In the past couple weeks I’ve encountered two new books from people who should know better claiming that our big brains and social systems are rooted in hunting. This is the bad penny of origin stories — Man the Hunter. It is time someone bites down on this one and shows once and for all that there is just no value to the tale. There are quite reasonable people who start discussing humanity from this beginning and end up with logic hash. It’s annoying. A perfectly good idea about us can be ruined by the slightest whiff of Man the Hunter. Because Man the Hunter doesn’t fit reality — not what we know of our past and not what we’ve arrived at in the present. You can’t get from Man the Hunter to here. I believe Man the Hunter is A Man sent back in time to explain A Man’s world to the rest of us. But A Man’s world is just not real, so Man the Hunter is similarly just… wrong.
There is a bit of the egg/chicken problem with A Man and Man the Hunter in that there may have been reverence for the latter that fed into creating the myth of the former. Perhaps there is an old cult of Man the Killer, Man the Dominator, something along those lines, that led to the idea that humans are intrinsically hierarchical, violent and carnivorous, a collection of A Men. But it’s also possible that all these ideas about humans — more precisely, men — are not old at all and stem from the Enlightenment views of racism and misogyny that are wrapped up in the birth of A Man. Man the Hunter may be an origin myth we’ve recently fabricated from no historical evidence other than that there were some empire-building male humans who dominated other humans — well after Man the Hunter was supposed to be hunting.
This narrative is rather ahistorical. But it’s also rather physically unlikely. So let’s consider the evidence, shall we?
First, our bodies are decidedly ill-equipped as carnivores. We lack sharp teeth and claws. We have hands that are suited for holding and shaping malleable materials and jaws that grind and chew, not rip. We have strong muscles, but not organized into a physical shape that allows for rending within our hands and mouths. Our jaws and hands are rather small when compared to those of true carnivores, and we lack the pointed and serrated edges necessary to rip things open. Our dentition and our hands are simply not adapted to tearing and slicing, but rather grinding and molding. Meat, even well cooked, requires tearing and slicing to reduce it to manageable volumes for swallowing.
Our alimentary column, particularly the throat, which contains both the trachea and the esophagus and which does not expand to accept large volumes, is not well adapted to meat-eating. It is a tube that wants a mostly liquified sludge containing very small chunks. Even the chemistry of our saliva is oriented toward quickly breaking down sugars and starches for swallowing, not proteins — which doesn’t happen until the small intestine. Anyone who has ever taken too big a bite of turkey breast meat knows that our mouths are not very good at turning meat into manageable volumes for swallowing. Most choking happens on meat.
And this is how we ingest cooked meat. Raw meat takes even more tearing and ripping to cut it down to swallowing volumes because the proteins are still intact, not denatured through heat. But there is very little discussion of just exactly how Man the Hunter cooked his kills so he could, in fact, swallow the tiny portions that his body will accept. So let’s consider cooking.
It takes about five hours at a constant temperature of about 350°F to cook a twenty pound turkey sufficiently. This is not merely to kill the bacteria — which itself is not an insignificant point. Just like today, microbes that could sicken and kill us existed in animal flesh in Paleo times and needed to be killed before we introduced them into our bodies. We don’t have powerful antimicrobial chemistry in our digestive tracts anywhere, let alone in our saliva like most carnivores. But just as importantly we need to soften meat, denature the proteins and break down fibers, just to be able to put manageable sized portions into our mouths. So, five hours at rather high ambient temperature — that is, an enclosed space that allows the hot air to surround the meat. How do we produce that much heat? How did our ancestors?
It takes me about a cubic foot of hard wood in an efficiently designed cast iron stove to generate those temperatures over that amount of time. And even then there is fluctuation, cooling that reduces the cooking efficiency and lengthens the cooking time, as the logs burn down and new ones are placed in the stove. Man the Hunter did not have an efficiently designed cast iron stove. Nor did he have much technology that would have allowed him to cut hard wood. There aren’t a lot of saw blades in the archeological record. Fire fuel was largely dried dung, grasses and brush, and downed wood — where wood existed at all. (Humans are a grassland species. We mostly lived where there wasn’t a lot of wood.) Downed wood, as opposed to cut and dried wood, is going to be smaller in heartwood volume. It has more bark that does not burn efficiently relative to interior wood that does. It’s also going to be rotting and damp. Much of the heat-generating capacity in a 2” diameter branch of naturally fallen wood — still a thick chunk of wood relative to a technology that doesn’t include saw blades — is going to be exhausted merely in drying out the wood sufficiently to burn.
