Did Meat Eating Help Shape Society?

Ever wonder why humans evolved into social animals with rules and regulations covering just about everything we do?

Meat, most likely.

Hunting Required Teamwork

The need to work together in an effort to slay large animals, and the necessity of coming up with ways of ensuring that everybody gets a fair meal, probably set the stage for the social evolution that led ultimately to the development of language, followed by the cultural diversity that allowed some early humans to become priests, tax collectors, bureaucrats and, ultimately, science writers.

"Hunting has been very important in the evolution of human nature," says Texas A&M cultural anthropologist Michael Alvard, who believes an isolated whaling village he has been studying in Indonesia lends credence to an idea that has been kicked around for decades by anthropologists.

Our earliest ancestors probably relied more on gathering fruits and vegetables than hunting wild animals, according to Stanford University biologist Paul R. Ehrlich. In his book, Human Natures, Ehrlich notes that our affection for the image of the caveman clad in animal hides going off to slay a giant beast probably has distorted our view of human history. It was easier to collect nuts and berries than compete with lions for a little meat, Ehrlich says.

With a Little Help from Our Friends

But somewhere along the way, all that changed, and somebody got hungry enough to eat a buffalo.

No doubt, it didn't take long for that industrious soul to realize that he could use a little help from his friends.

But that seemingly simple development could have had profound implications for the cultural evolution of our ancestors. If early humans were to succeed at team hunting, they had to develop ways of communicating with each other. They had to figure out how to share in the rewards, and they had to decide who was going to do what. They also needed to know who they could trust, and who was most likely to sneak off into the bushes with an extra steak.

Figuring out how those primitive folks did all that was on Alvard's mind while flying to Indonesia a few years ago. He picked up the airline's inflight magazine and saw a short story about an Indonesian whaling village that had remained pretty much untouched by outside civilization.

Although he had been carrying out research in Indonesia for several years, "I had never heard of these folks," Alvard says. So he went to the village of Lamalera, `"a couple of islands east of Bali," where he found an anthropological candy store.

"These guys were going after very large whales," he says. "They were cooperatively hunting big game, and that has always been thought to be important in the evolution of social organization and human institutions, like the division of labor and sharing and that sort of thing."

Cooperation Is Main Rule of the Game

"Cooperatively" is the key word there. Like early human ancestors, if the villagers of Lamalera succeeded in working together toward a common goal, they had to create institutions and rules that led to that success.

"In our society, everything is written down in terms of rules and laws," Alvard says. "But here, it's all oral norms culturally passed down from one generation to the next. None of it is written down. It's essentially a set of norms that everybody agrees upon, and it's an informal system very different from ours."

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