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."

And it is probably the reason the village has survived all these years. The villagers depend entirely on subsistence whaling. There is no agriculture there, and no commerce. Without some way to capture and harvest whales, their lifestyle would have disappeared a long time ago.

The only way to do that was by cooperating with each other. The norms establish the game rules. Everybody who participates in the hunt shares in the reward, each according to the role he plays. Part of the bounty even goes to the village "corporations" that maintain the hand-hewn wooden boats that carry the whalers to sea.

Those who don't participate don't get anything. So survival of the individual depends largely upon survival of the village, and vice versa. The "norms" that govern the whalers have led to a social structure that may be quite similar to other communities tens of thousands of years ago.

It isn't an easy life. Alvard says the sperm whales hunted by the villagers are so powerful they can pull a boat underwater, threatening the lives of the 10 to 14 hunters aboard the craft. There are stories of whales pulling boats so far out to sea that the men aboard never made it back.

So usually men aboard at least two boats will send their bamboo harpoons into the whale. Working together, they are more likely to tire the whale out so that it can be dragged ashore.

That scene, perhaps with a different animal, could have been common 40,000 years ago at the dawn of an era anthropologists call the Great Leap Forward.

"Something very important happened then," Alvard says. "You have anatomically modern humans going back 150,000 to 200,000 years, but you don't see the cultural sophistication you do at about 40,000 years."

"Rock art, paintings, and evidence of cultural diversity" began to emerge then, he adds. "Something happened, and it probably is related to language and the development of cultural identity and the ability to identify with a group."

Why would it have been important to be identified as a member of a group at such an early stage in human history?

"My guess is it has to do with rules of distributing large game," Alvard says.

No one knows for sure, of course. But far across the oceans in the village of Lamalera, native Indonesians who live pretty much the way their ancestors did so long ago are checking the wooden pegs that hold the hand-hewn planks of their boats together. In a couple of months, the whales will return to their waters, and they will venture forth, as their fathers did, and their fathers before them, to hunt the great whales.

They will do so knowing that each will get his fair share. They know who they can trust. They know how to distribute the blubber once the whale is hauled ashore.

They know the rules of the game. Perhaps it is the same game played so many years ago.

Lee Dye’s column appears weekly on ABCNEWS.com. A former science writer for the Los Angeles Times, he now lives in Juneau, Alaska.

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