But let’s say there was fuel to cook a twenty-pound chunk of meat. There is still the heat-containment problem. Cooking over an open flame is romantic and makes wonderful smells, but it’s not at all efficient. Nor is it sufficient to cooking anything of large volume relative to surface area. (Ever grilled a whole chicken on an open fire? Ever going to repeat that experience?) Our ancestors undoubtedly used fire pit roasting. This involves digging a hole of sufficient size, lining it with dry and non-flammable materials, and placing all the fuel that is going to be necessary to cook the thing in the bottom of the pit before cooking even begins. There is no door on a fire pit. The meat is buried. And for the meat to be heated, it has to be above the burning fuel. Heat does not sink even in an enclosed space (as anyone who has put the rack too low in a non-convection oven knows). A cubic foot of hard wood is needed; this is probably something close to a third or less the volume of brush, grass or dung necessary to generate the same heat as hard wood. Let’s say three cubic feet of fuel in the bottom of the pit arranged so that it will burn all that fuel over a long time period — so basically a deep stack. The meat to be cooked goes on top of this stack, probably somewhat separated from the burning fuel by a layer of clay or shale or the meat will just char. (“Char” being physically inedible in addition to being nutritionally useless, perhaps even dangerous.) Then the pit needs to be sealed with a sufficiently thick layer of non-flammable material to contain the heat but not catch on fire. If you’ve been doing the math in your head, this is an annoyingly deep pit to dig and a large pile of stuff to acquire — just to cook a large bird.
The meat apologists are now squawking, “But they would have butchered the meat first. They didn’t put the whole animal into the fire.” True. Our ancestors did have a large array of tools for cutting soft tissues into smaller portions. They would have quickly figured out that small volumes and large surface areas cook faster. (And taste better, but taste is its own chicken/egg problem… do we like it because that’s what our body needs or because that is what we have grown accustomed to tasting because that’s all we can produce? But anyway…) Yes, they would have cut up the large bird into quicker cooking volumes. But they still needed to cook all twenty pounds at once because all meat had to be cooked as soon as possible after killing the animal so that decomposition didn’t introduce microbes into the meat that would sicken humans. A carcass starts rotting as soon as blood flow stops. Cooking needed to happen very near the kill site. And the meat needed to be butchered before cooking. Also the fuel needed to be gathered, the pit needed to be constructed, and the fire needed to be started. It’s likely that it needed to be brought to temperature before putting in the meat and sealing the pit. You can see that this is a lot of preparatory work. Any meat-eating had to be planned out maybe days in advance of actually killing an animal. Or the animal needed to be of a size and degree of accessibility that it could be popped into an existing fire pit as needed. This probably means animals like fish, frogs, lizards, birds, rodents and rabbits. (I’m pretty sure we’ve always eaten rabbits. Much as they taste like crap.) Probably insects as well. (Though… yuck…)
Have you ever butchered anything larger than a turkey — say, a goat? How long did it take? Did you have the animal skinned and gutted for you first? And how long did that take? How many different blades did you use and how would that have been different with rather blunt stone tools? I do wonder if complete butchering happened for larger animals. Yes, the meat cooks more quickly in small piles, but removing the meat from the inedible tissues on a raw carcass is very difficult. It’s much easier to strip cooked flesh off a bone. But then you have to have a huge pit with all the requisite fuel on the ready every time you kill something. So I just don’t know. I suspect this indicates that we didn’t often eat large animals.
But Man the Hunter only kills big things.
