Relationships/How Our Ancestors Lived

If human existence were as long as two copies of this book, for all but the last page of the second book—10,000 years—humans lived in small bands of hunter-gatherers. Archaeologists call this era the Paleolithic, or "early Stone Age."

Idyllic LifestyleEdit

The hunter-gatherer lifestyle is better than the agricultural lifestyle in many ways. Hunter-gatherers moved around. They saw new vistas and ate different foods. Most appealing, they met other groups of people. In contrast, farmers are stuck in one place all their lives.

Hunter-gatherer diets were nutritious. They ate a wide variety of meat, fish, and plants. For example, the Yupic natives of coastal Alaska ate more than thirty species of mammals, birds, fish, and shellfish.[1] Starvation was not an issue in places with multiple food sources.

In contrast, agricultural diets are mostly corn, potatoes, wheat, or rice. These starchy foods lack protein, vitamins, and minerals. Better diets made our hunter-gatherer ancestors bigger (with bigger brains) than many modern people.

Men enjoyed hunting. They skillfully crafted weapons. They roamed far from home. They used intelligence to find animals. They used speed and strength to kill.

Women enjoyed socializing while gathering plants, snaring small game, and preparing food. Their children played around them, or stayed in camp with their elderly relatives.

Hunter-gatherers had many hours of leisure. Climates that required minimal shelter and clothing had little of the "housework" of our culture. In harsh climates, people could do little in the winter or during storms.

Small populations lived in large areas. Contagious diseases were unlikely to spread. Changing camps—before waste accumulated—stopped endemic diseases.

Many cultures describe their ancestors as coming from an idyllic Garden of Eden or "land of milk and honey." These ancestral memories may be true.[2]

The Roman Cornelius Tacitus described a hunter-gatherer tribe in first-century Lithuania, as

astonishingly savage and disgustingly poor. They have no proper weapons, no horses, no homes. They eat wild herbs […]. The women support themselves by hunting, exactly like the men […]. Yet they count their lot happier than that of others who groan over field labor.[3]
—Tacitus, Germania (circa A.D. 100)

People continue to live as hunter-gatherers in northern Canada, the Australian outback, and central Africa. Contemporary hunter-gatherers live only on land that no one else wants, e.g., deserts, jungles, or frozen tundra. Their lives are difficult not because they are hunter-gatherers, but because they live on the worst land. 10,000 years ago, our ancestors lived good lives on abundant, temperate lands.

Egalitarian GroupsEdit

Hunter-gatherers were egalitarian. A large animal has more meat than one family can eat. A hunter loses nothing by giving away the extra meat to other families. When the hunter comes home empty-handed, he can expect other men to share their kills. Because hunter-gatherers cannot store meat, they measure wealth by social connections.[4]

Hunter-gatherers could not accumulate wealth. They could not store food. They did not build permanent houses. Each person owned only what he could carry.

With nothing to steal, violence was minimal and warfare nonexistent.

Men and women were equally responsible for producing food. They had equal status in hunter-gatherer societies. Hunter-gatherer societies have fixed gender roles, but everyone learns all basic skills for survival.

Each individual had equal opportunities to speak to the group. Each individual made his own decisions. A band that disagreed about a decision could split into two groups.[5]

Older people were libraries of knowledge, before the invention of writing. A band with an old woman might survive a flood or a drought, because she remembered what people did when a similar disaster happened decades earlier.

Children learned by observing adults, not through rote learning. Adults raised children to think independently. Children had to survive in case of disaster or separation from the group. Because hunter-gatherers live in small bands, boys and girls play together and behave more alike than children in larger societies.[6]

Limited PolygynyEdit

Most hunter-gatherers were monogamous. Most hunters could provide only enough meat for one wife and her children. The best hunters could support two wives (polygyny).

