Human Cultural Diversity

There is a lot of variety in the ways that human groups live around the world. Some people live in skyscrapers in Manhattan while others live in temporary shelters made of branches and grass. In some groups couples fall in love, marry, and work together to provide for their family, while in others women work, usually in their gardens, to produce food for themselves, their children, and for the men. A century ago anthropologists tried to shoehorn most of this diversity into continuum from savagery to barbarism to civilization. This scheme fell out of fashion as it became apparent that a groups place on the continuum didn’t predict much else interesting about the group. Later scholars focused on kinship, residence, and inheritance systems, something like the legal structure of the society. Scholarship was then aimed at discovering relationships between structures, for example between kinship systems and mythology. In contrast to these purely social schemes, others focused on subsistence ecology, leading to a classification into foragers (or hunter-gatherers), gardeners, pastoralists, peasants, and so on.

The social schemes for classifying cultures were never particularly satisfactory since the categories were often apparently unrelated to anything else that people were doing. Few useful generalizations came out of those traditions. Another difficulty is that there is often a gulf between what people actually do and their own view of what they do. A famous ethnography of the Mundurucu of the Amazon basin, Women of the Forest by Yolanda and Robert Murphy (1974), provides a classic example of the discrepancy between culture—what people say about their lives—and behavior—what people do in their everyday lives. Alternate chapters are by Robert and Yolanda. Robert Murphy’s chapters describe an elaborate and well-formulated system of patrilineal kinship and descent and patrilocal residence. We learn that males and their relationships to other males are the central edifices of society, but we only learn this if we talk exclusively with males and ignore the women. Yolanda Murphy’s chapters, focused on everyday lives of people rather than public ideology, show that the local group is related females, not males, and personal ties within the group follow a matrilineal rather than a patrilineal scheme.

The Mundurucu had been recently “pacified”, that is brought under the control of a constabulary. They were not engaged in chronic local warfare as they had been in the recent past. As the need for active military defense went away the bonds of kinship between related males became less powerful and a matrilineal matrilocal organization emerged on the ground as women moved to be with their kin. In other words the ideology of patrilineality changed more slowly than actual relationships, and the discrepancy between talk and do reflected recent social change. The elaborate system of patrilineal kinship comes across as mostly irrelevant to everyday life, perhaps a relic of a past kind of society but now divorced from the daily lives of people.

What people in a group do in their daily lives, what they say that they do, and what they think that they do are often not very well coupled, they are subject to change over time, and they change over different time scales. These different scales of change mean that statistical studies of human culture don’t work very well. The subsistence ecology may tell us about the last few years, belief systems may tell us about the last few decades, and public ideologies may tell us about centuries. Ongoing change like this has essentially foiled the search for systematic cross-cultural relationships among cultural variables.

For our purposes descriptions and classifications of groups should be based on biology rather than on ideation. First, we discuss of different kinds of subsistence and, second, we discuss different kinds of mating systems. From the viewpoint of evolution, adult life is maintenance and reproduction, and reproduction is mating and parenting. Maintenance means food as well as shelter and protection. Reproduction means successful reproduction, which requires mating followed by parental care. Thinking about fundamental evolutionary biology, then, leads us to look at both subsistence systems, how people maintain themselves, and mating systems, how people mate and care for offspring.

Classification by Subsistence


Human groups that do no gardening or farming and that have no domestic animals are called foragers or hunter-gatherers. These are the most technologically primitive of humans. Very few people live as full time foragers today. The first clear archaeological indications of farming and domestic animals all postdate the end of the last ice age, about 10,000 years ago. Before this all our ancestors were foragers. Textbooks often say that “99% of human history was spent foraging” but this statement hardly makes sense. Human history can be followed backwards as far as we wish, even back to the first life billions of years ago. Modern humans, that is members of our own species, first appear about 150,000 years ago in Africa if we go by what skulls look like. If we say that the “creative explosion” of the upper Paleolithic cultures of Eurasia defines modern humans then our species appears about 40,000 years ago. In these two cases we have been foragers for either 93% or our history or 75% of our history. At any rate this long early history has led anthropologists to a strong interest in foragers and the few remaining traces of foraging societies have been carefully studied in the search for clues about the ecology of very early human history. Bushmen of the Kalahari Desert are a familiar foraging group in the literature, as are Eskimo, central African Pygmies, and several South American groups.

