from his mate.” The walking thing and the hand thing were for the guys. Women stayed home, dependent.

A much-cited essay Lovejoy published in 1981, “The Origin of Man,” actually has a section called “The Nuclear Family,” in which he posits that Man the Hunter — who is more monogamous than Morris’s hunter with “his females” — brought home meat for his faithful ladyfriend and their children, not the whole group. This seems dubious when you’re talking about a big dead animal in warm weather or anything hunted in the company of friends. Wouldn’t you be more likely to share your kill around and maybe have a community feast? In any case, Lovejoy argues that men provided and women waited. Lovejoy theorized about the “lowered mobility rate of females.” In summary: “The nuclear family and human sexual behavior may have their ultimate origin long before the dawn of the Pleistocene.”

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