Poles in the Tent

Among hunter-gatherers, men typically do the hunting,  while women gather edible plants.  Men are of course better at hunting serious game,  since they have much greater upper body strength than women, except in the vicinity of Amherst, Massachusetts.

This division of labor affected their relative parental contributions.  In the high Arctic, vegetable foods were scarce and most food was procured by men.  In tropical and subtropical areas, like ancestral Africa,  women typically provided more than half the calories. At least this seems to be the case for recent hunter-gatherers, who live in pretty crappy environments, such as deep forests or the Kalahari desert. Things may have been different in the past, when hunter-gatherers also inhabited the most productive environments.

I’m considering a different question: what was the impact of men’s contribution on their children’s survival and fitness? That’s not quite the same as the number of calories contributed.  Food is not a single undifferentiated quantity: it’s a category, including a number of different kinds that can’t be freely substituted for each other.  Proteins, fats, and carbohydrates can all serve as fuel, but you need protein to build tissue.  And amino acids, the building blocks of proteins, are not all fungible.  Some we can’t synthesize (essential amino acids)  others can only be synthesized from a limited set of precursors, etc.  Edible plants often have suboptimal mixes of amino acids ( too many Qs, not enough Us) , but I’ve never heard of this being a problem with meat.  Then you have to consider essential fatty acids, vitamins,  and trace elements.

In principle, if high-quality protein were the long pole in the tent, male provisioning of meat, which we see in chimpanzees, might matter quite a bit more than you would think from the number of calories alone.  I’m not say that is necessarily the case, but it might be, and it’s worth checking out.

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28 Responses to Poles in the Tent

  1. j3morecharacters says:

    Food is important, but security is vital. Men provide security, primarily against other men. The survival rate of non-biological children in the wild is distressingly low, and even in this PRISM-ed and policed society, living with a stepfather can be dangerous to your health.

    • feministx says:

      I agree. The primary contribution hunter-gatherer males in tropical regions provide is probably protection from other males.

      I am under the impression that for some of these hunter gatherer populations, the women provide the community with the majority of calories (the community, not just the children). In those cases, the men would be consuming the largest share of calories and their contribution to children nutritionally might not even offset what they consume. The Bantu are agrarian, but they say farming is women’s work. I wonder if some bantu communities have a pattern of women working to create most of the nutritional sustenance while men consume more than they provide (maybe that does not happen- I do not know).

      I understand that cultivation led to more nutritious nuts, but shouldn’t it be possible to get enough protein from gathering wild nuts, catching fish and trapping small animals in tropical regions? I don’t think hunter gatherers in tropical places needed to depend on a regular supply of large game for enough protein just to live and function at a basic level. Hunter gatherers in colder regions did probably need to depend on large game though.

      The previous post notes that committed fatherhood is not common amongst mammals, and it is not common for offspring to rely on contributions from the father. Hence, perhaps it is not the case that all human groups have a strong instinct for high paternal investment in terms of attention or resources. Aside from protection from other men, maybe in some groups the contribution of men on their children’s survival and fitness is not much in terms of the direct effort it requires from men.

  2. pauljaminet says:

    Protein was probably the long pole in the tent for Australopithicus and early Homo. By the Upper Paleolithic protein was the most easily acquired, least desirable macronutrient. By then they were skilled hunters of small game and fish with nets and traps and the like, and these tend to be protein rich. It may not be a coincidence that dogs were domesticated around this time, when humans were probably discarding lots of protein after eating fat from animal carcasses.

  3. Living in London, I do not have an intuitive grasp of hunting abilities in Amherst, Massachusetts. In the hope of understanding these practices at a distance I looked at the staff list of Amherst College, and note that in their Physics department the sex ratio is 11 to 1 in favour of males. Presumably physicists are more adept at provisioning high quality protein.

    • He is referring not only to that college, but the Seven Sisters colleges Mount Holyoke and Smith nearby, and UMass Amherst. Plus Hampshire College, I suppose. In any event, these are lesbian and transgender supporting communities, and it is reflected in the area.

      I was just down there for a (boys) lacrosse tournament, but I didn’t see any hunting and gathering, male or female. The men put up the tents, though. Every pole.

  4. brandon says:

    In primitive tribal societies meat is always the most valued food so it looks like people instinctively understand it’s value over other foods.

