Richard Wrangham
Catching Fire

If the first cooks were temperamentally like chimpanzees, life would have been absurdly difficult for females or low-status males trying to cook a meal. Cooked food would have been intensely valuable. Even the act of gathering creates value merely by assembling raw foods into a pile. Cooking only increases its attraction. Subordinate individuals cooking their own meals would have been vulnerable to petty theft or worse. If several hungry dominants were present, the weak or unprotected would have lost much or all of the food. Females would have been the losers, just as they are among chimpanzees. There are no indications that human females or their ancestors have ever been prone to forming the kinds of physical fighting alliances with one another that protect bonobo females from being bullied by males.

Consider the possibility that small groups of tough males could search for signs of a campfire as a way to feed themselves. They would be able to descend on an undefended cook and take his or her food at will—after waiting, perhaps, for the cooking to be done. If this ploy were regularly successful, the males could become professional food pirates, which in turn would mean they would not bother to feed themselves or prepare their own food, adding to their desperation to steal it. Male lions come close to doing this, regularly taking whatever meat they want from kills made by females. This scenario suggests that unless cooks somehow established a peaceful environment in which to work, cooking might not have been a viable method of preparing food at all.

Even humans steal readily in various circumstances, so our species is not inherently uncompetitive. The nervous child with a lunch box in the schoolyard knows the problem as well as the anxious late-night stroller with cash in his pocket. People who have the chance to take from members of a different social network have few qualms about doing so. Farmers living next to hunter-gatherers routinely complain of being robbed. Stealing, cheating, and bullying were prevalent among the troubled Ik in the uplands of northern Uganda observed by cultural anthropologist Colin Turnbull, whose book about them, The Mountain People, was said by writer Robert Ardrey to record a society without morality. The Ik were a hunting people who had been kept from their traditional hunting grounds. The result was starvation, disease, and mutual exploitation. Turnbull described an almost complete evaporation of their community spirit: 'They place the individual good above all else and almost demand that each get away with as much as he can without his fellows knowing.' Turnbull's description shows just how savage people can become when social networks break down and life is tough.

Ethnographers sometimes report cases of theft within stable hunter-gatherer communities. Turnbull described how Pepei, an Mbuti Pygmy, had to cook for himself because he was a bachelor with no female kin. As a result, he was often hungry. Several times he was caught stealing small quantities of food from another cooking pot or someone else's hut, mostly from an old woman who had no husband to protect her. His punishment was public ridicule, receiving food fit only for animals, or a thrashing with a thorny branch. Pepei was forgiven after he ended up in tears.

Since hunter-gatherers are often hungry, one might imagine that food theft would be a daily problem. Like other people living in small-scale egalitarian societies, they have no police or any other kind of authority. A hunter-gatherer woman returns to camp in the middle of the day carrying the raw foods she has obtained. She then prepares and cooks them for the evening meal at her own individual fire. Men might return to camp at any time, alone or in a small group. Many of the foods a woman cooks are edible raw, so they could be eaten before, during, or after the cooking process. If a man returns from the bush feeling hungry and has no one to cook for him, he might be tempted to ask a woman for some food—or even simply take it—rather than doing his own cooking. He can also sneak about the camp at any other time, including night.

Yet such tactics are rare. The relaxed atmosphere Lorna et Marshall described for the !Kung is due to a system that keeps the peace at mealtimes among hunter-gatherers and other small-scale societies. The system consists of strong cultural norms. Married women must provide food to their husbands, and they must cook it themselves, though other family members may help. Social anthropologists Jane Collier and Michelle Rosaldo surveyed small-scale societies worldwide. 'In all cases,' they found, 'a woman is obliged to provide daily food for her family.' That is why married men can count on an evening meal. As a result, they have little reason to take food from women who are not their wives.

The obligation of wives to cook for their husbands occurs regardless of how much other work each of them do, or how much food they give each other. Sometimes men produce much more than women, as among traditional Inuit of the high Arctic, where the almost wholly animal diet of sea mammals, caribou, and fish was produced entirely by men. A man would hunt all day and would come home to a dinner his wife cooked. Cooking was slow over a seal-oil lamp, and women often had to spend much of the afternoon on the task. Sometimes the whole family went hunting together, but the wife had to return early to have everything ready when her husband and others returned to camp. Even when the time of her husband's return was uncertain, she risked punishment if there was no food available for him. But at least a wife's obligation to cook for a husband was matched by his providing all the food.

On the other hand, in some societies women brought home almost all the food. This happened among the Tiwi hunter-gatherers of northern Australia, a polygynous people who lived in households of up to twenty wives and one man. Women foraged for long hours and still returned in the evening to cook the one meal of the day. There were few animals to hunt. Men mostly contributed occasional small animals, such as goanna lizards, and brought in such little food that they needed women's food production for their own welfare. As one Tiwi husband said, 'If I had only one or two wives, I would starve.' Men relied on their wives not only for their own food but also to feed others. The possession of surplus food was the most concrete symbol of a Tiwi man's success, allowing him to host feasts and promote his political agenda. Women's high food contribution did not sway the balance of power in their marriages. Despite their economic independence and key role in their husbands' status, they were 'as frequently and as brutally beaten by their husbands as wives in any other savage society.'

Among the Inuit, Tiwi, and all other small-scale societies on record, fairness in distributing labor among women and men was not the issue. Whether or not wives wanted to do so, they cooked for their husbands. As a result, married men were guaranteed adequate food whether they returned late, tired, and hungry from a day's hunting or came home relaxed and early from discussing politics with a neighbor. The man might have eaten in a courteous manner and have had a friendly or even loving interaction with his wife, but the formal structure of their eating relationship was that he could count on her labor and take a large portion of her food—typically, it seems, the best part. Peace in the camp is further cemented by the principle that unless a husband gave his blessing, a wife could feed no other man except her close kin. This rule applied to cooked food around the campfire, as well as to the raw food she gathered. Other than her kin and husband, no one else had any right to ask for a share, so she could trudge back to camp secure in the knowledge that she would be able to cook all the food she had obtained. In Western society, we take the principle of ownership for granted. But among hunter-gatherers, this manifestation of private ownership is noteworthy because it lies in remarkable contrast to the obligatory sharing of men's foods in particular, and more generally to a strong ethos of communitywide cooperation.

  The World was all before them, where to choose
Their place of rest, and Providence their guide:
They, hand in hand, with wand'ring steps and slow,

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Through Eden took their solitary way.