Did Meat Eating Help Shape Society?

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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