I have been reading ‘Paleofantasy’ by Marlene Zuk.
She discusses what she terms “paleofantasy love” and she quotes Sarah B. Hrdy and the ‘sex contract’ hypothesis.
Meat for sexual fidelity: the sex contract hypothesis
Hrdy and others suggest that our ancient ancestors traded ‘meat for fidelity’, and this forms the core of the ‘sex contract’ hypothesis. Note: to be fair to Ms Hrdy, I have NOT read her original work, and I am basing any judgements in this blog on the quotes in Marlene Zuk’s Paleofantasy. The notion goes, that as our large brains grew, caveman became smart enough to realise that his best chances of producing offspring that reach adulthood was to provide for his woman while she nurtured the babies, so he hunted the meat, while cave woman sat at home tending the babies, and she gave him sexual fidelity in return for him bringing home food for his kin.
In my uneducated opinion, this is wrong.
I see it this way.
One: Early humans were not all pair bonded in that way. Early humans would have lived in groups. People would have quickly worked out that if every man paired only with 1 woman, had a few kids, and then he had to hunt alone for his kin, then bringing down any large animal would have been immensely hard work. We see from the fossil record that over many thousands of years, as we covered the planet, early humans hunted many large mammals to extinction. In pre-agricultural times, we hunted big animals – we wanted bison, buffalo, woolly rhinoceros, mammoth, rhino, hippo, bear, etc. Men would have hunted in groups, using a combination of brains and brawn to win their prey. Over the last five million years, the mix would have gone from mostly-brawn, to mostly-brain until the domestication of beasts in the Agricultural Revolution.
These men would have used spears, knives, axes, sharpened weapons of all kinds, sticks, logs, counterweights, vines/crude ropes, fire, crude woven nets, and so on. They would have driven prey off cliffs, into corners, down holes, into traps of any kind. They would have hunted in groups to herd or corral the animals into tactically weak positions, then others in the group would have ambushed with spears and finished the kill. Just as a sports team today picks the big heavy guys to push in the scrum or fray and drop the opposition players, and the ball is passed to the fast runners to get it up the pitch, so caveman would have used different men of different abilities to best effect in a group hunt.
So from a hunting perspective, caveman would have hunted in groups, and when, say, anything between six or seven and a dozen men collectively killed a large animal such as a bison, then the whole ‘tribe’ would have eaten well for 24 to 36 hours until the meat ran out, dried up or started to turn rotten.
Two: Yes, caveman did most of the hunting, not cave woman. Males are higher in testosterone, they develop more muscle mass, greater strength (useful when trying to wrestle a 200-pound animal to the ground so you can slit its throat…while the animal fights for its life) and generally greater/stronger/faster physical abilities.
The ‘hardest’ physical tasks – wrestling an animal to the ground, running down a beast, climbing a cliff to raid a bee’s nest, etc., – would likely have been completed most often by men. No stone-age sexism at play, simply they would have been best suited to the job.
Three: Meanwhile, just because men were the hunters, in stone age society, no one would have looked upon men as ‘better’ or ‘superior’ to women in any way. The divisions of labour would have been practical and unquestioned. In case all the scientists missed this vital point, the simple fact is, men are not very good at having babies. The reality is, no matter how much we try, we just can’t seem to get pregnant.
So by default, the women were having the babies. Most healthy women would have likely become pregnant every 3 years or so, and once she reached a certain stage in that pregnancy, her physical abilities would have been restricted. So for several months she couldn’t wrestle beasts to the ground or scale cliff faces, climb trees or sprint through the undergrowth. Then she would have the baby, and again for at least a month or so she would be physically weary, and for several months she would be unlikely to be more than a few meters from her baby at any time. Even then, mothers were required to give breast milk every few hours constantly for the first few years of babies life, until the infant weaned. By default, these mothers could not go out hunting all day, they were needed at ‘camp’, or in convoy, with their babies. So by default of Mother Nature’s grand design, women would not have been active, aggressive hunters for the most of their child-rearing years, whereas men could always hunt. Therefore, the men hunted more, gained more experience, got better. The men would have hunted, the women would have raised the babies. Each best in their designated role.
