hunter gatherer

Early human societies were egalitarian – male dominance emerges only with agriculture and more resources

Sexual equality might be the mark of a civilized society, but it’s definitely not a new thing. In fact, there’s much we can learn from our so-called primitive forefathers and foremothers, who likely lived in closely bonded communities where sexes shared equal influence and contributions, according to a study published by a team at  University College London. The researchers investigated modern hunter-gatherer communities, one in Congo and the other in the Philippines, then constructed a computer model. Their model showed when only one sex had influence over how the group migrated for food or who lived with whom, the close community crumbled and did not reflect what was actually happening in reality. The researchers believe sexual segregation and male dominance in most cultures appeared following the advent of agriculture, as more resources became available.

hunter gatherer


“There is still this wider perception that hunter-gatherers are more macho or male-dominated. We’d argue it was only with the emergence of agriculture, when people could start to accumulate resources, that inequality emerged,” Mark Dyble, an anthropologist who led the study at University College London.

“Sexual equality is one of a important suite of changes to social organisation, including things like pair-bonding, our big, social brains, and language, that distinguishes humans,” he said. “It’s an important one that hasn’t really been highlighted before.”

While hunter-gatherers show a strong preference for living with closely kin, in practice however the groups they comprise are made of few closely related individuals. It’s a paradox, one that would later be explained by the British researchers. The researchers first gathered genealogical data from the two hunter-gatherer communities by assessing family relations and  migration patterns. They also performed hundreds of questionnaires with the hunter-gatherers themselves. Both groups – Agta and Mbendjele BaYaka hunter-gatherers- are made out of 20 members or so – which is just about the right size for mobility and group survival – and move from place to place every ten days, sharing game and any fruits gathered.

The researchers then built a model in which they simulated a similar camp, only one where males dominated decision making, as is typically the case of pastoral or horticultural societies. Under this assumption, there were much more related individuals inside the group then when men and women have an equal influence.

“When only men have influence over who they are living with, the core of any community is a dense network of closely related men with the spouses on the periphery,” said Dyble. “If men and women decide, you don’t get groups of four or five brothers living together.

According to the authors, in these sort of communities – which were basically the standard when our early human ancestors started roaming the land – sexual egalitarianism may have provided evolutionary advantages like closer cooperation between individuals and wider-ranging social networks, which aren’t restricted by kinship.

“It gives you a far more expansive social network with a wider choice of mates, so inbreeding would be less of an issue,” said Dyble. “And you come into contact with more people and you can share innovations, which is something that humans do par excellence.”

Only when more resources became available, did sexual inequality emerge according to their hypothesis published in Science. This may quite be the case, if we’re to judge from how these sort of people live. Women are involved both in collecting honey and hunting, albeit not as much as men, but at the end of the day, despite there’s a division of labor, the calories each sex brings to the table is fairly equal. In both groups, monogamy is the norm and men are active in childcare. Sounds like a happy family, a fashion that may have been sidelined by greed.

“Men can start to have several wives and they can have more children than women,” said Dyble. “It pays more for men to start accumulating resources and becomes favourable to form alliances with male kin.”\

via The Guardian

4 thoughts on “Early human societies were egalitarian – male dominance emerges only with agriculture and more resources


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