    • melendwyr says:

      Meat is extremely appealing, taste-wise. So it was valuable at the time selection forces established our taste discrimination, but not necessarily afterwards. It’s possible that meat and fat lost their vital significance long ago but our tastes haven’t changed; admittedly, I don’t think that’s the most plausible possibility, but still.

      In terms of what we crave, though, sugar tops the bill. And sweet things usually aren’t particularly rich in nutrients, just calories.

      • IC says:

        According to Paul Fussell, lower the social class, sweeter the craving. It is no surprise that underlcass consume large amount of sweet food or baverage.
        It is would be interesting to investigate the scientific explanantion. Very likely, underclass adapted to eat plants. Upper class adapted to eat meat.

  5. not_my_subject says:

    I’m wondering about the importance of animal fat to hunter gatherers. If I understand correctly a typical game animal has more edible calories as fat than as protein. There is also the question of micro-nutriental content of some of the fatty organs, at least liver and bone marrow. Hunter gatherer societies eat these parts of the animals. I believe at least vitamins A, K, D are rich in the animal sources, as well as omega3.

    Those nutrients may be vital for northern societies. The Inuit diet was light on plant sources. “Traditional Inuit diets derive, at most, 35-40% of their calories from protein, with 50-75% of calories preferably coming from fat.” Although I understand that the Inuits are an extreme case.

    Fat as a macro nutrient is needed by human beings in itself, and I’m not sure how much plant fat certain hunter gatherer populations had access to.

    • Mr. Rational says:

      Nuts are high in fat (as are certain fruits, such as olives and avocadoes), so meat is not required to get adequate dietary fat.

  6. thrasymachus33308 says:

    Muscle mass- which means the ability to fight and dominate, and thus survive and reproduce- depends first on testosterone, and then on protein. Hunter-gatherers with more access to protein no doubt kicked the asses of those with less. In the old stories, the warriors are always feasting- gorging on protein. Even today access to quality protein is a status marker.

  7. IC says:

    Good thinking. Men-hunters as providers of essential amino acid really make sense. Even just occasional meat meal.
    It has been puzzle to me that hunters spend so much time in wild to get so few successful harvest. It seems that the effort does not match harvest. Now puzzle solved.
    As deer hunter myself with bow, I always wonder where my motivation come from when I endure the bone-biting chill in woods for long hours. Often, my own girl friend was the one motivating me to go out and suffer.

  8. Greying Wanderer says:

    I think other reasons why men hunted and women gathered is it would be hard to run fast with a baby on your back and hard to be stealthy with a toddler whereas gathering is possible even with young children.

  9. Greying Wanderer says:

    How relevant is fire to the relevance of meat?

  10. Greying Wanderer says:

    Third thought – multiple forms of hunting:

    1. Communal like chimps or wolves where hunting requires a group effort and the bounty is shared communally by the group – not neccessarily equally – but communally.

    2. Display. Females may be able to gather as many calories as needed to survive but dull food compared to meat. The males hunt as a form of display and it is shared communally.

    2a. Display. As above but the meat is traded on an individual basis for sex.

    3. Necessity. An environment where females can’t gather enough to keep their offspring alive on their own (or even with grandmother assistance etc) so male hunting is a requirement. Also an environment where a male hunter can’t consistently provision more than one set of children. They might have good weeks and bad weeks but on average they can only consistently feed one set of kids and so need to dedicate themselves to putting meat on the table for one family.

    If meat is critical – which does seem possible – then in all three cases the male contribution to the fitness and survival of their offspring could have been critical. However although pair-bonding could develop randomly in any of those situations it seems to me it is only *required* in the third environment which makes me think the prevalence of pair-bonding traits is likely to vary with ancestral history and be highest among those populations which spent time in that third type of environment.

  11. Matt says:

    Protein’s non-substitutability suggests a minimum threshold of obligate male (or at least hunting and fishing, practically speaking male) contribution to diet, even if more hunting is not optimal for grinding the most calories out of the environment.

    In addition to there being uses protein has which cannot be replicated, protein, I think, is kind of an inefficient fuel, relative to its other uses and compared against the same calories of carbohydrate or fat (which convert more efficiently to glucose).