Tacitus described a Neolithic (late Stone Age) German tribe as having

One wife apiece—all of them except a very few who take more than one not to satisfy their desires, but because their exalted rank brings many pressing offers of matrimonial alliances. The dowry is brought by husband to wife […] gifts [such as] oxen, a horse and bridle, or a shield, spear and sword […] she in turn brings a present of arms to her husband.
The woman must not think that she is excluded from aspirations to manly virtues or exempt from the hazards of warfare.
She enters her husband's home to be the partner of his toils and perils, that both in peace and war she is to share his sufferings and adventures.
Clandestine love-letters are unknown to men and women alike. Adultery is extremely rare.
Girls too are not hurried into marriage. As old and full-grown as the men they match their mates in age and strength.[7]
—Tacitus, Germania (circa A.D. 100)

Were Our Ancestors Monogamous or Polygamous?Edit

Biological and anthropological evidence suggests that our ancestral mothers were mildly polyandrous, i.e., women had more than one male sexual partner per birth.

Female gorillas are monogamous. Gorilla testes are one-quarter of the size of human testes (adjusted for body size). In contrast, female chimpanzees average 13 male sex partners per birth. Chimpanzee testes are three times the size of human testes (adjusted for body size). The size of human testes suggests that our ancestral mothers had several male sexual partners per birth.

As noted, the Aché hunter-gatherers are moderately polyandrous, with each child having, on average, 2.1 possible fathers.[8]

Biological and anthropological evidence also suggests that our ancestors were mildly polygynous, i.e., that men fathered children with more than one woman. In polygynous species, e.g., gorillas, males are bigger than females (sexual dimorphism). Males that win fights with other males mate with several females. Male gorillas are twice the size of females. In contrast, among monogamous species, e.g. gibbons, small males breed as often as large males. Gibbon males and females are the same size.

Men are somewhat larger than women, suggesting mild polygyny. This biological and anthropological evidence for polyandry suggest that our ancestors were moderately polygamous (men with more than one woman).[9]

Agricultural SocietiesEdit

Agriculture started about 10,000 years ago. Women planted wild wheat and barley seeds near their camps, so they would not have to walk far to collect grain. But someone had to stay and protect the crops from animals and other people. At first, elderly individuals did this. They spent their time making pottery containers to store grain.

Hunter-gatherer women could carry only one child. They spaced children about four years apart, because a four-year-old could walk all day. Women married as adults, strong enough to carry a child.

In contrast, agricultural women did not have to carry their children everywhere. They spaced children a year or two apart, producing larger families. Teenage girls married and reproduced before they were full-grown.

Agriculture and bigger families caused a vicious circle of increased food, but also increased population.[10] More labour had to go into working the fields, to produce enough food to feed everyone. More men had to farm. Fewer men hunted.

Individuals in agricultural societies became specialized. Some individuals did nothing but make pottery. Others became blacksmiths, shepherds, or soldiers. Specialization increased productivity, but population increases kept pace. Successive generations did not live better.

Animal Husbandry and the Origins of WealthEdit

Farmers owned land. Some land was better than other land. Farmers owned plows and other tools for farming. They owned pottery and buildings for storing food. They built permanent houses, living in one place for generations.

Domesticated animals became an additional source of wealth. Dogs and pigs first came into camps to eat garbage. Children raised baby animals after hunters killed the animals' mothers. Farmers first raised domesticated animals for meat. Over time, men figured out how to harness large animals to plow fields, and to produce milk and wool.[11]

A man who owned a pair of sheep, cattle, or hogs soon had more livestock. A shepherd can watch one hundred sheep as easily as he can watch ten sheep. Economies of scale become possible. Some men became rich—and poor men became their slaves.[12]

Livestock made violence a profitable way of life. Stealing cattle was easy, especially for men skilled as hunters. For the first time, people owned a resource worth stealing. Cattle raids led to killing people, which led to warfare.[13]

Marriage and DivorceEdit

Wealthy men supported larger families. Their wives spent more time producing children, and less time working outside the home. High-status men in agricultural societies had dozens or even hundreds of wives. Because high-status men had so many wives, many subordinate males had no wives or children.

