When did patriarchy among humans first arise in a form that would be recognizable to the modern man of 100 years ago? According to Richard Wrangham with the Department of Human Evolutionary Biology at Harvard University it was about 1.9 million years ago with the emergence of Homo Erectus. Wrangham’s theory is that the key advancement that led to modern humans was the invention of fire to cook our food. Wrangham points out that in contrast to all other animals humans cannot live with raw food alone in any kind of natural setting.
Harvard Thinks Big 2010
Richard Wrangham – ‘Catching Fire: How Cooking Made Us Human’
The key thing about the invention of fire is that it requires some law and order to make sure that the food isn’t stolen by others while it is in the process of being cooked. Animals usually eat food as soon as they get it but cooking food requires that food be transported to the cooking site and that it then be cooked all without it being stolen along the way. It is the requirement of a higher level of social organization in order to guard the food for cooking that led to patriarchy in its modern form among humans according to Wrangham’s theory.
The below is a transcript from a talk Richard Wrangham gave titled “Sexual Disparities and the Evolution of Patriarchy”. The excerpt below goes from 32:42 in the lecture to 40:11.
“If you want to understand humans, you have to do what you do with other animals. If you want to understand how a flea works, the basic point is blood, it’s adapted to eating blood. Giraffes are adapted to eating leaves or trees. Dolphins are adapted to eating fish. Humans are adapted to eating cooked food, that’s what is special. Do you know why that is important? The reason why that is important is because the way to cook food is to have a fire, and that means you take your food to a particular place.
One of the things that cooking does is soften food, and that means it completely changes activity budgets. If we were a chimpanzee we would be spending about 6 hours a day chewing. After that we’d then be sitting around relaxing like after a Thanksgiving meal digesting our food. But in fact humans spend less than 1 hour a day chewing. What does this do? It frees up tremendous amounts of time. And guess what? It frees it up in different ways for the two sexes.
In chimpanzees, everyone’s busy all the time, they’re basically spending their whole time chewing or resting and the occasional things other than that, but humans in hunter-gatherer and small scale societies are very sexually divergent in their activities, unlike the primates, and you can ask “What do they do with all their spare time? They’ve suddenly saved 4 or 5 hours a day because we’re cooking our food.” The answer is this. What women do with their spare time; they cook the food. What men do with their spare time; they’re mostly hunting, in a hunter-gathering society, but here’s a key difference between men and women. Women have to cook everyday, that’s their job; men can choose what to do. They can go hunting, they can go to war, they can lie under a tree and do important things like chat with other men, they can gamble, they can stay in camp and play with their kids. Women have to go and get the food everyday and they have to cook.
Now, in every society, basically the only exception to this is Western industrial society in urban areas, but in every society around the world you find that women are doing the cooking for the men or the wives are doing the cooking for their husbands. So this sets up the system by which a man; he only has to eat for about an hour a day; can spend all day doing nothing and then come home and then say “Honey, I’m home.” and she has the food for him. So, he can be useful or not useful; it’s up to him. He can go to his girlfriends in the neighboring camp. This is the most sexually differentiated activity that you find across cultural surveys.
OK, so cooking has to be done at a fireplace. What about the fire? The thing about the fire is that it demands a system of social regulation to control competition over food because if we were just like every other animal then we would have all sorts of problems around the food, and actually we do! If you look carefully at ethnographies of hunters and gatherers; of people living in a small scale open society, with fires around, people and their food, then; as a woman turns her back a bachelor might come up and say “Hey, I’m hungry; please may I” or not “please may I” and just takes it. You see there are conflicts and then you see what happens with those conflicts. It turns out, in general, women are able to keep their food They’re able to keep their food even though you’ve got this enforced waiting time while it’s cooking, when people could come up and get it and sometimes the women are old and men are out hunting and doing other things and, the women are vulnerable to having their food taken. The reason that they are able to keep their food is because there are two universal food rules. The first is, if you are a wife it is your obligation to feed your husband. That means if your husband comes back in the evening and the food is inadequate or not properly prepared or just not there at all; if the husband then beats up the wife everybody will think that’s absolutely fine because she made the mistake. It was her fault; she didn’t do what she was supposed to do. The other rule is that a woman is not allowed or a wife is not allowed to feed any other man so that if a man comes and sits by her household; if he just sits there with his hands open or if he’s just looking at the food as if he’s wanting some; that is something that is regarded as inappropriate.
If there are violations of these rules then there is some kind of communal punishment. It might start off with some kind of joshing and some ridicule and if it goes on or the bachelor keeps on doing it or if some husband keeps on behaving badly with another man’s wife or even children then worse punishments will be involved. When these punishments happen it is the decision of the elders, which is the men, who then carry out and orchestrates the punishment.
So you get various and remarkable results from the food rules. The wife’s food supplies are very nicely protected. No one is allowed to eat from it, but she is obliged to feed her husband, so he’s in a great position. The one group that’s not in a great position is the bachelors. The bachelors are always said to be thin, poor, sorry creatures. Of course they want to marry, sometimes you have men going off to marry post-menopausal women because, what do you want a wife for? Actually, food is probably more important than sex in many of these societies.
The significance of cooked food is, first of all, every animal has its feeding ecology that shapes its social relationships. And here we have a unique system of eating and a unique set of problems in terms of regulating competition around the fire and I think we’ve got a unique system as a result. This food protection system in which you have an exchange between a man and a woman where she gives him food and he gives her protection is only made possible by the protection he gets from being part of the male group. That is probably something that has been part of our hominoid past, a bit like chimpanzee life. The result is that men are in a great position to have lots of free time, and they can use that time for manly activities. That, I want to suggest, is the background that enables men to enormously exaggerate the nature of their communal dominance over females compared even to chimpanzees. Thanks very much.”
Sexual Disparities and the Evolution of Patriarchy
Harvard Law School
October 12, 2011
So, what Wrangham is saying is that the man’s dominance over the woman and the collective male dominance over social arrangements as a whole creates the orderly environment where the woman can cook the food without being disturbed. Now, what is the fundamental way in which patriarchy is organized? In patriarchy the woman obeys the man, the man obeys the collective male governing body, and the man provides for and protects the woman.
One might ask why it is that the man provides for the woman and not the other way around or why providing and protecting is not an activity jointly shard by men and women. The reason why this is so is because it is the woman who gets pregnant and is then in a state of dependency and vulnerability because of her need to take care of the child. The man protects and provides for the woman so that the woman can better care for the children; this is why it is the man who directs resources towards the woman.
Since the man puts forth investment into the woman it is then necessary for the man to be in control of the family situation so that his investment into the family (through investing in the woman) is not wasted. The man needs to protect himself from the woman free riding or using the resources that the man gives her in ways that are harmful to the man. The woman has a level of protection from potentially abusive behavior from the man as the individual man is obligated to obey the rules set forth by the collective male governing structure.
Feminism’s goal has been to disturb this system of relations between the sexes with disastrous results. Contrary to feminist propaganda hunter-gatherer societies were not gender egalitarian paradises; instead they were the home of the establishment of the domestic sphere for women centered around the woman cooking the family meals by the camp fire with her children in close proximity to her. The tradition of “a woman’s place is in the home” starts around the camp fire 1.9 million years ago; it is a tradition as old as time itself.
Originally written March 4, 2012