Meat Brains and Human Culture
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Steak, sex and society, August 25, 2001 With a wealth of primate research supporting his thesis, Stanford argues that meat is an essential element in human evolution. Although not the older and simpler "Killer Ape" hypothesis of some years ago, Stanford sees meat hunting and consumption as the foundation of human society. Meat also acted as a basis in developing the resource voracious human brain and associated communication skills we developed. Among those primates who consume meat, its acquisition remains a male-dominated activity. However, instead of resulting in inexorably male-dominating societies, meat distribution and consumption results in complex negotiation patterns in which females play significant, if not equal roles. This concept suggests humans must seriously reassess their role in Nature. Urging that humanity's lineage is far from linear, he presents a good overview of recent studies. Although the number of definitive fossils is meager, they still demonstrate that our primate roots are not in doubt. The struggle by researchers to properly place humans within the larger animal community has been stoutly resisted by many, both scholars and the lay public alike. Feminist anthropologists, in particular, have striven to displace the male dominated academic group with excessive roles of females in various primate cultures. Some have stretched the idea to the point of seeing females as the true source of language, nutritional foods and even tool making. Stanford addresses these suggestions as mostly unrealistic. Instead, he notes how meat plays a major role in mating scenarios, granting females an active role in selection. Acquiring meat may be accomplished through various strategies, from opportunistic scavenging to actively seeking prey. The true hunter, he contends, must develop a sophisticated array of skills in pursuing meat - prey location, stealth, communication, and the tools able to kill and process. Once obtained, the distribution of the kill becomes an essential element in societal arrangement. He reviews many forms social structures have taken, from selfish monopolization of the kill to the hunter himself receiving but limited return for his effort. What the hunter does gain in all societies is respect and recognition of the group. For Stanford, this is but one indication of the diversity encountered in all primate societies, human and otherwise. The only universal is the hierarchical structure resulting from the hunting role. While hierarchy is the norm, dominance doesn't necessarily follow. In this study, Stanford examines the many social structures primates have developed. These range from nearly solitary, such as the orang-utan, to both male-male and male-female bonding strategies. These elements are essential to understanding the roots of human societal structures. As an example, in primate societies, in contrast to many other animals, it is the female who migrates from the natal group. Stanford doesn't follow this to suggest that dowries and bride-bargaining derive from this behavior, but the inference is clear. Indeed, part of the value of this book is his restriction to biological patterns. One need only accept that humans are included in the primate community. Stanford's book may raise some hackles, but it's far too important an idea to dismiss lightly. He's a skilled enough writer not to get bogged down in a pedantic rendition of the evidence or his conclusions. With the large number of works on the vagaries of human evolution appearing in recent years, finding worthwhile books can be a daunting task. Rest assured that The Hunting Apes is worth your attention and investment. Future research may modify it slightly, but is unlikely to supplant it. --This text refers to the Hardcover edition.