There are large differences among foraging groups so that generalities are few and risky.
For example almost all foragers are mobile over the landscape on a time scale of weeks to months: as resources become scarce where a group is living it simply packs up and moves elsewhere, perhaps many miles away. There are interesting consequences that follow from this mobility. There is no notion of “home ” or of “neighbors ” since people and local landscapes change from month to month. Children do not form peer gangs nor close attachments since the groups are so small that there are hardly ever peers available and, if there were, they wouldn’t be around several months later. Minor feuds are easily settled: one party simply moves elsewhere since no one is tethered to a place. There is no substantial property since it would have to be carried, so there is nothing like social class. These groups are known for their egalitarianism, a system in which social leveling is always at work.

Leveling People

One of the most famous popular essays in anthropology is Richard Lee’s Eating Christmas in the Kalahari (1969) in which he describes how his own hubris in providing an ox for a holiday feast was punished by Bushmen who assured him that his ox was so lean as to be worthless and perhaps inedible. Daily life is pervaded with put-downs, complaints, and petty arguments, all of which work as if designed to suppress any trace of leadership or political ambition.

I (HCH) was victimized by the same spirit of put down many times when I was first in the Kalahari in the late 1960s. The first one happened when I was fresh off the airplane. I was pleased when several men came up to me in our camp and invited me, through an interpreter, to “take a short stroll to see what this countryside looks like.” They also casually suggested, as we were setting off, that I might as well bring a rifle. After fifteen or twenty minutes I realized that we were not strolling in the neighborhood of the camp, we were going straight north. I had no way of asking my hosts and, ignorant about the African bush and cautious, I kept going with them. In another ten minutes one of the men indicated that my jacket was making a “whoosh-whoosh ” sound as I was walking, and he indicated I should leave it hanging on a bush. In another ten minutes there was a similar complaint about my sandals. Soon I was barefoot in my underpants wishing desperately that I had had the common sense to stay in camp.

After another hour or so we started moving slowly and carefully, eventually crawling up to a downed tree. My hosts indicated I should peek over the top; I did, and saw a large gemsbok with his head in a hole that was a natural salt lick. “Shoot it!” my hosts indicated. I thought that was a good idea, and at that time permits for large animals were only a few dollars from the game department. The animal was eleven paces away, completely unaware of me. I took aim and suddenly started shaking: I had for the first (and last) time in my life what is called buck fever. I shot and missed, not once but twice.

For months afterward people spoke of me as the “gemsbok slayer.” The word spread and never died out. Five years later and one hundred miles away I walked into a Bushman village, the men grinned, came up to me, and said “why don’t we go out and shoot ourselves a gemsbok?”

Diversity among Forager Societies

Foraging societies are fascinating but do they provide, as many of us have assumed, a window of insight into our evolutionary past? After all the ones that we have been able to observe in the last century are living in the worst places on the planet: they are still there because no one else has moved in to displace them. We do know of foragers who are not so mobile, for example the American Indians of the Northwest Coast lived in large permanent villages, had lots of property like the famous totem poles and war canoes, and were anything but egalitarian. Perhaps these prosperous sedentary foragers give us a better window of insight than the better known contemporary foragers in today’s wretched environments. For example we know that early anatomically modern humans in Atlantic Europe developed a complex of beautifully made stone and bone tools, clothing and adornment, and art including sculpture. These remains are not what any extant hardscrabble forager like Kalahari Bushmen would leave behind. They would fit right in with remains from a group like those on the northwest coast of North America.


Among mobile foragers there is a pattern that the closer to equator a group is the higher the proportion of its subsistence is derived from vegetable foods. Northern and extreme southern groups have more meat in their diet than do mid-latitude groups where more vegetables are consumed. A solid generalization about foragers is that women don’t hunt and that they do most of the gathering, so women contribute more of a group’s food in warmer latitudes. In these regions, particularly in humid forested areas, there is a very thin line between foraging and gardening: one can stick a gathered root in the ground, forget it as it propagates, and harvest it months later. While archaeologists generally think of the “origin of agriculture” as corresponding to what is visible in the fertile crescent and elsewhere as ruins of sedentary villages heavily dependent on grains grown in fields, there is a whole separate tropical route to farming via gradual intensification of gathering. This route has been essentially invisible to archaeologists.

We will use the terms “farming” and “agriculture” to mean relatively labor-demanding cultivation of fields by either whole families else by males. On the other hand by “gardening” we mean low intensity cultivation of usually temporary plots, often accompanied by some foraging and usually carried out mostly by women. Temporary plots, “swiddens”, are created by preparing an area of forest by girdling large trees, then burning it. The fire destroys weeds and their seeds and the ashes act as a source of nutrients for the soil. After several years the swidden is abandoned as weeds prosper and soil fertility declines. A new field is prepared and burned. Such a system is efficient in terms of human labor but it requires lots of land. These systems are common throughout central Africa, southeast Asia, the Pacific Islands, and central and south America. This was also the way that the early European invaders of North America farmed since land was essentially limitless. The Pilgrims and the first English settlers in Virginia made swiddens. Synonyms in the literature include “slash and burn” and “shifting cultivation.”

