Most People seem to agree that we cannot and do not want to go back to the past, but the reason given is often wrong; that time has moved on and what was can never be again. The truth is that we cannot go back to what we never left. Our home is the earth, our time the Pleistocene Ice Ages. The past is the formula for our being.
(Paul Shepard)

Friday, 28 September 2012

Women and Children

 Sources on request 
A while back I wrote a largely unread post on a certain vegan doctors assertion that there is an overemphasis on meat in hunter gatherer diets due to cultural prejudices. It is interesting that there is the continual assertion from the vegetables that anthropologists are largely concerned with male activities and overly report on the level of animals consumed (no such criticisms are made about honey which is also largely gathered by men). Condemning the  work of an entire scientific field mostly because you don't agree with their finding is , when you think about it,  staggeringly rude, ignorant and even arrogant.

 I have not really noticed any sexist bias in any of the anthropological papers I have ever read and in general both anthropologists and archaeologists show the same cultural biases of their cultural background, in modern times this would be an aversion to sexism/racism, indeed in the archaeology of the paleolithic there does seem to be a conscious desire to distance the discipline form the commonly held beliefs of thuggish meaty cavemen. Given that dietary studies are based on weighed food stuffs and other objective measurements and that anthropology is subject to the same peer review as other scientific disciplines it is hard to see where this bias would either creep in, or not be undermined by the evidence gathered. That, and many anthropologists are women.
Agta woman hunting
 Anyhow if we accept that provision of food is the most important activity a human can be involved in (ie. we take our culture's overwhelming bias that economic activity is the most important activity) the anthropological data still shows that women's provision of calories contains a great deal from animal sources and that lazy,sexist assumptions about gender roles are not appropriate for most hunter gatherer societies.
 In my last post on this subject I mentioned that hunter gatherer women collect eggs, reptiles, invertebrates  small game and birds and will also drive non-human predators off their kills. Women and children also assist in fishing and shellfish collection. None of these sources of food are minor if gathered in quantity and at certain times of the year are major calorie sources. Stephenson and Marlowe both report that baby birds are eaten in prodigious quantities and are a favourite food source.
 Hadza children are famously self sufficient and can provide a large proportion of calories by themselves from an early age, both by hunting and gathering while the Kalahari San don't even start to learn either hunting or gathering until they are adults. Black Elk, the Lakota Sioux talked of both hunting and fishing as a child and the instruction he received. For children at least physicality seems to be a determiner in how much food can be obtained though at least some cultural factor determines if or when a child starts foraging.
 "Mother and Father gone out hunting and leave us kids in camp when we get hunting we go hunting for little lizard get him cook it and eat him up....Soon as mother leaves little ones go hunting, kill animals...morning again father one he go hunting. All little kids go hunting self...mother go separate from father come back with big mob of animals. (Mardu woman from Kukaja community).
Pygmy net hunter child
 The mardu are a great example of how every member of this Aborginal Australian community hunts. Children are undirected by adults and form creches looked after by teenagers, this is an arrangement common to many hunter gatherer societies. Hunting success is dependent on their physical development unlike in adults where it seems to be based on experience and the children average about 400 calories anhour. The Mikea who dwell in a game depleted forest in Madagascar the children can forage a slightly lower 345 calories an hour (males) but youths can manage a much higher rate. This is from predominantly from tubers but both the Mikea and Mardu can provide far more calories than the more opportunistic Hadza children at 85 calories an hour.

 For children, environment, food resources and culture (mardu youths are considered adults for example) seem to be the biggest determiners of foraging success for different cultures. It is hard to cast such information back in time and any discussion of childhood foraging in the meso/palaeolithic can only really be conjecture. The Mammoth steppe of Ice age Europe was analogous to the African Savannah and the big game hunting lifestyle of H sapiens (determined by archaeology and the average height of the population of which more in the future) would suggest a strategy similar to Plains Indians or the Hadza. Indeed the Gravettian "prince" from Italy had been killed by a big cat and there would be a real risk of predation in Europe at that time. The more temperate environment of the later Mesolithic might have afforded more foraging opportunities for children especially given the importance of nuts and shellfish in the North.The greater threat of violence in some areas may well have curtailed foraging activity as it does for Hadza women who have to watch for Masai raping parties.

 Grandparents help with child rearing in many hunter gatherer societies and childcare is a far more communal activity than in our culture. However nursing infants do restrict female foraging, hunting may need a larger amount of physical strength but I would imagine the distances involved in hunting and the relative high risk of the activity make it unsuitable for women with children. However the Agta women in the Philippines actively hunt animals and indeed do so while carrying nursing infants. Moreover in communal hunts such as bison drives women  could and indeed did play a major role. Steffanson describes Inuit women driving reindeer into ambush choke points, this method of hunting reindeer was used in Scandinavia and the Stellmoor site is interpreted as a mass reindeer ambush.
 Further back in the Paleolithic interpretations of H.neanderthal bones from the Combe Grenal site in France show no difference in the paleopathology of the bones or teeth suggesting that women joined in with the rough, tough neanderthal way of hunting. I know of at least two male bodies from prehistory which show hypertrophy and extreme wear of the right arm and it would be interesting to see if any division of labour could be determined through paleopathology.
Rather than a subjugation of women a division of labour resulting in higher maternal care would be beneficial to the species H.sapiens, especially in an environment where big game hunting is of prime importance, and may well give the species an "edge".
meet the wife!
 So we can see that from the anthropology and perhaps archaeology there exists good evidence of female and children "hunting". The notion that modern evolutionary diets are based on an outmoded concept of hunter gatherer life and that in reality hunter gatherers ate a predominantly plant based diet provided by women runs counter to the evidence that...all hunter gatherers eat a considerable amount of meat in many forms even foraging peoples who are essentially refugees (San) or live in areas with hard hunting. Women and children can provide a substantial amount of calories especially in tropical areas many of which are from animal sources.That even if the notion were true it would not validate a vegan or even vegetarian diet as omnivory is irrefutably the human niche and all traditional societies eat animals. Vegetarianism is only possible through agriculture and specific environmental conditions and veganism is very much a product of the industrial world.
  "Sexist" may apply to some people who eat a "paleo" diet however it cannot be applied to the theoretical framework of the diet and to do so shows a major misunderstanding of the available data.

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