Both males and females would have engaged in gathering fruits, roots, nuts, berries, insects and more. Both would have been involved in butchering, preparation, fire making and cooking. Humans are socially-interactive creatures. Our intelligence has helped us to understand that we can accomplish so much more if we work in a team. If we didn’t interact and share a large social group (the tribe) we would interbreed to our own destruction, so by default, humans would have lived in sizeable tribes and there would have regularly been friendship and feud between tribal groups, competing for food, or camp location (hilltop, cave, riverside, etc.).
Survival was #1 priority
Four: Our ancient ancestors would have understood that the purpose of our existence, as much as any animal knows, is to reproduce, to survive, to eat, to stay alive and grow. This requires no brains, no logic, no deep and meaningful thought; it is built into every creature at a cellular level. A tree does not have a detectable brain, but its genetic material knows that it must grow straight and tall and high, it must compete with its neighbours, even if it means killing its neighbours, to get sunlight on its leaves. It knows that the further it can spread its branches as it grows, the greater chance of success in dropping its seed/nut to create the next generation. Trees grow tall to ‘win’ sunlight, they grow wide to spread their seed. Survival of the fittest in action. All living things know this at a biological, cellular level.
Early humans were no exception. Early man would have known that team effort is the clue to survival. The whole tribe would have worked together to gather whatever food was available. In winter times that may have been only meat, at other times there would have been abundant fruits, berries, seeds, nuts, roots, leaves and insects. Yes caveman would have eaten bugs, slugs, spiders, beetles, snails and worms, and most other things too. Ummm…paleo diet yummy.
The whole tribe would work together. At times women would have been ‘laid up’ in late pregnancy, perhaps ‘not helping much’, only no-one would have seen it that way. She would have been seen as helping more than anyone, because she was doing the single most important job, brining another new life to the tribe. Far from being seen as not helping, the tribe would have temporarily revolved around helping her…keeping her safe, feeding her and ensuring the baby came out OK.
The birds and the bees
Five: It is my believe that our early ancestors would not have understood the connection between sexual intercourse and making babies. Men would have felt sexual urges all the time, daily I guess, and I am sure the same probably goes for most/many women too. In healthy individuals, sexual urges are perfectly natural. Sex is fun, why not. However, in women, those urges are far more strongly linked to hormones. So a woman would likely have felt sexual urges considerably more when her body was primed and fertile and ready, but she would have felt those urges far less at times when her hormones already knew that conception was not possible.
Now I am not a scientists with long strings of qualifications to my name, so please excuse me if I talk in very plain English now, graphically plain English. The time when a man ejaculated inside a female member of the tribe, and the time she started to show signs of pregnancy, and the times when the baby came out, are so chronologically separated, that I do not believe our early ancestors would have fully understood the connection. In many cases, they just as likely assumed pregnancy was caused by eating a certain meal, a storm in the night, the passing of a season, a certain position of the sun, the presence of a particular flower or blossom, etc. It is my supposition that most men would have mated with any female willing to accommodate him. The men would have wanted sex (vaginal or anal I suspect) with any desirable woman, irrespective of age, whether or not she was pregnant, menstruating, etc. In most cases, but not all, if his first choice refused, he would likely have looked elsewhere.
What’s love got to do with it?
If a pair tended to be bonded as a family unit, raising their offspring together, then they may have preferred to mostly stick together for sex. I do think that love is an emotion that has grown in the human consciousness over a very long period of time. Some other animals do show signs of love. There have been many examples I have read about, from dogs, to horses, to swans, many types of birds, where a pair seem to be bonded in ‘friendship’ or as a loving male-female pair, and then one exhibits extreme signs of withdrawal, loss of appetite, lethargy and so on if the other dies or is taken away. Nature does show us many examples of non-humans who appear to pair-bond for life and mate exclusively and produce offspring together. Humans are not the only species capable of love.
So I believe that love and monogamy have been ‘a process in the making’ for literally millions of years. Then, 1 million years ago, 500,000 years ago, or 100,000 years ago, just as now, we would find some males and some females who were more in tune with these feelings of love, and wanted monogamy, and some who were less bothered, and preferred to play the field. Of course, I (nor anyone else) can’t possible know what the societal make-up of a tribe of 60 or 70 humans might have really looked like 280,000 years ago. Maybe all the men had sexual intercourse with all the women, and maybe with some of the other men too. Or maybe almost all the males and females formed bonded pairs.