These are also called “female” farming systems (Boserup 1970) because in many of them women do all the work and men essentially parasitize women for food. But as population grows land goes from being a free good like air to be something that is owned and defended. As this transition occurs the low labor option of simply burning down a new field and abandoning the old one is no longer available, and people must trade labor for land as they invest in what land they have available. In the early stages of this process of agricultural intensification this involves as little as field rotation, in which a plot is used for crop one year, then left for several years to recover. If population continues to grow then fallow periods grow shorter and other investments are required like more intense weeding, composting, complex irrigation schemes, carrying human and animal waste to the field, and so on. The end result of this to be seen in tired peasants hauling water to a small terrace halfway up a mountain with an olive tree somewhere around the Mediterranean or in the labor intensive management of wet rice agriculture. The universal consequence of the new high labor input regime is that men are dragged back into working. Peasant farming systems are associated with nuclear families and male labor.

Another important subsistence type is pastoralism, living off domesticated animals. Most pastoralists today are found in marginal areas, away from the agricultural centers everywhere. Since herds are more labile than land pastoralists seem to be more vulnerable to ecological disruptions than are farmers. Many situations have been described where pastoralists who lost stock can go and become farmers, at least for a while. In other words where farmers and pastoralists live in proximity there is often a flow of personnel form one group to the other. There may be a kind of symbiosis between farmers and pastoralists in which the food and other good is exchanged between the two systems. The exchange may be peaceful trade or it may be one-way, achieved by raiding and stealing. Just as they are subject to disasters and downturns, pastoralists are also subject to rapid increases in herd size and wealth: unlike acreage of land, numbers of stock can grow manifold in good times. This leads to large wealth differentials in many pastoralist groups but also instability of family status over the generations: there is rarely “old wealth. “

Classification by Mating Strategy

Living organisms are “designed ” by natural selection to reproduce: the rate of successful reproduction is called “fitness. ” A successful organism, in the currency of fitness, must allocate time, energy, and risk to (1) growth and maintenance and (2) reproduction. The allocation to reproduction is divided between (2a) mating and (2b) parenting. Humans are mammals, meaning that we have internal gestation and prolonged infant dependence even after birth as we provide food from mammary glands. Notice that these defining traits of mammals are in fact traits of females: a commitment to parenting is engineered into female mammals but not into males. At this most basic level there is an asymmetry between the two sexes leading to differences in the way that effort is allocated to mating and parenting. Females have “high obligate parental investment “, a fancy way of saying that they are forced to commit to parental effort. Males, on the other hand, vary greatly in this regard. In some species, e.g. coyotes or beavers, males are parental, working with females to provision the young. But species with parental males are not very common, and generally mammal males commit their effort to mating effort, meaning competition with other males for access to females. Think, for example, of a tomcat. Not only is he not the least bit parental, he is a threat to kittens and a new mother cat will drive any tom away from her litter. For an introduction to the ways in which this sex difference in reproductive strategies is played out in Nature you might want to read the chapter on “War between the sexes” of Richard Dawkins’ brilliant monograph The Selfish Gene (1989).

What about humans? In many ways the same regularities seem to govern human societies that govern sex roles in other mammals. Everywhere females are committed to being parental, caring for and feeding children. Male roles are much more diverse. A generalization is that males are parental when ecological circumstances lead to a payoff in terms of fitness. When males can leave off being parental, without fitness consequences, they do and leave parenting to the women. Men in societies where they are not forced to be parental turn instead to varieties of competition with other males, competition that can be blatant and out in the open else quiet and subtle.

For example in many low-density tropical gardening societies the women produce enough to feed everyone. Men parasitize women for food and spend their effort on local competition with other males and on chronic local raiding and warfare (hence the economists’ euphemism “female farming systems”). The ability of females to feed everyone seemingly liberates males from working, that is from direct work to provision his own offspring. Men often do work in these societies, but it is not quite the same. For example men may be responsible for the heavy work of girdling trees, clearing, and occasionally soil preparation. Invariably these activities are done not by dad working with this family in the family plot but by all the men, together as a group, like a fraternity project.

Other ecological systems can result in similar male withdrawal from being very paternal. At the time of European contact Indians of the Great Plains had only had horses for a century or so. The horse allowed a new efficiency in exploiting bison such that one or several males could provide weeks of food with only a few hours hunting. As in gardening systems males were essentially liberated from paternal work. When Europeans encountered these plains bison hunters the males were in many ways like the males in tropical gardening societies—-think for example of the exuberant body paint, shields, and headgear of the men. Another striking parallel with tropical gardeners was the sexual freedom of the women. If males are not investing then male concern with paternity, paternity certainty, and restrictions on female sexuality are all relaxed. Lewis and Clark’s accounts provide lively descriptions of the sexual freedom of Sioux women.

