Indeed, where there is debate about the nature of innate human sexuality, the only two acceptable options appear to be that humans evolved to be either monogamous (M–F) or polygynous (M–FFF+) — with the conclusion normally being that women generally prefer the former configuration while most men would opt for the latter. But what about multiple mating, where most males and females have more than one concurrent sexual relationship?
Why — apart from moral disgus t— is prehistoric promiscuity not even considered, when nearly every relevant source of evidence points in that direction?
After all, we know that the foraging societies in which human beings evolved were small-scale, highly egalitarian groups who shared almost everything. There is a remarkable consistency to how immediate return foragers live — wherever they are.* The !Kung San of Botswana have a great deal in common with Aboriginal people living in outback Australia and tribes in remote pockets of the Amazon rainforest.
Anthropologists have demonstrated time and again that immediate-return hunter-gatherer societies are nearly universal in their fierce egalitarianism. Sharing is not just encouraged; it’s mandatory. Hoarding or hiding food, for example, is considered deeply shameful, almost unforgivable behavior in these societies.9
Foragers divide and distribute meat equitably, breastfeed one another’s babies, have little or no privacy from one another, and depend upon each other for survival. As much as our social world revolves around notions of private property and individual responsibility, theirs spins in the opposite direction, toward group welfare, group identity, profound interrelation, and mutual dependence.
Though this may sound like naïve New Age idealism, whining over the lost Age of Aquarius, or a celebration of prehistoric communism, not one of these features of pre-agricultural societies is disputed by serious scholars. The overwhelming consensus is that egalitarian social organization is the de-facto system for foraging societies in all environments. In fact, no other system could work for foraging societies. Compulsory sharing is simply the best way to distribute risk to everyone’s benefit: participation mandatory. Pragmatic? Yes. Noble? Hardly.
We believe this sharing behavior extended to sex as well. A great deal of research from primatology, anthropology, anatomy, and psychology points to the same fundamental conclusion: human beings and our hominid ancestors have spent almost all of the past few million years or so in small, intimate bands in which most adults had several sexual relationships at any given time. This approach to sexuality probably persisted until the rise of agriculture and private property no more than ten thousand years ago. In addition to voluminous scientific evidence, many explorers, missionaries, and anthropologists support this view, having penned accounts rich with tales of orgiastic rituals, unflinching mate sharing, and an open sexuality unencumbered by guilt or shame.
If you spend time with the primates closest to human beings, you’ll see female chimps having intercourse dozens of times per day, with most or all of the willing males, and rampant bonobo group sex that leaves everyone relaxed and maintains intricate social networks. Explore contemporary human beings’ lust for particular kinds of pornography or our notorious difficulties with long-term sexual monogamy and you’ll soon stumble over relics of our hypersexual ancestors.
Our bodies echo the same story. The human male has testicles far larger than any monogamous primate would ever need, hanging vulnerably outside the body where cooler temperatures help preserve stand-by sperm cells for multiple ejaculations. He also sports the longest, thickest penis found on any primate on the planet, as well as an embarrassing tendency to reach orgasm too quickly. Women’s pendulous breasts (utterly unnecessary for breastfeeding children), impossible-to-ignore cries of delight (female copulatory vocalization to the clipboard-carrying crowd), and capacity for orgasm after orgasm all support this vision of prehistoric promiscuity. Each of these points is a major snag in the standard narrative.
Once people were farming the same land season after season, private property quickly replaced communal ownership as the modus operandi in most societies. For nomadic foragers, personal property — anything needing to be carried — is kept to a minimum, for obvious reasons. There is little thought given to who owns the land, or the fish in the river, or the clouds in the sky. Men (and often, women) confront danger together.
An individual male’s parental investment, in other words — the core element of the standard narrative — tends to be diffuse in societies like those in which we evolved, not directed toward one particular woman and her children, as the conventional model insists.
But when people began living in settled agricultural communities, social reality shifted deeply and irrevocably.
Suddenly it became crucially important to know where your field ended and your neighbor’s began. Remember the Tenth Commandment: “Thou shalt not covet thy neighbour’s house, thou shalt not covet thy neighbour’s wife, nor his manservant, nor his maidservant, nor his ox, nor his ass, nor any thing that [is] thy neighbour’s.” Clearly, the biggest loser (aside from slaves, perhaps) in the agricultural revolution was the human female, who went from occupying a central, respected role in foraging societies to becoming another possession for a man to earn and defend, along with his house, slaves, and livestock.
“The origins of farming,” says archaeologist Steven Mithen, “is the defining event of human history — the one turning point that has resulted in modern humans having a quite different type of lifestyle and cognition to all other animals and past types of humans.”10
The most important pivot point in the story of our species, the shift to agriculture redirected the trajectory of human life more fundamentally than the control of fire, the Magna Carta, the printing press, the steam engine, nuclear fission, or anything else has or, perhaps, ever will. With agriculture, virtually everything changed: the nature of status and power, social and family structures, how humans interacted with the natural world, the gods they worshipped, the likelihood and nature of warfare between groups, quality of life, longevity, and certainly, the rules governing sexuality.
His survey of the relevant archaeological evidence led archaeologist Timothy Taylor, author of The Prehistory of Sex, to state, “While hunter-gatherer sex had been modeled on an idea of sharing and complementarity, early agriculturalist sex was voyeuristic, repressive, homophobic, and focused on reproduction.” “Afraid of the wild,” he concludes, “farmers set out to destroy it.”11
Land could now be possessed, owned, and passed down the generations. Food that had been hunted and gathered now had to be sowed, tended, harvested, stored, defended, bought, and sold. Fences, walls, and irrigation systems had to be built and reinforced; armies to defend it all had to be raised, fed, and controlled. Because of private property, for the first time in the history of our species, paternity became a crucial concern.
But the standard narrative insists that paternity certainty has always been of utmost importance to our species, that our very genes dictate we organize our sexual lives around it. Why, then, is the anthropological record so rich with examples of societies where biological paternity is of little or no importance? Where paternity is unimportant, men tend to be relatively unconcerned about women’s sexual fidelity.
But before we get into these real-life examples, let’s take a quick trip to the Yucatán.
* We use the terms “foragers” and “hunter-gatherers” interchangeably throughout the text.
* Anthropologist James Woodburn (1981/1998) classified foraging societies into immediate-return (simple) and delayed-return (complex) systems. In the former, food is eaten within days of acquisition, without elaborate processing or storage. Unless otherwise noted, we refer to these societies.