It seems that our distant forager ancestors beat wives but not kids, and weren’t remotely monogamous. They had huge inequalities in status and sex, but low material inequality, due to generous sharing and few durable goods.  They had little overt dominance or positions of power, and valued trust and honesty greatly.  Justice was personal, with personal violence and suicide rare.

How do I know all this?  David Youngberg and I summarize cultural-anthro data on foragers:

Using an existing dataset aggregated from diverse ethnographies, we collect statistics on the social environment of the studied cultures which most closely resemble our hunter-gatherer ancestors. …

Such foragers have neither formal class stratification nor slavery. While private property is usually present, most forager societies have no rich, and none have any poor or dispossessed.

Food sharing is always common. Compared to the most “modern” societies in the larger sample (which are different from us today), disease stress is similar, suicide and murder are rare, conflict casualty rates are lower, and fewer believe in an evil eye. Violence is never over resources, and when enemies are driven from a territory no one uses that territory.

A person wronged always directly punishes the guilty; they never use a third party. If there is a substantial dispute, one side will likely leave the community. Leaders carefully cultivate support before acting, and none have a formal leadership position. Polygamy is always allowed and usually socially preferred. Co-wives either live together or one lives with a husband while the rest live in entirely different bands. On average, about 35% of men have more than one wife, and 50% of women are in a polygamous marriage (vs. 3% and 7% in modern societies).

People are expected to have premarital sex, which is usually common. Extramarital sex is also usually common, though it is usually not acceptable for women. Adults talk about sex openly. While wife-beating exists, divorce is easy. Boys and girls are equally preferred, and women are considered equals of men.

Mothers are usually the main, but not only caregiver of kids. Relative to modern societies, kids are taught more to be generous, trusting, and honest. Parents more emphasize their love for kids, and kids are never punished physically. Adolescents sleep away from their parents.

GD Star Rating
Tagged as:
Trackback URL:
  • Tom Adams

    How do they control their kids?

    In the last generation or so where I live (USA) there is less physical punishment. Now, parents tend to give their kids attention for bad behavior but it backfires because the attention reinforces the behavior.

    The practice of ignoring bad behaviour and attending to and praising good behavior works:

    I have wondered if primitive societies that did not use physical punishment made more use of praise and directed attention. The native americans had rites of passage that seem to direct attention good behavior.

  • Pingback: Tweets that mention Overcoming Bias : Foragers --

  • Popeye

    It seems that our distant forager ancestors beat wives but not kids,

    I hadn’t realized that our ancestors were all male — this is a fascinating breakthrough, thanks for the heads-up.

  • Popeye

    I would also be interested in making the assumptions here more explicit.

    There is an “ancestral (physical/social) environment” in which many important human traits evolved.
    Over time this environment changed and additional human traits evolved.
    The old traits remained, even though they didn’t quite mesh perfectly with the new environment.
    Although we are modern people who live in an unnatural world, there are still societies that live in natural environments and we can get insight into our older traits by studying them.

    As in almost every attempt to analyze human behavior scientistically, we see a reliance on the distinction between the “natural” and the “unnatural.” I still don’t understand how this distinction emerges scientifically, as *everything* is natural from an objective unbiased viewpoint. But very few people can avoid it. It looks like an example of unexamined bias to me.

    • Jess Riedel

      “Natural” is everything that happened before agriculture. Human have been around for roughly 500k years, but have only had agriculture for about 10k years. Relatively little evolution has happened within the species during that time.

      • Chris T

        Depending on what you mean by ‘relatively little’, the evolution that has occurred over the last 10,000 years has been significant and the effects of many mutations have been dramatic (diet and disease resistance to name two). Our ancestors cannot be used as a baseline for modern humans nor can modern foragers necessarily be used as a proxy for our ancestors.