The distinction between societies where males are paternal and where males are competitive was first described, albeit in slightly different terms, by John and Beatrice Whiting (1975). They described and contrasted societies in which the relationship between women and men was “aloof ” with those in which it was “intimate. ” While the Whitings did not frame their description in terms of reproductive strategies, Draper and Harpending (1982) essentially recast their distinction in terms of evolutionary biology and related it to other literature about consequences for children of being reared in homes with or without resident fathers. The dimension of cultural diversity described by the Whitings turns out to be, in our opinion, the most fundamental and interesting axis of human social variation there is.

The Whitings discussed as one extreme those societies where men and women lived together, slept and ate together, seemed to like each other, and cooperated in households. The called these “intimate” societies and found that a reliable indicator was sleeping arrangements: in these societies men and women slept together, often with their children. In the perspective of evolution and reproductive strategies these are societies where males are putting reproductive effort into parental effort, that is to say they are “dad ” societies. While there may be organized external warfare there is usually not much local raiding and warfare.

At the other extreme are societies like those of many gardening groups where males and females don’t like each other very much, where relations between the sexes are, in the Whitings’ terms, “aloof.” Here men may sleep and live in men’s houses rather than in their wives’ houses. The men’s houses usually have some sort of ritual significance such that women are prohibited from entering them. They are low-tech societies’ versions of fraternity houses. While women work hard in these societies, men typically spend a lot of time in subtle and not so subtle male competition like debating, fighting, and planning the next round of fighting with the neighbors.

It is important to emphasize that there is no rigid line between aloof or cad and intimate or dad societies. Almost any generalization about these societies admits exceptions. Nevertheless our description of the cad-dad dimension is useful as a cartoon, a schematic, about how human social systems vary. It is especially useful because it shows how evolutionary theory makes sense of otherwise puzzling patterns in our species.

Generally dad societies are those where men work to feed their own offspring. Middle and upper class America is a dad society, especially the stereotype Ozzie and Harriet America of the 1950’s. Upper economic groups in contemporary industrial nations are all dadly with monogamous marriage and nuclear family households. We also find dad societies at the other end of the world economic spectrum, among foraging people in unproductive environments. For example the !Kung Bushmen of the Kalahari dessert of southern Africa have durable pair bonds and nuclear family households. They live in groups scattered over the desert but the groups are impermanent and their composition shifts as families move from one to the other. Pygmies of the Congo basin, Shoshone of the North American great basin, and many other groups where males are heavily involved in food production in an unfavorable environment are typical dad groups.

There are foraging groups in unusually rich environments where the “foragers are dads ” generalization fails badly. Along the northwest coast of North America were Indian groups who exploited the rich reliable resource stream of salmon. The products of a few weeks of hard work during the run could be preserved, and this smoked salmon along with other ocean foods and gathered vegetables meant that men could withdraw from working for their families. Instead they spent a lot of time engaged in male status jockeying (e.g. potlatches), other kinds of display like totem poles, and local warfare. Foragers in the wetter, northern parts of Australia also had more art, display, and male violence, than others elsewhere on the continent.

The most familiar examples to anthropology students of cad societies are found among tropical gardening societies. Gardening can mostly be left to the women, freeing men to be boys. Among economists there is the euphemism of “female farming systems ” to describe the African versions of these groups. The important characteristic of gardening systems is that they are found where land is free and where declining fertility and increasing weediness of a field is countered by abandoning it, girdling some trees, and burning down the forest to create a new field.

As population density grows regional swiddening ecologies begin to fail simply because the ratio of land to people declines. Fallow periods become shorter as land that has not completely regenerated is again planted. There are two ways out now: one is to increase the local warfare in order to gain control of more land. The other way out is called “agricultural intensification ” meaning that more labor-intensive versions of land management begin to be used. Instead of letting land stay fallow for a decade the process of regeneration can be hastened by bringing manure and compost to the land, by irrigating it, by intensive weeding, and so on. In general human labor is substituted for land area and this new labor input comes from men. Males are dragged back into working to support their families, gaudy warriors turn into dreary peasants, and the life of males is again focused on the domestic household rather than on the men’s house.

How to Tell Dad from Cad Societies

Here is a list of traits and domains in which cad (aloof) and dad (intimate) societies have been suggested to differ. By putting together this list we are constructing stereotypes versions of our two social types. Real societies are all somewhere in between. Further, since different aspects of culture change at different rates, in the real world of flux and change these things can easily get out of sync.