So let’s imagine butchering a mammoth. This is the animal that always jumps into our head when we romanticize Man the Hunter. It’s big, hairy, and had those huge tusks, making it into a Worthy Opponent without actually making it into something that would have won most conflicts with puny Man. (Notably, Man the Hunter does not chase down bears and rhinos and alligators.) So we think Mammoth when envisioning the typical kill. Leaving aside the woefully inadequate technologies for actually penetrating mammoth hide and flesh sufficiently to kill the beast before it trampled or gored Man, imagine trying to cut up that carcass with nothing but stone tools. How many people did that job take! And now then, we came up with a rather large pit just to cook twenty pounds of bird flesh. A mammoth weighed 6 tons. That’s 12,000 pounds. (Interesting aside, in looking up that average weight just now, I also learned that hairs on mammoth hides reached lengths of three feet. Imagine just how impenetrable that hide was!) So anyway, twelve thousand pounds. That’s somewhere around four to five hundred turkeys — roughly adjusting for all the hair and tusks and other bits that are stripped off before butchering. This is a Really Big Fire Pit… in a world without shovels.
The meat apologists are now silently making fish faces.
But then, once that miraculous feat is accomplished… how many people are needed to eat eight to ten thousand pounds of flesh before it goes bad? Even in the glacial temperatures required for mammoth herds, that’s a whole lot more than a small band of cave folk. I’m sure meat was frozen and desiccated for storage — today a process that involves slicing meat thin, smoking it or otherwise cooking it and then freezing it. I don’t even have a clue what you would do with a mammoth.
But let’s say our superior ancestors did. Say they managed to chop, dry and freeze a mammoth. I highly doubt they could have sliced it thin enough that human jaws could bite into this mammoth jerky. It was probably closer to pound-sized chunks. And you can’t eat frozen and desiccated meat any more than you can eat uncooked meat. These chunks probably needed to be cooked to rehydrate them and soften them into a texture that humans could swallow. A mammoth would have generated thousands of pounds of meat to be kept frozen until it needed to be cooked. This massive pile needed to be stored away from where the humans lived (as, presumably, the living space was kept above freezing). And yet it needed to be protected from true carnivores and other scavengers. Then those pounds of meat needed to be extracted from the frozen pile (itself not an easy task even with fancy butcher paper or large tropical leaves, neither of which existed in the cave-folk pantries). They needed to be chopped into even smaller portions, probably while mostly frozen to prevent spoilage. And they needed to be stewed in some water-bearing container over a fire. I don’t know how long this would take, but looking at modern jerky I suspect it would be over an hour to rehydrate a pound.
This whole process would need to be repeated several thousand times for every mammoth carcass. And it would produce several thousand meals that needed to be consumed within a few months. Typical bands of humans in Paleo times were on the order of tens — a large extended family and some extras. And now let’s remember that mammoths only lived in the frozen lands, where human populations were lowest. (Still are lowest even with climate control.)
This is a lot of food for a lot of people. And a whole lot of work for that food, most of which required specialized conditions, tools, and planning. All to produce meat that our ancestors could have easily obtained from rodents and rabbits and birds. Do we really believe they would have preferred the mammoth headache? This seems unlikely to me. This seems like a story that is not based in reality at all. This has all the markings of A Man propaganda narratives.
We romanticize Man the Hunter. He goes out to track his prey… and let me just stop there to say that it really doesn’t take much tracking skill to find a mammoth herd… in the snow… He fiercely and expertly brings down the kill… and then next we see a fawning group of mostly naked women and children happily eating meat-ish stuff on sticks while Man preens nobly in the midst of this adulation, staring off into the center distance, apparently dreaming of the next kill. Think about all those museum dioramas we’ve assembled since the 19th century, all the anthropology and history textbook illustrations. Don’t they all look like this narrative? Nary a fire pit to be seen. (Similarly, these images are also of green and grassy terrain, not at all the native territory of mammoth.)
Who cooked all that mammoth? Who dug the pit? Who butchered the carcass? Who cut the fuel and carried it to where it was needed? Who made all the tools to do all that? Who invented all that process to begin with!
Who does all that still?
I think it’s safe to assume that Man the Hunter is a fiction. This did not happen. It is illogical to the extreme. Humans eat plants mostly. Our bodies are experts at processing plants, especially fruits and seeds, into nutrition and energy. Our minds are uniquely adapted to maximize production of these plant stuffs. We are gardeners. All our cooperative and planning skills were honed in acquiring the plant foods that we craved. It takes far more mental capacity — memory, observation, deduction — to gather plant foods than to kill an animal. Just to know what will kill you in a pile of similar and seemingly innocuous leaves takes more brain power — and knowledge sharing! — than all the hunting skills put together. (Now, add mushrooms to that pile…). Then one must know how to turn all those plant fibers into food — because all plants have defense mechanisms that need to be neutralized before eating, often before merely handling the plant very much. Our brains and hands and jaws are made for this though. We’re mainly herbivores. Or more specifically, frugivores, since we can don’t eat much in the way of leaves.
