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From Killer Ape to Hippie Ape


Research on human evolution has been dominated by "Man the Hunter" and "Woman the Gatherer" theories and various apes and their behaviour have been used prove these theories. In the 1950s the aggressive baboon was particularly popular as model ape. Recently the pleasant and social bonobo or pygmy chimpanzee has taken over this role. In the first of a two part series Anne Katrine Gjerløff takes a look at how gender stereotypes have influenced paleo-anthropological theories about early man.

FORUM/June 2001 The study of the origin of humankind is not just about finding out which ape-like forefather is the ancestor of the anatomically modern human, and what they looked like, how they lived and how they behaved. There is also a more subconscious reason for the interest in the origins of humankind: We want to find out how we have evolved into what we are and thus discover what is deeply, naturally and inherently human. The individual characteristics that can be demonstrated to have been crucial to the evolution of modern man thus become the hallmark of being a human being - those traits for which we can thank our evolution.

Unsurprisingly, the science of human evolution has often been determined by the traits, which at any given time were considered to be typically human. Being able to trace them into the past would confirm their universal validity, and explain and/or excuse their existence in the present.

In their attempt to explain how humans evolved from ape-like animals, various theories from the mid-1900s have pointed to violence, hunting and aggression as evolutionary engines. Both the conclusion and prerequisite for the "killer ape" theory was that aggression was something inherent to humanity. Earlier theories focussed on brain size and human intelligence as central to evolution, other theories championed tools and grasping ability as turning points in evolution. >From the end of the 1950s, a range of new theories emerged, which like the killer ape theories, were based on early man's social life - living in groups, a division of labour, food gathering and the relationship between males and females.

In the beginning of the 1960s an idea emerged from the theory of humanity's inherent aggression that emphasised the importance of hunting, life on the savannah and meat eating. The evolution of these behavioural characteristics was seen to have been the source of humanity's superiority over dull fruit-eating forest apes.

According to this theory, the evolutionary success of humankind originated in male hunting activity and the meat and protection males offered their mate and offspring. This prehistoric division of labour was later to evolve into the nuclear family: Females gave birth and looked after the kids at the campsite while their mates took off hunting and in the process developed intelligence, language, the ability to walk upright and to make weapons. According to the most primitive version of this theory, all human characteristics could be attributed to male hunting activity as reflected in the theory's name: "Man the Hunter". The implication of the theory was also that this particular social order was the most natural for humans.

The theory of the roaming hunter and his domestic mate served as the basis of many similar but more evolved theories. The most famous of these theories is probably Desmond Morris' reflections on the importance of human sexuality and the evolution of love-based relationships in The Naked Ape (1967). Desmond Morris adheres to the "Man the Hunter" theory but expands upon it by offering an explanation of why males would want to bring meat back to the camp rather than eating it on the spot - namely the evolution of an emotional bond between males and females to secure the survival of their offspring.

The interaction between increased brain volume and the narrowing of the pelvic region because of upright walking caused offspring to be born increasingly helpless and dependent on maternal care. Subsequently, females were dependent on help in order to feed and care for their offspring. Natural selection thus secured the survival of offspring, whose parents were able to cooperate and at the root of this cooperation was sexual attraction. The loss of body hair and the oestrus cycle, the development of erogenous zones and secondary sexual characteristics among females (breasts and bottoms), the missionary position and female orgasm were part of an evolutionary package designed to create a loving bond between parents and thus an increased chance for the survival of their offspring. In Morris' scenario mutual sexual gratification and monogamous relationships were fundamental human characteristics.

The "Man the Hunter" model, however, started to disintegrate as a consequence of various primate field studies and ethnographic studies of the !Kung people of Africa. This research showed that female apes were perfectly mobile and able to forage for food for themselves and their young, and that primitive peoples were much less dependent on hunting than expected. In fact, 80% of the !Kung people's diet was gathered by women.

A range of female anthropologists who were opposed to the oppressive potential of "Man the Hunter" took this research to heart. During the 1970s they developed a theory of "Woman the Gatherer". Accordingly all human characteristics that previously had been ascribed to males and hunting, were now ascribed to the gathering and caring efforts of females. They argued that the earliest humans had been gatherers and not hunters, and that the earliest tools had been developed to dig for roots, crush nuts and carry foodstuffs and children. The mother-child relationship was at the core of human social organisation, males were at most an appendage.