Hunter-gatherer societies accepted divorce. Because individuals own only what they can carry, it is easy to split up. Divorce was economically impossible for farmers. A couple with fields, a house, and a barn could not divide the property in half. The individual who wanted out of the marriage had to leave empty-handed.[14]

Many immigrants to the United States and its western frontier were men leaving their marriages and land, looking for new land and new marriages.[15]

Negative PatternsEdit

By the Neolithic era, we see the negative patterns of our own culture:

  • A few wealthy, powerful men.
  • Many poor, powerless men.
  • Women valued for their ability to produce children, not for their minds.
  • Women confined to their homes.
  • Teenage girls marrying before reaching physical and intellectual maturity.
  • Malnourishment in the best of times. Corn, wheat, potatoes, etc. do not provide balanced nutrition. Starvation in years of drought, flood, insects, etc.
  • Many people living in close quarters spread diseases.
  • Shorter lifespans, due to malnutrition and disease.
  • Long hours of specialized, repetitive, mind-numbing work.
  • War with neighboring tribes.
  • Violence between bachelor men.
  • Children disciplined into obedience, punished for independent thinking, and rewarded for working quietly in a group.
  • Lack of support for teenagers' needs to feel that they are unique, special individuals. Punishment of teenagers who assert their individuality.
  • Old women became useless and disrespected, as books replaced them as sources of knowledge.
  • Poor self-esteem. It is easier to make people work like slaves if they believe they are slaves. A philosopher observed, "The remarkable thing isn't that some men are slaves. The remarkable thing is that some men believe that they are slaves."[16]

Hunter-gatherer societies encouraged some individuals to develop transcendent abilities, e.g., prescience, communication with a spirit world, or physical feats such as firewalking. Speculatively, transcendent abilities could develop in the pre-frontal lobes of the cerebral cortex. Only humans have pre-frontal lobes. This is the most recent brain area to evolve, and, between the ages 15 to 21, the last to develop in each individual (see Emotional Connection). A young person who receives support and guidance from a mentor to develop transcendent experiences might develop pre-frontal lobe capabilities that would otherwise be lost. The institutional religions of the agricultural era may have set back brain evolution.[17]

Cities and CivilizationEdit

Cities developed about 5,000 years ago. Civilization increased social stratification—i.e., the rich became richer, and the poor became poorer.

Village leaders became warlords, then kings, then emperors. Military organizations dominated regions, instead of occasionally raiding a neighboring village.

When primate brain size is compared to the number of animals in social groups, and then extrapolated to human brain size, humans appear to be hardwired for living in groups of about 155 individuals. If we live in a larger community, we put people into groups instead of thinking of them as individuals. I.e., communities of less than 155 individuals do not have "us and them" thinking.

On the positive side, civilization enabled new ideas to spread faster. New ideas breed more new ideas. Competitive individuals try to outsmart each other—making everyone smarter.

A critical mass of people with such knowledge can multiply growth still further—essentially by creating knowledge clusters in which generally like-minded people bounce ideas off each other and compete. This dynamic is one reason why incomes are higher in cities than in rural areas and why nations that are already technologically advanced will quickly become more so.[18]
—Bruce Bartlett

Industrial-Information SocietyEdit

We're living in a third era. The Industrial-Information Age began in 1437, when Johannes Gutenberg invented the printing press.

Better information enabled technological advances—and, in a virtuous circle, technological advances produced better information.

Improved communication enabled oppressed peoples to organize themselves against autocratic rulers. Examples of liberation movements range from the American (1775-1783) and French Revolutions (1789-1795) to the civil rights movement of the 1960s and the women's movement of the 1970s.