But even of the meat we did consume, was it A Man provisioning the group? Does Man the Hunter ever cook food for others? Does he even cook his own food? Not that I can see in the stories. Does A Man provision his tribe now? Is making edible food even part of his mythos? Nope. He might be a farmer, because that involves tools and dominating Nature, but he doesn’t turn those materials into edible food. A Woman gets to do all that, in myth as in life. And in the mythos, it’s a large group of mostly naked women who are doing all the work… while A Man cogitates, staring pensively into the middle distance, in the midst of universal adulation.
Sorry for the snark. But try growing up female and even partially observant. These are the stories we are force-fed from infancy, and they do not make any sense. In truth, they conflict violently with lived experience. Talk about cognitive dissonance! These stories erase the real story that we all can see all about us. This is intentional. These stories exist solely to denigrate all not-A-Man in order to maintain the hierarchies EuroWestern men have created. Not only are the people who did the work erased, but the actual work done — the necessary process behind turning a mammoth into food — that’s all erased. We don’t even notice that the logistics are impossible because there is no discussion of the logistics! Because it’s not real. Hunting a mammoth is a myth that illustrates man’s superiority. There may actually have been some mammoths slaughtered, but Man the Hunter was not involved. He is like Hercules. A story about men. A story about men with power over everything else.
See what a big thing I have killed…
But it’s women who do most of the work.
And I really doubt your average cave-wife would have relished tackling all the energy-sucking headache and backache and stomachache involved in turning a mammoth carcass into food.
Nor is she all that changed today, though her conditions, her actual lived experiences, are worse now. Sure, she has better tools and more resources, but it still takes a lot of work to provision and feed her tribe. Work that is largely unpaid, almost universally disrespected, and these days crammed into the few hours she has free from wage-earning labor. EuroWestern males have wrested control over all those provisioning resources and now she must pay them to bring those things home (and pay for the home…). And A Man is just not that helpful. Most of his activity is not centered on provisioning but on doing things to create more wealth which, in theory, is supposed to be spent on provisioning but in practice seldom is. No, it’s largely spent on status signaling — acquiring big shiny things of no practical value. And a good deal of it is not spent at all, but just piled up in the ether as zeroes on a bank account. A Woman is largely responsible for earning the wages to spend on provisioning and still does nearly all the labor involved in acquiring provisions and turning those provisions into food, shelter and clothing. And all this work, and the workers doing it, are all inferior to A Man. At least the cave wife was respected and valued, and the work she did was rightfully acknowledged as central to life.
I am a feminist. By which I mean that I believe that females have the same rights as males and males have the same responsibilities as females. I do not believe that feminism requires me to want to go out and work in male occupations with equal wages and benefits to the males. I do not want to work in male occupations. I don’t want most of those occupations to exist. Male occupations are why we are in this social and ecological mess. There needs to be an end to male occupations. And particularly the idea that those who work at them deserve respect and compensation at higher levels than those who don’t. I don’t want a man-job. I’m not even convinced that I want man-wages. I want man-respect for doing all the real work in life.
How does an equitable economic system accommodate me? (Well, so far, it hasn’t, but…) I wash the clothes and do most of what food preparation gets done in this household. I do all of the cleaning and what might be called comfort-creation. I do quite a lot of the repair work and keep tabs on all that needs doing outside my skill set. (OK, I admit, it’s not “outside my skill set”; it’s outside my desire to develop those skills.) Living as I do in an old house, I am directly engaged with keeping it warm in the winter and cool in the summer. I monitor pantry and dry goods stock and even when married did most of the acquisition runs. I plan time and resource use and generally implement those plans. I do all of the work on the property outside the house, including all the gardening and caring for other animals.
When married if I had not been doing all this work, it would have fallen on my partner to do it. And frankly, he can not do it as well because he lacks the skills and experience and intuition both native to me and nurtured over a long time. (Also he lacks the motivation to develop those skills in the same way as I am unmotivated to learn how the television works.) So he would not live as well. Moreover, he would not have as much time at his disposal to go out and earn wages. He would first need to meet his body needs or find someone to pay to do it for him. And therein lies the heart of the feminist complaint. Why should I do for no compensation what he would otherwise pay others to do?