I don’t think we will ever figure that out, so the best we can do, it to try to de-construct our modern world and apply common sense to how we think things might have been.
Try to forget the last 13,000 years
Our early ancestors, 60,000 years ago, would not have had any knowledge of the structured, complex society that we live in. They would have no notion of law or status or marriage and divorce. There was no connection between having sexual intercourse, and a baby appearing some nine months later. In all likelihood, several males would have sexual intercourse with each pregnant female until she began to show late-stage signs of the pregnancy – so if ejaculating inside a woman was determined to be the cause of a birth, then ‘last man to visit’ would be the presumed father.
I believe that pregnancy and the arrival of babies, would have been ascribed to other forces, and sexual intercourse would simply have been considered an essential, but mainly fun, activity. Early men, many thousands of years ago, would probably have figured out links between ejaculation and temperament. Intercourse and masturbation may have been banned by the tribal elders the night before a big hunt, in order to ensure the men were primed, aggressive and strong. For all we know, hero’s back from a successful hunt may have spent the evening enjoying all the women they wanted, such rights could easily have been seen as natural reward for a job well done. Perhaps prime young women were given the pick of the best men once they grew breasts and starting menstruating. Perhaps all the young strong me were ordered to have intercourse with all the prime young women as a rite of passage. Perhaps the oldest men were allowed the freedom of all the women, or maybe the oldest women were given the pleasure of all the young men. e will truly never know. Perhaps different such practices were prevalent in different geographic locations over many thousands of years.
So the so called ‘sex contract’ hypothesis which suggests that actual genetic selection took place through pair bonding, is unlikely to be accurate in my opinion. I am sure that feelings of love and connection would have been a part of life for many ‘couples’, and I am sure that if one ‘young hunter/warrior’ thought a woman to be ‘his’ alone, he would aggressively defend her, sexually, from others touching her. Equally, I would imagine the patriarch of the tribe likely had his ‘favourite’ woman, or maybe the strongest, bravest hunter/warrior might have taken his pick of his favourite woman, or women, to be his ‘property’ or to act as his harem.
However, it is entirely possible that such notions are simply constructs in my own mind, based more on the hierarchical society we now know as the norm. I suspect that prior to 13,000 years ago, any hierarchy that existed among humans, like most other group animals, was based on strength or seniority (age and experience). As a male lion dominates his pride, until age weakens him and another upcoming young male takes his place, so human tribes likely had rank among the males and females.
I don’t doubt that love existed, and from it likely sprang jealousy, in turn causing some conflict. But for the most part, I think everyone would have worked for the good of the whole group, and sex would have been fairly openly enjoyed between multiple partners. I suspect that while sexual or romantic jealousy would have been present in large groups, it would have been a confusing emotion for people of limited language. I certainly think that for the most part, it is likely that intercourse was not understood to play any part in the making of babies, therefore caveman bringing home meat from a hunt just for ‘his’ woman seems like a misguided notion. I think that life was tough for the early human animal, and safety, food, warmth and survival was rarely a bundle of laughs. Sex was just about the only free fun available, and would have been suitably enjoyed by all.
Love and marriage in the modern Western world
Six: In the modern context. Many people question the modern Western norm of monogamy. Many say it is unnatural. I would say to those people, if you don’t believe in monogamy, don’t get married, and before you have children, ensure your partner feels the same way, and if need be, have some kind of co-parenting contract signed between you. But if you get married and make a bunch of babies, then after a decade you think you fancy a bit on the side, don’t try pretending it’s your caveman genes making you stray and it’s not your fault. What makes you stray, is what’s in your jeans, not what’s in your genes.
If you decide you want to move on, then move on, get a divorce and then sow your seeds as you see fit. But don’t pretend you’re a caveman, that’s a lame excuse.
