wiser today

A man should never be ashamed to own that he is wrong, which is but saying in other words that he is wiser today than he was yesterday.

Richard Wrangham

Catching Fire

A common requirement among Native American hunters was for boys making their first kill to carry their prize back to camp and stand by while others cooked and ate it. The practice symbolized the subordination of men to the demands of the group. More often, he divided his food himself. The community might allow him to make personal choices about who to give meat to, but not necessarily. In the western desert of Australia, every large hunted animal had to be prepared in a rigidly defined fashion when it was brought to camp. The hunter's own share of a kangaroo was the neck, head, and backbone, while his parents-in-law received a hind leg, and old men ate the tail and innards. The contrast with women's ownership of their foods is striking. Although women forage in small groups and might help one another find good trees or digging areas, their foods belong to them. The sex difference suggests that the cultural rules that specify how women's and men's foods are to be shared are adapted to the society's need to regulate competition specifically over food. The rules were not merely the result of a general moral attitude.

A woman's right to ownership protects her from supplicants of both sexes. In Australia's western desert, a hungry aborigine woman can sit amicably by a cook's fire, but she will not receive any food unless she can justify it by invoking a specific kinship role. It is even more difficult for a man. A bachelor or married man who approaches someone else's wife in search of food would be in flagrant breach of convention and an immediate cause of gossip, just as a woman would be if she gave him any food. The norm is so strong that a wife's presence at a meal can protect even a husband from being approached. Among Mbuti Pygmies, if a family is eating together by their hearth, they will be undisturbed. But when a man is eating alone, he is likely to attract his friends, who will expect to share his food.

Under this system, an unmarried woman who offers food to a man is effectively flirting, if not offering betrothal. Male anthropologists have to be aware of this to avoid embarrassment in such societies. Cofeeding is often the only marriage ceremony, such that if an unmarried pair are seen eating together, they are henceforward regarded as married. In New Guinea, Bonerif hunter-gatherers rely on the sago palm tree for their staple food year-round. If a woman prepares her own sago meal and gives it to a man, she is considered wed to him. The interaction is public, so others take the opportunity to tease the new couple with jokes equating food and sex, such as, 'If you get a lot of sago you are going to be a happy man.' The association is so ingrained that a man's penis is symbolized by the sago fork with which he eats his meal. If a man takes his sago fork out of his hair and shows it to a woman, they both know he is inviting her for sex. In that society, for a woman to even look at a man's feeding implement is to break the rule against her constrained food-sharing.

Because interactions occur in public, a husband's presence is not necessary to maintain customary principles. The husband's role is important not so much for his physical presence, but because he represents a reliable conduit to the support of the community. If a wife reported to her husband that another man had inappropriately asked her for food, the accused would be obliged to defend himself to both the husband and the community at large.

This may explain one of the reasons why marriage is important to a woman in these societies. Among the Bonerif, as among many hunter-gatherers, sexual intercourse is not tightly restricted to marriage. Wives are free to have sexual relations with several men at the same time, and may do so even when their husbands protest. Furthermore, they get little food from their husbands. But marriage means that her children will be accepted, according to anthropologist Gottfried Oosterwal. In addition, marriage gives a woman access to the only ultimate authority, which is the set of communal decisions reached by men in the men's house. These decisions represent the 'crystallized view of everyone about everything' and are accepted as the right view by the whole community. Having a husband means that when social conflict arises, a good wife has an advocate who is a member of the ultimate source of social control.

A link to the communal authority is critical, because the ability of victims to deter a bully or a persistent pest depends on their being a legitimate member of the community. Hunter-gatherers deal with braggarts, thieves, and violators of other social norms in a consistent way, according to anthropologist Christopher Boehm. They use communal sanctions. Whispers, rumors, and gossip evolve into public criticism or ridicule directed at the accused. If the offender continues to incur public anger, he or she will be severely punished or even killed. The killing is done by one or a few men but will be approved by all the elders. Capital punishment provides the sanction that most completely enforces hunter-gatherer adherence to social norms, and it is in men's hands. Thus by virtue of being married (or, if unmarried, by virtue of being a daughter), a woman is socially protected from losing any of her food. Having a husband or father who is a legitimate member of the group, she is effectively protected by him.