Sleeping Arrangements

In Dad societies families eat, sleep, and otherwise live together. This is the household typical of most European and North American societies. In Cad societies on the other hand matrifocal households are typical, that is households headed by a woman and consisting of herself and her children. Males may move in and move out but the male-female bonds are not durable if present at all. In many parts of the world, especially in gardening groups, men live in a men’s house—think of a fraternity house or the local American Legion hall. A man may stop by his wife’s house to eat else she may deliver his meals to him in the men’s house.

These arrangements are easy to spot in ethnographies, and they are manifestations of a deeper difference in the structure of social bonds in these societies. In Dad groups bonds of dependency, trust, and support are within the nuclear family while in Cad societies these bonds are more likely to be with members of the same sex. Hence in gardening societies the women’s ties with other women are close and important since social support is the sisterhood. Men are occupied with their interactions with other men: these may be cooperative to violently antagonistic within a community while relations with neighboring communities are relations with enemies.

Subsistence and Work

In Dad societies men typically work hard to provision their own offspring. Thus at the lowest level of social complexity, among foragers, men hunt and, less often, gather. Further up the scale, among more or less intense farmers, men do the hard tedious work. This includes field preparation, planting, weeding and irrigation, and harvesting. In modern industrial societies work often defines the lives of males save among the poorest socioeconomic groups, the “underclass”, whose lives are instead typical of human Cad societies with matrifocal households and unattached males. Males may work in Cad societies, for example in girdling of trees and burning new plots in swidden gardening groups. These are typically male activities, in other words they are group activities of the gang of guys rather than individual males working to feed their kids. Male work in these societies is typically sporadic and it doesn’t last very long. Along the American Northwest Coast men worked hard for the few weeks of the year that salmon were running in the rives. On the plains, after the introduction of the horse, a male hunter could in a good afternoon kill enough meat to feed a good sizes group for a week or more. Interior Eskimo males worked hard killing and slaughtering caribou during the semi-annual migrations, a week or so twice a year.

Male Competition

Males in Dad societies are hardly ever brightly decorated—-they tend to be drab and not outstanding in any way. We associate gaudy males with Cad societies like American Indians on the Great Plains with their feather bonnets, face and body paint, bison helmets, and so on. In the famous ethnographic film “Dead Birds” about a group of swiddeners in highland New Guinea a skirmish between two groups peters out in the face of rain which, according to the narration, the men worried might ruin their hairdos and feathers. The men in this group wear one item of clothing, a penis sheath, that they regard simply as clothing according to many ethnographies. On the other hand young males’ sheaths are only several several tens of centimeters long while that of the war leader rests on his shoulder. Paint, tattoos, elaborate coiffure, careful attention to clothing are all reliable markers of cad societies whether in the tropics or on the streets of European and American cities.

Along with the self decoration of males there is what psychologists have called “protest masculinity” (Broude, 1990), incorporating physically aggressive posturing, destructiveness, crime, and cockiness or machismo. Males act out a kind of hyper-masculine personal style that an older literature interpreted in this (strange to us) way: males raised by females without males in the household have an underlying “feminine identification” leading to a sex role insecurity with which they struggle as they mature. They overreact in rejecting this “identification ” by taking on stereotyped hypermale behaviors. The chronic violence and crime have been attributed by psychologists to this mechanism.

Another prominent vehicle of male competition in ethnographies is bombast, rhetoric and verbal facility. Big men in New Guinea give speeches that go on for hours. There is a lot of competitive language one-upmanship in other Cad groups like rap or cockney rhyming slang. If there is a new word around and if you do not know about it while others do you lose status. This sort of status marking goes on elsewhere, for example among anthropologists. For a while several years ago a new fashion arose in which recent human ancestors are called “hominins ” rather than “hominids “: at meetings anyone who said “hominid ” immediately marked him or herself as outside the in-group. We also have not heard much about the “Neogene ” lately. This valley-girl talk phenomenon is widespread in humans but is especially intense in groups where male competition is prominent.

Fear of Women

In many of these groups men know that women are dangerous, that they sap the energy, strength, and will of males, and that attraction to women has to be avoided. In Highland New Guinea men know that women have secret gardens where they grow herbs for poisoning males (Johnson, 1981). Males, especially young males, want body fat and an oily skin because these are signs of strength. In other highland New Guinea societies it is well known that, while contact with women depletes the strength of a male, semen increases it. Consequently male homosexuality can be the norm rather than the exception.