      • Retardo

        It’s long been assumed that we stopped evolving after we started taking off technologically and socially. In the last few years, we’ve gotten to the point where we can look at the genes and talk quantitatively about how much change there’s actually been. There was a paper a couple of years ago showing that human genetic change has actually accelerated a good bit in the last 5,000 years:

        The reason is presumed to be that in the last 5,000 years, our environment has been changing very, very rapidly. When an animal’s environment changes, different traits become advantageous. It adapts.

        They may be wrong, of course, but AFAIK it’s been well received by people who are competent to judge such things (I don’t claim to be).

        Mind you, nobody sane is saying the last 5,000 years outweigh the previous 1,500,000 years; merely that as arbitrary periods of 5,000 years go, the last one was pretty eventful on the gene front.

      • TGGP

        Jess, I would highly encourage you to read “The 10,000 Year Explosion”. It’s both informative and enjoyable.

      • Jess RIedel

        Everyone: I wasn’t saying there wasn’t any evolution during the last 10k years, or even that the rate of evolution wasn’t much larger than during the previous 500k-1m years. (It seems hard to imagine how the rate wouldn’t be higher.) Nevertheless, the distinction between natural/ancestral and unnatural/modern environments is useful for understanding a lot of modern human behavior.

  • Buck Farmer

    I’ve read references in Steven Pinker’s work to studies of existing hunter-gatherer societies that suggest by contrast that a high percentage of the population could be expected to die in inter-tribal conflict than modern populations.

    Have you seen this work and if so does it reconcile with what oyu have above? (By conflict casualty rates being low, do you mean that conflicts result in fewer casualties regardless of the number of conflicts?)

    • billswift

      There are fewer casualties per conflict, but many, many more conflicts. Or so I remember from Pinker and some other reading (but I think Pinker directly addressed this).

  • billswift

    you might want to be cautious about reasoning from modern hunter-gatherers to ancestral cultures. Modern hunter-gatherers have all been pushed into, or only survived in, marginal habitat. There is no real evidence that those living in less harsh habitat shared many of the same cultural adaptations.

    • Jason Malloy

      “Modern hunter-gatherers have all been pushed into, or only survived in, marginal habitat”

      This is actually false. Once again, Frank Marlowe is the go to guy for Forager Truth:

      To test if forager habitats are marginal we can compare them to the habitats of agriculturalists using the Standard Cross-Cultural Sample (SCCS)… Net primary productivity (NPP) measures yearly plant growth and can be calculated from satellite data… when we exclude those societies in colder climates… forager habitats are not less productive than those of agricultural societies in this sample.

  • rgove

    Parents more emphasize their love for kids

    I really should more read this blog.

    • Marsinah Jawa

      You should read about the Aka people of the Congo, where both parents play a very active and loving role in caring for children (and non-parents in the group also regard it as their role to do the same)

  • Steve Sailer

    “suicide and murder are rare”

    I find the latter highly doubtful relative to say the U.S. homicide rate.

    • Marsinah Jawa

      Doubtful based on what happens in a highly armed, militaristic and imperialist capitalist society? Not very useful evidence, is it?

  • Robin Hanson

    Bill, yes of course we should be cautious, be we should also not ignore the best evidence we have.

    Steve, the comparison is with an large dataset of societies studied; current US rates are extremely low relative to that.

  • Rob

    Yes, the Primal Crime Did Take Place: A Further Defense of Freud’s Totem and Taboo

    Abstract: Recent contributions to the study of the evolution of early human society from its prehuman primate predecessors make it possible to reassess Freud’s theory of the ‘‘primal crime’’ put forward in the fourth essay of Totem and Taboo. Shorn of its antiquated language, and of its unnecessary ‘‘Lamarckism,’’ Freud’s picture of the transition from prehuman to early hominid social structure turns out to have been remarkably plausible and prescient.

  • Psychohistorian

    This is pretty close to how I would imagine, “A Modern Liberal Academic’s Armchair Estimate of How Life Used to Be” would read. That’s not to say it’s necessarily wrong, but it is highly suspect.