Well, first of all, because I enjoy doing it and benefit from it being done. But the problem is not that I do the work. It is not even that I do not get paid wages to do the work. It is that I do not receive respect nor even recognition for doing the work that is the foundation for all the man-job work done outside the household. This is the base labor in life. Really, it is the only important labor in life. And it deserves respect and recognition as such. But I do not agree that monetary remuneration equals respect. Well, I wouldn’t argue if society suddenly deemed care work worthy of six figure salaries. Except I believe that salaries — the very idea that labor is done for wages which then pay for all the body’s needs — are wrong. I don’t believe that money should be the object of labor. I believe that meeting the needs of the body, of my dependents, of those I care for, of all that I can affect, is the only object of work. I don’t want property; I want health and well-being.
We call our spouses partners with rather delicate emphasis these days. But we do not recognize partnership. My partner received all the monetary compensation; I was allowed to depend upon him but not entitled to an equal share in the compensation by right of our partnership nor by right of my supporting his ability to go out and claim that compensation. If I walked into a business and said I am going to pay Partner #2 for services and exclude Partner #1 entirely, it is likely I would be shown the door. And yet, businesses regularly pay Partner #2 wages and ignore the existence of Partner #1 and the essential role played by that person in making the wage-earning labor possible.
Moreover, it is likely that if my partner had been homeless, he would not have the high-wage-earning job he does. His ability to acquire that position is dependent upon all the amenities that living in a home provides — good health, good grooming, good reputation, ease of communications, and so forth. So he owes his wage-earning ability to the existence of this house. Does that not sort of imply that the house owns him? Does this not turn private property on its head?
What if we were to treat the household as a business? It is, in fact, a corporate entity that is engaged in labor, manufacture, service provision and much other busy-ness. The household, the corporation, would be the base entity. The householders would be management, workers in the corporation. If there are wages, such earnings would accrue to the household. But it would be much more equitable to do away with much of the man-job wage earning and instead simply have more males engaged in the real work of maintaining the household corporation — maintaining themselves — and giving back to all they depend upon. Labor would not earn wages; work would not accumulate property; property would cease to exist as an own-able thing. Work would be done to maintain life. Not make illusory money.
The funny thing about this is we dread living like this because we fear the drudgery, the endless tasks, the quiet desperation. We call it regression, the opposite of progress. We think of living without the pursuit of property as short, brutish and generally uncongenial. But there are many points to be made of that view. First, work is only drudgery and quiet desperation in the absence of respect. We choose what to respect and what to disregard or disparage. We also choose to ease the labors that we choose to respect. (“If men got pregnant, there would be an easier way to deliver babies”, and all that sort of thing.) So there would be no drudgery and likely there would be less intensely uncomfortable labor if all the labor necessary to living were respected and engaged in by all people as equitably as possible. I suspect cave-wives lived much more comfortably than I do because they didn’t have to do as much simply to gain respect, to be valued as living beings. They were valued intrinsically. Work was done just to maintain the living.
Second, progress is Not A Thing. There isn’t a state of living that, for all beings, is intrinsically superior to others and that all humans strive to achieve. My happy place is not your happy place and is no less happy for being so. It is no better nor worse than yours. And this is true for all happy places. Ergo, progress, implying a state X where X>Y for all states Y, does not exist. Now, there are some conditions we would do better to avoid — or diminish where avoidance is impossible. But these conditions exist now and have existed in the past and will exist in the future. There is no steady march away from all badness, even where badness is universally acknowledged. (And there is precious little bad that is not relative.) Moreover, what is commonly meant by progress is pretty much not in the universal good column. For this culture, progress is largely defined by increasing acquisition. More wealth. More stuff. More. More. More. This is not progress; this is not bettering our states; this is largely waste. We don’t have infinite needs. I don’t even believe that we have infinite wants (though we do seem to be infinitely persuadable — until we possess the thing we were persuaded to acquire). More than what we need is waste; it’s trash. It is certainly not the straight line to better-than-before.