The Mundurucu of the Amazon Basin (Murphy and Murphy, 1974) have a story that is found all over the Americas that long ago women ruled society until the men staged a revolt and took control. The male superiority and control is fragile and has to be maintained carefully with certain rituals including tooting some horns hidden away in the forest. When the women hear these horns they are struck with fear, or so the men say. The women know all about these horns and they think the whole thing is ridiculous. These tales of the “old days ” when women ruled were taken by Spanish invaders back to Europe to form the basis of myths of societies of Amazon women that are still with us.

While fear of women is not limited to Cad societies (Witness, for example, what happened to Samson when Delilah had his hair cut. We also know that it was not really a haircut that did him in.) but it is especially prominent in them. What can this be about? How can evolution lead to males who fear and avoid women? If we think of these societies as groups of males competing for access to females the complex makes a lot of sense. If I can convince other males that women are dangerous and polluting then I get access to women and they don’t. The complex is a catenation of strategic lies, and woe to the gullible who believe it all. One outcome is that senior males may explain that they are old, their strength is gone, and that they are willing to sacrifice themselves and what strength they have left and, for the good of everyone, have sex with women.

One hint that this complex represents males trying to manipulate other males is that menstruation is regarded as especially dangerous and polluting. Menstruation occurs in humans when much of the uterine endometrium is shed during a cycle when implantation fails to occur. It is a signal that a female is not pregnant, that is that she is potentially fertile. Accordingly males ought to be told that menstruating females are especially dangerous.

In other societies manipulation of males by other males can be institutionalized in different ways. Among the Cheyenne of the North American plains there were two categories of adult male leaders, peace chiefs and war chiefs (Moore, 1990). War chiefs were heroes, celebrated for their bravery and warrior spirit. Everyone praised and admired them. This public adulation was obtained, however, at the cost of fitness, since war chiefs were celibate. While the peace chiefs were ordinarily from large prosperous families, Moore suggests that the war chief path was a route to upward social mobility for poorer males. Moore hints, in other words, at our interpretation of this patterns as institutionalized manipulation and deceit, calling it a “Machiavellian model.”

Local Raiding and Warfare

Chronic local raiding and warfare are endemic in most cad societies, and the fighting is almost always, directly or indirectly, over women. Archaeology shows us that warfare and raiding in human prehistory was widespread and deadly, such that a substantial fraction of all deaths in many groups were directly a result of war and violence. While many hunter-gatherers like Bushmen of the Kalahari apparently do not practice this war and raiding, more prosperous foragers, especially foragers where women can provision everyone, fight a lot. Still the best known warring regions are populated by swidden gardeners. Men apparently donÕt have a lot to do and, left to their own, become fierce fighters. War may be tied up with regional diplomacy and political maneuvering so that many battles are “phony wars ” serving to display might and enlist allies, this phase coming to an end with a decisive deadly slaughter. The famous film “Dead Birds ” shows this kind of display battle between two groups in highland New Guinea, and the narration suggests that the warfare is ritualized and really not very important demographically since everyone goes home as soon as there is an injury. The film does not show that soon after the film was completed one group invaded and scattered the other group, killing many of them.

Harsh Initiation Rites

Males in cad societies often come up with bizarre and harsh initiation rites for young boys, usually boys at the beginning of adolescence. The boys are mistreated and terrified in various ways, for example circumcision of males often accompanies the rites. They may also be subject to beatings, prolonged separation from others, and other kinds of abuse. Anthropologists have remarked on the apparent psychological effect of participation as males enter as fearful and even effeminate boys and emerge as strutting males. Interestingly urban gangs in North America also have nasty initiation rites, often including being beaten.

A description of a rather typical ceremony is given in Culture, People, and Nature, the classic textbook by Marvin Harris (1975). The Ndembu of Zambia are a central Africa gardening group, part of the African “matrilineal belt “. This belt across central Africa had historically so many tsetse flies that cattle could not survive here so that people had lapsed into a culture of gardening dominated by the labor of females. As in many such groups the men seemed to do little or nothing useful.

Mothers of the boys to be clipped prepare a camp out in the bush, and mothers and their sons from many nearby villages come to this camp. At the camp the mothers cook for their sons until, one evening, the circumcisers showed up. There follows a night of dancing, revelry, and sexual license. The young boys are harassed all night, then marched off to another nearby camp called the “place of dying.” They are seized by males as their mothers are chased away, the mothers wailing a death wail as at funerals. (From many male centered accounts in the literature of initiation rites it is difficult to find much about the viewpoint on all this of the women.) Victor Turner (1967), Harris’ primary source, says that the Ndembu women are “amused and skeptical” about the whole thing. The newly circumcised boys at the camp are beaten, abused, and lectured about how to be a man. At night masked dancers, “red grave people”, appeared to dance and beat the boys with sticks. Finally after a number of days the boys are covered with white clay and taken to the original camp where their anxious mothers are filled with joy to see them. They have undergone a “rebirth” and are now real men.