    Moreover, generalizing from modern foragers to ancient foragers seems obviously inappropriate. Some large subsection of ancient foragers evolved into agrarian and ultimately modern society. Existing modern foragers are rare and interesting precisely because they never took up agriculture. That sounds like some serious non-representativeness.

    • anon

      “This is pretty close to how I would imagine, “A Modern Liberal Academic’s Armchair Estimate of How Life Used to Be” would read. That’s not to say it’s necessarily wrong, but it is highly suspect. ”

      I agree with this; my guess is that the ethnographers focused their reporting on distinctive features, while not always mentioning features which were shared with modern societies. Given how the data were analyzed, this would result in a biased assessment of forager cultures.

    • Gene Callahan

      “Existing modern foragers are rare and interesting precisely because they never took up agriculture. That sounds like some serious non-representativeness.”

      Only if you imagine that they didn’t take up agriculture because of some intrinsic characteristic of theirs. Diamond makes a strong case that, if they didn’t, it was because the option wasn’t really available to them. (E.g., they lived in the Kalahari Desert, etc.)

  • Hopefully Anonymous

    I think it shows the coolness of what you’re doing (in my understanding of this blog post making a quantitative analysis bridge to a high quality qualitative data set) that most of the criticism in this thread is petty snark.

    Still I hope this work attracts better critics and competitors.

  • Noumenon

    I can’t complain that you’re just inventing what you think foragers were like any more!

    This seems like a lot of work, that should be useful, yet it’s just not as exciting as stories about one particular exotic group. Hence the lack of comments.

  • Pingback: Weds. evening links - Maggie's Farm

  • Melissa

    “Extramarital sex is also usually common, though it is usually not acceptable for women.”

    Define “acceptable”. It’s interesting some of my acquaintances into evpsych “pickup” believe that men are promiscuous creatures and that it should be accepted, whereas women are “naturally” faithful and their straying is unacceptable.

    I’ve read extensively on hunter-gatherer relationships. First problem is that in many of these societies talking to outsiders about such things is not acceptable. Another is that women often are the most reluctant to talk to anthropologists. But in the societies where anthropologists have been able to openly talk about sex, it seems women are just as likely to stray. The consequences are likely to be more severe for a caught women, such as being beaten, but women don’t like their lovers cheating either and the literature I’ve read describes nagging/denying sex/denying food as a consequence for being spurned. You also have to remember that marriage is very different in foraging societies. Some of these marriages would be considered promiscuity in our society since they tend to be dissolved in shorter time spans and people are likely to be married several times.

    Either way, humans, both male and female, like to have sex with many people.

    • Robin Hanson

      This agrees with everything I’ve read, and say in the longer paper cited above.

  • William H. Stoddard

    I don’t think you know what our distant forager ancestors were like. Present-day foragers are low-density populations, and not able to maintain large combat forces as a result, and hence they are pushed out of highly productive land areas onto marginal lands (mountains, deserts, tundra, jungle, remote islands); at the same time, have resource circumscription at work, they are probably denser than foragers during the long period when human beings were spreading out into unoccupied land areas. Some foragers, such as Pygmies, face violence and exploitation by settled populations adjacent to them. Simply to assume that the patterns of social behavior are comparable seems overoptimistic. It’s like the people who talk about humans being “descended from apes” when in fact humans and other apes are descended from common, now extinct ancestors, or so I understand the matter.

  • Dale

    Another issue is how accurate the basic data is. In the two cases where I have read of different ethnographers treating the same society (I’ve read that this is generally avoided so that more primative societies can be studied), the ethnographers sharply disagreed. (Samoa and Bushmen).

  • Jason Malloy

    “On average, about 35% of men have more than one wife, and 50% of women are in a polygamous marriage (vs. 3% and 7% in modern societies).”

    This estimate for polygyny is much too high. The numbers are probably thrown off by the Tiwi. I recommend the work of Frank Marlowe for all things forager. For 36 forager groups in the SCCS he found that about 10% of men had multiple wives, about 20% of women were married polygynously, and about 10% of men were single. The three separate data points line up nicely.