Third, give me an example of a wage-paying job that is not drudgery, endless task, and quiet desperation. In fact, there is far more bullshit in wage-work than in working to maintain your body directly. Significantly, in taking care of your own needs, you are doing things that are good for yourself. Wage-work does not benefit you. Not even monetarily. Your time is far more valuable than your money. You can do for yourself for less money than what you have to spend to pay others to do for you. But truly, when the squawkers are trotting out the regression argument, I think it is just defensive. Nobody wants to be doing most of the wage-work out there. Wage-work is not an improvement over care-work. It is just as boring; it is frequently painful; and most of it — those jobs that pay hourly wages, not salaries that are based upon status rather than work done — earns just as little respect as care-work. With the further disadvantage that care-work makes you feel good and usually contributes to your physical health and well-being, whereas wage-work normally makes you feel like shit.
Next, there is no evidence to suggest that having more stuff makes life any longer, less brutish, or less miserable. Our culture is mired in unhappiness, sickness, and misery. And let’s dispense with the idea that we live longer than our ancestors; lifespan is an average, friends. When more young women and babies die in childbirth and more young men die in violence, the average span of life is dragged down. If we make childhood less lethal, we are rewarded with a longer average lifespan. This is maybe not something worthy of much back-slapping. (“See? We don’t kill our young anymore! Yay us.”) And even that is not entirely true. A large number of humans still die young; we’re just better at manipulating statistics and off-shoring child mortality.
Finally, this whole story of A Man bringing home wages to provide for his tribe is a fiction. It is not real. This story is told so that we maintain A Man and his status structures. Wage-work supports A Man and all his fancies. It does nothing to support us. Most wage-paying jobs are not accomplishing any work, most of which — cooking, cleaning, caring, producing food — does not pay any wages. And quite a lot of this necessary work does not get done when women need to focus on bringing in income in order to pay someone else to do the care work. Wage work is bad for us — but good for A Man. Indeed, wage-work is necessary to his existence.
But even worse, wage-paying work is bad for the entire planet. It is focused on buying and selling at ever increasing levels in order to “grow” capital. This requires producing more stuff we don’t need with resources we can’t afford to use and making damages and waste we’ll never be able to rectify. Wage-work is not good for us, but it’s also not good full stop. We all know this; we feel it every morning as we go off to do it and worry about it every night when we’re supposed to be at rest. We know we aren’t living good lives. But it’s an ineffable knowledge because there is quite an infrastructure of obfuscating narrative built up by A Man to keep us from recognizing the root of our discomfort — him — and to keep us from seeing how good we could have it if we just stopped working for A Man. Even better, if we just got rid of A Man. Because I for one am tired of doing the work to take care of him.
In truth, I believe our Paleo ancestors had a much easier life. They took care of themselves. They did not engage in busywork done merely to earn wages to pay someone else for the resources necessary to take care of themselves. Minimal work was done to meet needs directly. There was no mammoth hunting done just to bolster status. Moreover, the work that was done was respected. Look at all the tender representations of Mother, Woman, Provider, and Earth in ancient art. Meeting the needs of the tribe was a noble occupation and a majestic purpose. Not because of status, but because of real physical well-being. A Woman produced life through her work. This was and is still the highest worth.
We need to reclaim our true past and create a future in which the care that nurtures life is the only work necessary, where money and hierarchies and all the other fancies of A Man are thrown on the compost heap, and where all work is done by and for all people. We need to jettison Man the Hunter and all the dioramas of adulation. We need to focus on what brings the greatest well-being to all of us. We need to live, and we need to live well.
And there simply is no place for A Man in that good life.
©Elizabeth Anker 2021
For those interested in the practicalities of cooking without a kitchen, Christine Dann shared this video from Massey University (University of New Zealand) on How to Cook a Hangi (a traditional Maori feast). This is special occasion cooking. Just the cooking process takes about five hours. They have constructed the holes, gathered all the fuel and other materials, and completely prepared all the meat before cooking. Most of the materials used in this video — from the fancy wire racks and cabbage leaves to the shovels and lighters — of course would not have been available to Paleo folks. So dial up the work load accordingly in your mind. Then note that this is a feast, producing quite a quantity of food — and yet, this still falls well short of the volume of work involved and food produced in hunting a mammoth.