Versions of this kind of initiation rite are found all over the world, from the Boy Scouts to the Ndembu to street gangs in Los Angeles. The nature and severity vary a lot, but the universality of this behavior suggests it is rooted somewhere deep in our nature. Anecdotal reports suggest that there is a real change in personality of the victims of these rituals—-they enter as anxious and effeminate (recall that they have been raised their whole lives by women) boys and emerge as macho and often fierce men. For example Margaret Mead (1949) says of young males in Tambunum on the Sepik river in New Guinea that they are “… surprisingly feminine, willowy, giving very little premonition of the bombast and high, headstrong behaviour that will characterize them as adults.”

Gaudy Art

Gaudy decorative art and technologiy mark cad societies. We think immediately of the body paint and the feather bonnets and such of Plains Indians, the masks and totem poles of the US Northwest Coast, the elaborate costumes and masks of New Guinea or of West Africa, and so on. Figure 1 shows a collection of spears, knives, and shields obtained by Henry Stanley (1988) when he floated down the Congo river in mid nineteenth century.

These shields and weapons are beautifully designed and made yet they look rather useless. They are appropriate to hang on the den wall but not so appropriate for serious work like killing a buffalo or an enemy. These are men’s toys in this heavily forested part of central Africa where everyone was living mostly off maize. There was almost nothing to hunt, and the men occupied themselves it seems mostly with strong talk and with raiding and warfare. Along the upper reaches of the Congo river the warlike stance of everyone was entirely rational in the face of Arab slave raiding parties, but further downriver there was no apparent external threat that would explain the chronic violence and belligerence.

The North American Northwest coast is famous as the home of sedentary foraging people who commanded rich seasonal resource streams of salmon. A prominent mode here of competition was the potlatch, ostentatious destruction of property to emphasize one’s wealth. These people are also famous for their totem poles and decorated war canoes. These cad male societies with their arts and handicrafts contrast sharply with dad male societies. The vast areas in Asia of dense peasant agriculture bring to mind rather drab males, devoid of paint and adornment, out in the fields working. Certainly in these societies the elite can generate decorative art, like cathedrals, but there is little local production for use in face-to-face male interactions.

HCH has spent many years with !Kung Bushmen in southern Africa. It is fun to imagine how they would react to, say, a totem pole from the US northwest coast. They would have a good laugh, then chop it up as the well dried firewood that it would be.

Sculpture and cave art are widely regarded as signatures of the transition to modern humans 20,000 to 30,000 years ago in Europe. Much of the cave art is of the highest quality but interestingly it is not out in public view—-it was not something that one took mom and the kids to view on a Sunday afternoon stroll. Rather it is deep inside the earth, often reachable only be a difficult crawl. The feeling of it is the feeling of a men’s house or a fraternity house secret room in the basement or a kiva—-an integral and important part of whatever male rigmarole is going on.

Another Dimension

Recently Lars Rodseth and Shannon Novak (2000) have elaborated this way of classifying societies by considering an additional dimension of male behavior: whether males focus energy and effort on the domestic or the public sphere. Domestic males put their interests and efforts into the household or other local domestic unity while public males are more active in political and other activities outside and away from the domestic or household unit. This dimension is potentially independent of the cad-dad dimension and thinking about this new dimension could clarify our understanding of human social diversity.

In dad societies, dad-domestic males are like Ozzie, Harriet’s famous husband. Bushman males are quiet not gaudy and their lives seem focused on their families. Dad-public males, on the other hand, occur in societies where males control the wealth. Males here are more like patriarchs with much of their daily activity in a public sphere. Pastoralists, much of the Islamic world, and many agricultural societies would be classified as Dad-public.

Cad-domestic males are not very prominent in ethnographies. In societies where males are loud, prominent, and face-to-face competitive these are the males who drop out, who do not participate in the ongoing male game. In American urban underclass society these are the mild unassuming males who hold steady jobs and bring the income back to a (mother only) household (Sharff 1981). The analogy with helpers-at-the-nest among birds is obvious. There is also a niche for male dropouts in other cad male societies: for example among the Plains Indians there were males, called berdache, who did not participate in the “normal” male world but instead were of ambiguous sexuality and who did ritual and ceremonial things.

Cad-public males are the ordinary males in cad societies, males participating in the ongoing public jostling competition within the group and violent competition among groups.

When we discuss stereotypical cad and dad societies we are discussing what Rodseth and Novak would classify as cad-public and dad-domestic societies, and it is important to understand the other alternate male roles.

