Monday, March 10, 2008

The path to civilization?

As hunter-gatherers moved into non-tropical environments, women had to give up food gathering, this kind of food procurement being untenable during winter. So women shifted to food processing, such as butchery and carcass transport, or to activities unrelated to food, such as shelter building, garment making, leather working, transport of material goods, etc. (Waguespack, 2005).

This was a key advance in cultural evolution. Among tropical hunter-gatherers, everyone is primarily dedicated to food procurement. All other activities are secondary. Among temperate and arctic hunter-gatherers, women no longer procure food during much or most of the year. They can thus dedicate themselves to a broader range of activities beyond those of hunting and gathering.

Paleoanthropologists usually attribute this cultural advance to a chain of events initiated by the advent of agriculture: 1) farmers were able to produce a food surplus that could be stored for future use; 2) this food surplus fell under the control of high-status individuals; 3) these individuals bolstered their power and prestige by giving food to underlings in exchange for various services (waging war, keeping written records, creating works of art, building roads, temples, monuments, aqueducts, etc.); 4) the recipients were thus freed from the daily quest for food and could fully dedicate themselves to other tasks; 5) these tasks were developed to a degree that would have been impossible in an economy devoted primarily to food procurement (Testart, 1982).

Except, except … even before agriculture, some of these tasks were already being developed far beyond the immediate needs of food procurement. We see this especially with the construction of large structures, the so-called megaliths. In eastern Turkey (Nevali Cori and Göbekli Tepe), large circular ceremonial complexes have been dated to 11,000 BP, when agriculture was at most incipient. In Ireland (Carrowmore), some megaliths have been dated to 7400 BP. This would have been in the Mesolithic and long before agriculture (Megaliths – Wikipedia; Rowley-Conwy, 1995).

The advent of agriculture is often portrayed as the key moment when humans set out on the path to civilization. Could this interpretation be mistaken? Could we be looking at just another consequence of a cause that lies earlier in time? Perhaps both agriculture and civilization originated in a technological revolution that began once women had moved out of food gathering and into a much wider range of tasks. Perhaps women were the ones who acquired the skills that eventually took humans beyond a subsistence level of existence.


Rowley-Conwy, P. (1995). Making first farmers younger: The West European evidence. Current Anthropology, 36, 346-353.

Testart, A. (1982). The significance of food storage among hunter-gatherers: residence patterns, population densities and social inequalities. Current Anthropology, 23, 523-537.

Waguespack, N.M. (2005). The organization of male and female labor in foraging societies: Implications for early Paleoindian archaeology. American Anthropologist, 107, 666-676.


Anonymous said...

Perhaps women were the ones who acquired the skills that eventually took humans beyond a subsistence level of existence.

Are you trying to prove that women are superior to males?

Each cultural innovation likely spurred further evolution and caused additional selection, however, it would also seem likely that tool making permitted things to be done that were not anticipated by their original makers.

In a like fashion, later on when agriculture was in full swing some nomads discovered that it was easier to take food than to grow it.

Jason Malloy said...

Among paleoanthropologists, this cultural advance is usually attributed to... 4) the recipients were thus freed from the daily quest for food and could fully dedicate themselves to other tasks; 5) these tasks were developed to a degree that would have been impossible in an economy devoted primarily to food procurement

What makes me skeptical of this "freed from the constant toil for food" belief is Table 3.12 on page 64 of A Farewell to Alms. According to Clark's data, the typical male hunter-gatherer works about 3-7 hours a day. Obviously that leaves plenty of hours freed to develop a wide range of skills.

Perhaps the incentives to develop skills were different, but I don't see how the "no time" argument holds.

Anonymous said...


No, I'm not trying to prove that women are superior to men, or that one group is superior to another group. I'm like the little boy who just wants to know WHY.


I don't have Clark's book, but the data sound like they come from Marshall Sahlin's book The Original Affluent Society. I agree with Sahlin's main point that hunter-gatherers work less than agriculturalists. But he greatly overstates his case. Arctic hunter-gatherers, like the Inuit, certainly don't work only 3-7 hours a day.

Criticisms of Sahlins may be found at: Wikipedia - Original Affluent Society. Below is an excerpt:

Sahlins' argument relies on studies undertaken by McCarthy and McArthur in Arnhem Land, and by Richard Lee among the !Kung. These studies apparently show that hunter-gatherers need only work about twenty hours a week in order to survive and may devote the rest of their time to leisure (Sahlins, Affluent). However, Kaplan points out that it can be difficult to distinguish between work and leisure in hunter-gatherer societies as members of these societies do not have jobs or employment. Lee did not include food preparation time in his study, arguing that "work" should be defined as the time spent gathering enough food for subsistence. But, Kaplan argues, if work is defined as mere subsistence, people in Western societies would do hardly any work at all (Kaplan, 2000:313). When work is seen as all life-sustaining activity, the !Kung will be observed as working for more than forty hours a week (Kaplan, 2000:308).

Some anthropologists claim that the studies Sahlins relies on are far from representative of the people they observe. The Arnhem Land studies observe groups of only nine and thirteen over a period of one or two weeks. Moreover, McCarthy herself admitted that the individuals used in one of the studies were picked up from a mission station and were accustomed to using the food available at these stations (Bird-David, 1992:26; Kaplan, 2000:305).

Lee's study is also alleged to be a poor representation of a hunter-gatherer society. Kaplan argues that as the investigation only covered a four-week period, it is in no way representative of the living conditions of a whole year -- especially as there are significant differences in climate between the wet and dry seasons (Kaplan, 2000:507). Moreover, Lee discovered that the !Kung he studied occasionally worked for wages or grew their own food (Bird-David, 1992:26). Hence, it is claimed that the society studied is far from "purely" hunterer-gatherer.

Anonymous said...

The notion that hunter gatherers can survive on very little expenditure of effort (3-7 hours per day) seems deeply flawed to me.

If such an environment existed, human groups would be fighting to get into it. Indeed, modern technological societies, it seems to me, come closest to that ideal for some of us. What I do each day is very unlike work.

Anonymous said...

Since humans are very good at monkey see, monkey do, any innovation by any individual has a chance of being incorporated into the social repertoire of a group ...

Anonymous said...

I have a problem with the almost teleological language that is employed, because the shorthand obscures some important points, I think.

It is not that those women who lived outside the more benign (close to the equator) regions decided to focus more on pair-bonding.

It is that those women whose genes predisposed them to focus on pair bonds in those regions where women could not be self-sufficient were the more successful, reproductively speaking (not just in being able to give birth to children, but in being able to rear their offspring to reproductive ages and have those offspring make pair bonds).

In the same way, women in regions where they can be self sufficient but whose genes predisposed them to focus on pair bonds are most likely to lose out to other women who don't.

It even seems likely that there will be a region where both strategies can be successful, but moving away from that region, one strategy or the other is likely to be more successful.

Anonymous said...

I believe that human decision-making initially drove much of this switch from female self-reliance to male-female interdependence. Women and men together pushed the phenotypic envelope of human behavior to make pair-bonds stronger and longer-lasting. Then, over time, selection would have favored men who were less predisposed to polygyny and women who were predisposed to stronger pair-bonding.

In other words, circumstances forced men and women to act in a way that ultimately exposed them to a new regime of selection pressures, one that selected for monogamy, high paternal investment, and stronger pair-bonds.

In evolutionary theory, this is referred to as the Baldwin effect or genetic assimilation