  • Jason Malloy

    Here is the paper for that by the way. Importantly: “Although exclusively monogamous societies are rare, the majority of marriages within all but the most polygynous societies are
    monogamous (mean = 100% – 20% = 80% monogamous)”. This fits in with anatomical and genetic evidence. Contra the recent popular Baumeister claim, the female contribution to the gene pool is substantially similar to the male contribution. The consensus is that humans are a mildly polygynous species.

  • Jason Malloy

    “They had huge inequalities in status and sex, but low material inequality”

    “Huge” is probably an overstatement here, but inequality among foragers is probably larger than popularly appreciated. Several quantitative papers published this year have examined inequality among foragers. Modern Scandinavian countries probably best approximate the level of equality among foragers:

    “Excluding the low coefficients for weight, the Ginis range from ≈0.2 to ≈0.5, and even when weight is included the a-weighted average is 0.25 (table 5). This value is the same as the income inequality in contemporary Denmark (0.25), the country with lowest such value in recent years (UNDP 2009). Thus, to the extent that our measures for this set of foragers are representative, wealth inequality is moderate: that is to say, very low by current world standards but far from a state of “primitive communism” (cf. Lee 1988).”

    (Communist countries, on the other hand, killed a bunch of people to reach a goal of fictional primitive equality.)

  • Robin Hanson

    Jason, we look at the same SCCS dataset, but are much more selective about what counts as plausibly ancestral nomadic forager; we have 5 instead of 36 societies meeting our strict criteria. The overall trend is less polygamy as one moves away from ancestral forager criteria, suggesting that ancestral foragers may have been even more polygamous than even our strict sample shows.

  • Jason Malloy

    “…suggesting that ancestral foragers may have been even more polygamous than even our strict sample shows.”

    I think we can safely reject that idea, Robin. I wouldn’t get carried away with conclusions drawn solely from N=5, much less if it contradicts stronger, convergent lines of evidence about the extent of polygyny in human history.

    While we haven’t strictly examined the data as a continuous variable, your “weak forager” data set of just 7 populations is notably identical to the plausible Marlowe numbers. The numbers become radically different only by dropping the Kung and the Semang, who are marginally “impure”

    M Polygyny/F Polygyny/M Single

    Aranda 60/78/44
    Botocudo 33/55/32
    Hadza 6/12/5
    Kung 10/19/9
    Mbuti 6/12/5
    Semang 1/2/0
    Tiwi 70/90/66

    MEDIAN 10/19/9

    Another point is that the African foragers — who are probably closer representatives of human history– all have mild polygyny levels, closer to what we would expect from the more general evidence of human historical polygyny.

  • Jason Malloy

    Btw, being critical shouldn’t be interpreted as a lack of appreciation for an interesting effort.

  • JP

    I believe some claims you made seems to be an incomplete view of the whole picture.

    For example, you state that our male ancestors beat females. Anthropologist has stated it many time, Both females and males start up conflicts and physically beat the other sex. Arborigen in Australia is a good example of this.

    Also, the male can have more wives because an older male means better security (he knows the rituals, sacred and profaned ground, what is dangerous or not, better contacts since it is a kin-oriented society, etc). It is not because he is a ”girl-collector”. The male is quite often really old when girls are being offered in marriage to him.

  • Commodore Vic

    How do these summaries match up or contrast with what’s been reported about foragers in the book ‘Sex At Dawn’ by Christopher Ryan & Cacilda Jethá?

    • sirhotalot

      You should read Sex at Dusk, it uses the same data to come to a completely different conclusion and does a good job of debunking it.

  • Pingback: Overcoming Bias : Forager vs. Farmer Morality

  • Pingback: Overcoming Bias : Forager Mating Returns

  • Pingback: Overcoming Bias : Pondering Plasticity

  • Pingback: Overcoming Bias : Em Redistribution

  • Pingback: Overcoming Bias : Specific vs. General Foragers & Farmers