April 2, 2010 | 1 Comment
“The most common form of social organization for group-living monkeys is the multigenerational matrilineal group (Silk, 1987). In this type of system, males, and females have very different life histories. Females stay in the natal group and their mothers and female kin for life, while males leave at adolescence and transfer to neighboring groups for breeding.” (Lynn Fairbanks, “Influences on Aggression in Group-Living Monkeys,” in Endocrinology of Social Relationships, eds. Ellison and Gray, pp. 160-161.)
“In spite of abundant evidence documenting intergroup conflict over the past 10,000 to 15,000 years, there is no evidence of warfare in the Pleistocene. Such absence of evidence is not evidence of absence, but it helps to explain why many of those who actually study hunter-gatherers are skeptical about projecting the bellicose behavior of post-Neolithic peoples back onto roaming kin-based bands of hunter-gatherers, and why anthropologists refer to the Pleistocene as the ‘period of Paleolithic warlessness.'” (Hrdy, Mothers and Others, pp. 19-20.)
For the last few years, I’ve reveled in the indulgence of reading several books at the same time, and often they were books seemingly unrelated. Sometimes synergies result. Exploring details regarding the endocrinology of relationship in primates in one book and the power of social structures that encourage alloparenting, resulting in cooperative evolution, in another book leaves me feeling like I’m reading about the same process from two different perspectives.
Central to understanding Hrdy’s work focusing on humans evolving in response to females raising children cooperatively, and the evidence that supports these conjectures, is the understanding that males, not females, are often moving to where they can procreate. Females are relatively stationary, with sisters and mothers working cooperatively to raise the children. This is in stark contrast to post-Neolithic developments that encouraged males to form alliances with other males that would result in land and resources staying within the control of a male and his male progeny. Females moved away from mothers and sisters to the location of their husband.
I’ve been exploring the endocrinological implications of matrifocal evolution for 12 years. When I started these explorations, Marija Gimbutas’ work was often derided. Gimbutas hypothesized that humans evolved in matrilineal societies. It seems Hrdy and her colleagues are finding support from colleagues as they make connections between matrilineality and our aboriginal forebears.
From my perspective, central to the realization that humans evolved in a matrifocal context is the understanding that natural selection was not the primary selective process that was in play. Though it is fairly easy to intuit that hormones adjust as social structure adjusts, it is when it can be understood that it is larger patterns of maturation rates and timing that are guiding both hormone levels and social structures, with hormone levels and social structures influencing maturation rates and timing, that we achieve insight into how evolution actually unfolds.
Reading Hrdy, I’m feeling stirred that humans evolving in matrifocal societies is a concept now receiving respect. If this shift in our origin story continues to gain followers, there will be impacts on other disciplines and popular culture.