Feminist theories were also opposed to the train of thought underlying the previous "sex for food" model, which was seen as an allegation of prostitution in relationships since the beginning of time. The tendency to view female sexuality as a reflection of male sexuality, evolved to attract and satisfy him, was also criticized. Instead they suggested that the female oestrus cycle disappeared so females could choose a sexual partner, as they liked. Some theorized that female orgasm was something primordial - a mechanism that was not derived from the male, but was rather a female ur-ability that had more or less disappeared in course of male-dominated history.

"Woman the Gatherer" theories provided new nourishment to the study of the earliest origins of humankind because the theories insisted on unorthodox explanations of human behaviour. Nevertheless, these theories were also dependent on contemporary ideas on gender. Feminist anthropologists did not attribute hunting instincts to women. They simply emphasized the great importance of traditional female virtues in evolution.

In the 1980s a variation of both models gained wide acceptance. In this theory the development of the ability to walk upright evolved in order to be able to move around and share food with others. It dismissed both hunting and meat eating as having any great importance. But who gathered food? Males! According to this theory human young are so dependent on their mothers that the women have to stay put while the male forages for foodstuff previously ascribed to females. The theory was quite popular with certain male anthropologists, while others were disgusted by it.

Another illustration of the importance of the scientist's own gender, background and point of view is that the scientists who developed the "Woman the Gatherer" theory in the 1970s now support theories that suggest the prime importance of grandmothers in helping to care for young as an explanation for menopause. The mother does not need the help of a wandering male; instead she has her aging and infertile but wise and knowledgeable mother.

The 1960s were dominated by the theory of "Man the Hunter" and the baboon was the favourite animal when a model of early human behaviour was needed. Baboons are aggressive meat-eaters that live in groups dominated by males. Since then chimpanzees have become a favourite because of their complex social structures, diverse diet, use of tools and strong mother-child relationship. In addition to that DNA studies show that chimpanzees were very closely related to humans. In the 1990s a new favourite was found, which very clearly demonstrates that comparisons are made on the basis of projections of contemporary social and sexual norms on the past. The new favourite ape is the pygmy chimpanzee or bonobo.

The bonobo not only often walks on two legs in an upright position, it seems less hairy than ordinary chimpanzees and lives in distinctly anti-aggressive social groups and has liberal sexual relations with both sexes and age groups. And it’s a matriarchy! The bonobo is thus the most politically correct ape one could imagine. It does not discriminate women or homosexuals; it does not kill its own kind. Sexual minorities, peace movements and feminists have used bonobo behaviour to illustrate a primordial - and therefore natural and desirable - social order. We have moved from killer ape to hippie ape.

Nothing, however, seems to indicate that the bonobo is more closely related to humans than common chimpanzees and I would not be surprised if new scientific findings combined with new political ideals eventually will yield another primate as typical for early human behaviour - for instance the monogamous gibbon or the solitary orang-utan.

Much depends, however, on what is considered natural sexual behaviour at any given time. When Desmond Morris published The Naked Ape in 1967 his understanding of typical human sexual behaviour was based on American interview studies. It is then hardly surprising that monogamy, male initiative and the missionary position were considered the norm and created the basis for his scenario.

The success of the bonobo is a clear manifestation of a more individualized, experimental and less rigid sexual code of behaviour. An American subculture has even emerged that champions "the bonobo way". Their philosophy is that the most natural sex, is the sex one has with whom ever one wants and the poor bonobo is used to exemplify the positive benefits of this behaviour. It has even been suggested that Bonobos exhibit an early form of tantric sex (!).

If anything definite can be said about human sexuality, then it's the fact that what is biological cannot be separated from what is cultural. To attempt to uncover typical human sexual behaviour and project it into the past and thus reinforce it naturalness is taking a big risk.

Discussions on early gender roles and sexual behaviour and the prefered model apes reveal how theories are influenced both by the scientist's own social and sexual political background. One continually seeks to explain how we have evolved into what we perceive ourselves to be and naturally tend to see those characteristics with which we are familiar. Theories thus tend to go in circles: The dominate view on sex roles and the sexual division of labour influence the opinion that the same element were to be found in the past and the conclusion reinforces that contemporary gender roles are deeply rooted and thus natural. That which is emphasized in an interpretation of the past is always a reflection of one's own time: What you see is what you are.

In her next article Stone Age woman comes into her own, Anne Katrine Gjerløff will look at fictional portrayals of cavemen and cavewomen in light of changing gender roles.

Anne Katrine Gjerløff is a Ph.D. student at the Department of History, University of Copenhagen.

Translation: Annette Nielsen, FORUM Editor.

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