Democracy vs. WomenEdit

Democratic revolutionaries replaced aristocracy. The Declaration of Independence, written by Thomas Jefferson, stated, "all men are created equal."[19] Jefferson intentionally excluded women.[citation needed]

This new United States government was going to be the opposite of a court. All of the things that are features of court life—like kings, and absolute power, and courtiers, and the interplay of personal interests, and face-to-face politicking, and influential women—all of those things became anathema to the founders of this brand-new republic. Thomas Jefferson, who had been an ambassador in France, had particularly seen those court women ruling and having control over all kinds of official business, and he loathed it.[20]
—Catherine Allgor, Parlor Politics (2000)

Instead, Jefferson envisioned an open government, with no behind-the-scenes politicking—and no women.[21]

The revolutionaries took power from the old rulers—the few powerful men, and most women. They gave power to the powerless—the majority of men. The United States did not allow women to vote until 1920. Switzerland gave women the vote in 1970. Women aren't allowed to vote today in Saudi Arabia.

Hunter-Gatherer Values in the Industrial-Information AgeEdit

The industrial-information age enables us to return to our hunter-gatherer instincts.

In hunter-gatherer groups, everyone was economically equal. No individual owned more than he could carry. Today, poor Americans enjoy the standard of living—as measured by cars, televisions, air conditioners, etc.—that the middle-class enjoyed a generation ago.[22]

Hunter-gatherer groups had minimal violence. Violent crime is dropping in the United States. Fewer international conflicts occur. By 2100, violence and war may be rare.

In hunter-gatherer groups, men and women had equal status. Women's rights are among the achievements of the past 30 years.

Hunter-gatherers were mildly polygamous. We practice mild polygamy in the form of "serial monogamy." Like hunter-gatherers, we allow divorce.

Hunter-gatherers enjoyed seeing new scenery and meeting new people. Today, working class men and women admire long-distance truckers. Professional class men and women enjoy travel to "unspoiled" third-world countries. We all increasingly appreciate social diversity and the natural environment.

Delayed Reproduction to Reduce OverpopulationEdit

According to some writers, men should have their sperm frozen before 35, and wait until 40 or 45 to start a family, and women should wait until 30.[citation needed]

Older couples have the maturity for long-term committed relationships. They are more likely to have the emotional maturity to raise children.

Providing that economic conditions are good nationally, older couples have accumulated wealth. At least one parent does not have to work.

Couples that marry later are less likely to divorce. Delayed reproduction slows population growth. If a 40-year-old couple have two children, and the parents live to 76, net population growth is zero. In contrast, a 19-year-old couple with two children increases the population seven-fold—when such a couple dies, two children, four grandchildren, and eight great-grandchildren replace them.

Effects of Television on Children's Brain DevelopmentEdit

Before television, children listened to adults telling stories. Imagining a story stimulated a child's cerebral cortex. Vicariously feeling the adult's emotions stimulated the child's limbic brain. Acting out a story (a central activity in Waldorf schools) integrates the reptilian brain, limbic brain, and cerebral cortex.

In contrast, television provides visual and auditory stimulation, leaving nothing for the child to imagine. Children become emotionally attached to television actors, but the emotions are one-way (i.e., the actors do not love the children). Sitting still does not develop a child's reptilian brain.

One hundred years ago, doctors espousing the new germ theory of disease told mothers not to touch their infants. Fifty years ago, doctors told mothers not to breastfeed. Many of these infants died. The surviving infants did not receive the emotional relationships needed for limbic brain development.[23] To future generations, allowing children to watch television may seem as barbaric as not allowing mothers to touch or feed their infants.[24]