Extreme Public Dads

When males or groups of males control resources that support reproduction they are in a position to demand more from females seeking to marry into the group that are males in other social systems. For example in much of the Near East and South Asia males own the land or otherwise control the sources of food and brides must essentially purchase their way to husbands. Females, or rather their families, must provide two things—-money or other wealth and paternity confidence.

Payment by the family of the bride is called dowry (while payment by the groom or his family is called brideprice.) In these hypergynous dowry systems such payments are often substantial because the number of niches for females, i.e. eligible grooms, is restricted. They are called hypergynous because newly wealthy families a social grade below the family of the prospective groom can buy their daughter’s way upward in class, and hypergyny means female marriage up the social ladder. This flow of women up the social scale leaves excess males at the bottom and excess women at the top. The successful bride must bring not only wealth but also chastity, purity, virginity, and family honor to the marriage. Afterward she is highly restrained in her personal life: she may have some of her external genitalia removed in parts of North Africa so that she will not experience sexual pleasure, she may be essentially locked in her husbandÕs compound for most of her reproductive years, she may have to wear a tent, a hood, and a mask in much of the world of Islam, and so on. In India a dutiful widow should even cast herself on her husband’s funeral pyre since she is, after all, worthless to anyone as a widow.

Dowry systems are concentrated at the top of the local social class or caste scheme, so the preference for male offspring and the presence of excess females are most apparent among the wealthy and those of high social status. These excess women, however, are not free even though they are unmarried. Their chastity and virtue are vital for family honor, and a family with compromised honor will lose its ability to marry off other females of the family. Hence the chaste town librarian of upper class New England, the Hardy Boys’ maiden aunt, and so on.

There is another option available to women in many hypergynous systems—-she can disappear by moving to the city. As Europe became crowded in the late Middle Ages through the Renaissance and the Enlightenment there was a flow of young females to the cities. The cost to these women was separation from their families because maintenance of ties would compromise the honor of their rural families while the benefit was the opportunity to reproduce. They often became courtesans and prostitutes in Europe, Geishas in Japan, and so on. The historian William Langer calls this the “age of seduction” in Europe as he writes of the Paris dump littered with dead dogs and dead babies (Langer 1972). Cities were population sinks and an appalling fraction of the offspring of these new urban women died. Today much the same dynamic is happening in Latin America with its slums full of women without husbands giving birth to babies that died at a horrific rate. Thailand, with a “traditional” rural peasantry, is at the same time a world capital of sex tourism in its cities because of the inflow of excess females.


The point of this whirlwind tour of human cultural diversity is to illustrate the astounding flexibility of human social arrangements found over the earth. We can speak with some clarity about the social systems of wolves or moose or ducks but humans seem capable of almost anything. We should not however be blinded by the diversity because the various social systems are different frameworks within which the old evolutionary game is played, with women nurturing offspring and men joining them when necessary else withdrawing to play male competitive games with other males.

Even classical Dad societies like the Bushmen of the Kalahari desert do not fall clearly on the spectrum. A popular interpretation is that males here are investing parents who work to provision their wives and children. Yet other anthropologists, most prominently Kristen Hawkes of the University of Utah, suggest that Bushmen men are mate guarding rather than provisioning. They do indeed hunt, but the products of the hunt are distributed widely among the whole group with no special bonus for their own families. “Showoffs ” says Hawkes, not real dads. Instead she would propose that the real essential source of help for mothers in human prehistory and much of history has been grandmothers, not fathers. Bushman males are indeed fatherly, affectionate with and supportive of their children, but is this simply a side effect, an accidental consequence of competition among mate guarding showoffs? We still have much to learn about social evolution in our species, and ideas like those of Hawkes are unfortunately spreading. Indeed one our own spouses said, in a confused moment several weeks ago, “you men are nothing but surrogate grandmothers.”

These different subsistence ecologies are not only products of evolution and natural selection, they are also important contexts for it. If belligerent violent warriors, killers, have a reproductive advantage as the do among the Yanomamo of the Amazon basin (Chagnon 1988) then over a time scale of centuries males will become better and better at being belligerent and violent. If instead the social system favors white collar skills, like the niche of northern European Jews in Medieval times, intelligence and other related skill will increase. Centuries of peasant farming should select for being a good peasant farmer and related abilities. A system with a high interest rate, social stability, and the rule of law should select for the ability to defer rewards, against violence, and in favor of the ability to work hard. Gregory Clark (2007) suggests that precisely these circumstances in Medieval Europe led to the Industrial Revolution, that evolution forged a new kind of human that could sustain an industrial society.


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