    This makes me wonder if high relative protein consumption intake morphs tend to be built big, but run cold (metabolic rates), while high carbohydrate consumption intake morphs are smaller, but run hotter. E.g. an Inuit who is accustomed to high relative intakes of protein may build an expensive organ (such as the brain) big, but have to run it cooler, compared to an organism which takes in a similar volume of calories of fuel (grain eating farmers in the less Malthusian societies?).

  12. melendwyr says:

    I’ve heard it said that getting adequate amounts of fat – and especially certain fatty acids – is critical to brain development. And we have an awful lot of brain to develop. Perhaps that’s the issue, rather than protein as such.

  13. md says:

    suboptimal mixes of amino acids ( too many Qs, not enough Us)

    What’s Qs and Us??? And how do we know that they are suboptimal?

    • gcochran9 says:

      There are 20 amino acids, 21 counting selenocysteine. Humans can synthesize some, but not all, amino acids. The mix of proteins manufactured in the human body uses a certain distribution of essential amino acids – such and such a percentage of lysine, such and such a percentage of tryptophan, etc. Suppose that we have plenty of everything except lysine – well, we can’t synthesize lysine, and most proteins require lysine, so we’d be hosed. Suppose we had plenty of lysine but not enough tryptophan – again, we’d be hosed. It’s a bit like letter frequency in English – ordinary prose is about 13% ‘e’s , 8% ‘a’s , less than 1% ‘z’s If you had to write text starting with a pile of letters in which the letter frequencies deviated much from those typical ratios, you would find it difficult. If you had to write text without any vowels, it would be impossible. I sometimes compare the problem of poor-quality proteins, for example lysine deficient as in maize, to playing Scrabble with too many ‘Q’s and not enough ‘U’s.

      • Polynices says:

        Huh. I saw Qs and Us and thought Glutamine and Uracil which doesn’t actually make any sense so I guess I wasn’t actually thinking.

        Thanks for the explanation. The Scrabble analogy is a good one.

  14. I think the high-quality protein theory strongly plausible. I would add, however, that most cultures do not have uniform calorie-acquisition from year to year or even throughout the year. Droughts and disease happen. More especially, raids and incursions happen, especially in times of want. A group’s ability to raid others and repel (withstand, punish) raids itself will matter greatly for survival. Many anthropologists don’t like to call this “warfare,” or even admit that it happened until evil civilised uh, people like you ‘n me came into the picture, but it sure as heck uses a lot of the same skills. Running fast, and throwing or swinging weapons are just as useful in stealing acorns or cattle as in hunting game. It’s calorie acquisition at the time of greatest need.

  15. dave chamberlin says:

    Men not only harvested this hard to obtain and highly desired protein they had to constantly battle to keep their hunting grounds at one third holding capacity in order to survive the hard times. Men didn’t just go hunting they violently protected their territory at all times. Murder is the reason for very low population density of modern man pre agriculture and it is also true for Neanderthals. If you met a stranger you killed him if you could get away with it. I’ve heard estimates of the average Neanderthal population at any one time averaging 20,000 over a vast area. I have to believe such low population totals were caused by hominids being their own worst enemy.

  16. spandrell says:

    Men didn’t hunt individually, they hunt in groups. Did men give meat directly to their own children? Or did they give a chunk of meat to their woman, who then in turn gave it to the children? There’s a big difference there.

    • IC says:

      As a hunter myself, I dislike group hunt. On average, I harvest 2-3 deer per season on my own. Yet, I know plenty of hunters who never be able to harvest even a single deer in their whole life on their own. All of these losers can do is to join a group hunt or camp in order to beg for a piece of venosin. Yes, these losers are incredibly social and kiss my ass all the time. I do give them a small pack if I am in good mood.
      At end, I refuse to join any group hunt even though some many of them invite me.

      Just like any thing in this world, dependency is sign of poverty (strong social skill needed). Only successful one can afford autonomy.

    • Greying Wanderer says:

      The size of game animals being hunted in any particular environment and how much of a group or individual effort was involved would probably effect some of this.

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  18. RS says:

    > According to Paul Fussell, lower the social class, sweeter the craving. It is no surprise that underlcass consume large amount of sweet food or baverage.
    It is would be interesting to investigate the scientific explanantion. Very likely, underclass adapted to eat plants. Upper class adapted to eat meat.

    That could be, but a potentially stronger factor is sugar becoming ever cheaper over the 20th, people getting fat on it, and the taste for it being ruthlessly sexually selected out of the elite (by way of an overweight phenotype).

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