  1. Kehoe, Alice B. North American Indians: A Comprehensive Account, 2nd Edition (Prentice Hall, 1992, ISBN 0-13-624362-2).
  2. Ehrenberg, Margaret. Women in Prehistory (Univ of Oklahoma, 1989, ISBN 0806122374), p. 62.
  3. Tacitus, Cornelius. The Agricola and the Germania (Viking, 1971, ISBN 0140442413), 46.
  4. Ridley, Matt. The Red Queen (Penguin, 1995, ISBN 0140245480).
  5. Ehrenberg, Margaret. Women in Prehistory (Univ of Oklahoma, 1989, ISBN 0806122374), p. 65.
  6. Harris, Judith Rich. The Nurture Assumption (Touchstone Books, 1998, ISBN 0684857073), p. 236.
  7. Tacitus, Cornelius. The Agricola and the Germania (Viking, 1971, ISBN 0140442413), 18-20.
  8. Diamond, Jared. Why Is Sex Fun? (BasicBooks, 1997), p.98.
  9. Buss, David M. Evolutionary Psychology (Allyn & Bacon, 1999, ISBN 0-205-19358-7), p. 90.
  10. Ehrenberg, Margaret. Women in Prehistory (Univ of Oklahoma , 1989, ISBN 0806122374), p. 89.
  11. Ehrenberg, Margaret. Women in Prehistory (Univ of Oklahoma , 1989, ISBN 0806122374), p. 81.
  12. Ridley, Matt. The Red Queen (Penguin, 1995), ISBN 0140245480.
  13. Ehrenberg, Margaret. Women in Prehistory (Univ of Oklahoma , 1989, ISBN 0806122374), p. 105.
  14. Fisher, Helen. Anatomy of Love: A Natural History of Mating, Marriage, and Why We Stray (Fawcett Books, 1995, ISBN 0449908976), p. 106.
  15. "California Stories," To The Best of Our Knowledge, Wisconsin Public Radio, January 2001.
  16. I recall that as a quote from Aristotle in one of Charles Van Riper's books. But I searched Aristotle and was unable to find the quote.
  17. Pearce, Joseph Chilton. The Biology of Transcendence: A Blueprint Of The Human Spirit (Park Street, 2002, ISBN 0-89281990-1).
  18. Bartlett, Bruce, reviewing The Elusive Quest for Growth by William Easterly (MIT Press, 2001, ISBN 026205065X, The Wall Street Journal, July 18, 2001).
  20. Allgor, Catherine. Parlor Politics: In Which the Ladies of Washington Help Build a City and a Government (Univ Pr Virginia, 2000, ISBN 0813919983).
  21. Allgor, Catherine. Parlor Politics: In Which the Ladies of Washington Help Build a City and a Government (Univ Pr Virginia, 2000, ISBN 0813919983).
  22. Cox, M., Alm, R. Myths of Rich & Poor (Basic Books, 1999, ISBN 046504784X). The Internet is turning scarcity-based economic rules upside-down, suggesting that Information Age economics will be based on abundance. See Managing Open Source Projects, by Jan Sandred.
  23. S. Provence and R.C. Lupton, Infants in Institutions (New York: International Universities Press, 1962).
  24. Pearce, Joseph Chilton. Evolution's End: Claiming the Potential of Our Intelligence (Harper San Francisco, 1992, ISBN 0-06-250732-X).

How Men Select Women · Monogamy and Polygamy

 v  d  e 
How Men Select Women · Relationships · Monogamy and Polygamy
About This Book · Q&A · Recommended Books
The Science: The Evolution of the Human Brain · How Women Select Men · How Men Select Women · How Our Ancestors Lived · Monogamy and Polygamy · Hormones · Communication Styles
Life Stages: Childhood – Seeking Unconditional Love · Adolescence – Seeking Romantic Love · Adulthood – Families And Forgiveness · Agape – Altruistic Love
Practical Advice: Where Couples Met · Flirting · How to Write a Personal Ad · Dating · Sex · Becoming a Couple · Conflict In Relationships
Personality Types: Emotional Control Systems · Zeus-Hera · Poseidon-Athena · Apollo-Artemis · Hermes-Hestia · Ares-Hephaestus-Aphrodite · Dionysus-Demeter · Hades-Persephone