Personally, I think the human mind has developed extensively since we settled down 10,000 years ago and since society developed. Before agriculture, humans likely lived in tribes and small semi-temporary settlements. There was no infrastructure, no government, no roads or taxes, no armies or wars, no borders or boundaries other than the rivers, shores and mountains and other territorial boundaries that Mother Nature herself constructed. In those times, the group dynamic made absolute sense. Men would hunt in packs, women would likely help each other with child rearing, and all males and females would work together to ensure survival and full bellies for all.
Mowing my neighbour’s lawn
Since we have built our modern world, over thousands of years we have structured a life built around the family unit. When I look at my ‘local tribe’ – say, the other people that live in my street – I do not see all us men acting together to bring home one collective pay packet for our families. The guy in one house might earn five times as much as the guy in another house next door, and then the next guy along, might work twice as hard as either of them. Since tithe barns stopped being the centre of medieval village life, so we have developed this ‘every man for himself’ society. Accentuating this fragmentation of communal living, we construct walls and fences and hedgerows between our land, and one man rarely mow’s another man’s lawn. My neighbour doesn’t wash my car for me, and I don’t empty his bins for him. I paint my own fence, he digs his own weeds. It’s the way we have now chosen to live.
Neighbours rarely share in collective tasks now, and communities tend not to get together for ‘communal eating’ on a daily basis. All the structures of our modern world have come into being to support individual families. Our shops sell ‘family sized’ portions of food, cars are family sized, houses are designed primarily for families of 3, 4, 5 or 6, and jobs hire individuals, not groups hired together. Coupled with our modern understanding of paternity, the modern world is clearly constructed around the nuclear family.
Traditionally – and let’s not get started on questions of sexual equality in the workplace and all that, let’s leave that for another day – the man goes to work to provide for his family, and the woman devotes the bulk of her productive years to raising the offspring. In this modern structure, we have clearly created much more obvious mental and psychological structures, bonds between a man and the mother of his offspring, between a woman and the male she chose to give her children. The modern family unit leaves no doubt over pair bonding, and I am sure anyone reading this who has built a career, run a home and parented children of their own will agree, there is a huge amount of work involved in building a successful family life, and any couple doing such invests a huge amount of personal, emotional energy into the process.
- Notions such as ‘the sex contract’ hypothesis, in my opinion, are misguided
- Using ‘it was my caveman genes’ as an excuse for infidelity is a joke
- Our ancient ancestors, hundreds of thousands of years ago, would not have understood the link between sexual intercourse and pregnancy
- Our caveman ancestors likely lived in tribes or groups, perhaps anything from a dozen to a hundred in number
- Males would have done the majority of the strenuous physical tasks – big game hunting; heavy lifting and moving to build temporary camps and shelters and defences; fighting off any attacks; climbing big trees and cliffs; etc.
- Females would have provided the bulk of baby and infant care. Females would have likely all helped each other with parenting as required
- All males and females would have helped forage and gather, steal eggs from nests, dig up roots, build fires and tend camp. Males would likely have tutored young males in hunting skills, females would likely have tutored young females in foraging, child care and weaving
- All males and females would have worked together, as a single tribe or ‘family’, all vested in the shared interest of staying fed and raising their young
- It is likely that many males took intercourse with a number of females whenever both parties felt suitably inclined
- Primitive humans with much simpler language skills than we have today, would not have understood ovulation, intercourse, ejaculation and pregnancy. Males would have continued to have intercourse with pregnant females until their pregnancy became very obvious and/or the females objected
- Pair bonding is neither a modern construct nor a deeply primitive ancestral norm, it is something that has evolved over millions of years, but most especially over the last 10,000 years since humans stopped living as hunter-gatherers and began to settle into structured communities
- While many species, not just humans, have shown signs that they are capable of loving – ask any dog owner, and they will tell you, most dogs truly love their owners deeply – I believe that love as a central emotional force in our lives, has become vastly more important to modern man than it was to our ancient ancestors. They were too busy focussing on more basic needs – food, shelter, warmth, survival and sex. Love is a higher, more developed emotion
- In the modern world we now live in, society is completely constructed to support monogamous family relationships – married life. Today, more than at any time in pre-history, the role of the monogamous marriage as the core of the nuclear family, makes practical, financial and emotional good sense.