Why Is the Way Humans Eat So Special? Part II

I am barely touching my seat on the pontoon boat, hand outstretched with smushed banana across my fingers. The Capuchin monkey scoots to the edge of his branch, bowing down to my offering. With a sudden leap, he is on my shoulder, tail curling around my neck as he picks at the banana with his hands, eating demurely, albeit quickly. He circles my shoulders once, and after satisfying himself that I had no other hidden banana mush to give, flies from the boat and disappears into the brush as we float by. 

I had conflicted feelings about feeding the monkeys. Doesn't this teach them to stop hunting for their own food? Does this make them less independent and therefore less resilient in their habitat? By instilling a dependency of the white-faced monkeys on tourists, we were also decreasing their dependency on each other. We were fueling competition instead of cooperation. As I grappled with this morality, I couldn't help but see a parallel of sorts in people. We, as individuals, have much less control over where our food comes from and how it's procured than we had in the past. We tend to rely heavily on a distant, faceless workforce to secure enough (often more than enough) food to feed ourselves and our families. 

Is this development in our evolution an advantage, providing us with more time and energy to devote to other endeavors, or a disservice, denying us control over what enters our bodies?

If we trace the path of how humans, and even other primates, have secured food in the past, it may lend us the perspective from which we can decide for ourselves. 

Imagine an ancient, East African Rift Valley, including modern Kenya and Ethiopia—the land where the infamous three-million-year-old australopithecine skeleton, Lucy, was discovered in 1974. Let’s only jog back between 500,000 and 800,000 years ago.

In this Middle Pleistocene period, wooded grasslands would have dominated the landscape, and the air would have been more humid with cooler temperatures than we would expect today. It is August, a dry month, and the plants that comprise the majority of the local chimpanzees’ diet are scarce. The collective body weight of the troop has dropped, and hunting becomes a high priority. Mostly adult and adolescent males gather to hunt together.

While both males and females have been known to hunt alone, the hunts prove more successful when they work together, with kills ranging from one red colobus monkey to seven. The hunt is an opportunity for the males to display their abilities, their prowess. But the spoils don’t go the victor alone. Whatever bounty is recovered will be divided among the troop, but the nature of the division is not altruistic.

With chimpanzees, as with many primates, the tendency is for an alpha male to control the distribution of food to his advantage. Meat is his bargaining chip, a way to humiliate rivals, a way to attract the best reproductive partners. This development of alliances and power plays over the over the day’s kill creates an intricate social hierarchy that determines the dynamics between individuals. 

Craig Stanford, co-director of the USC Jane Goodall Research Center, said: 

“The relationships that emerge from sharing, especially those involving the barter of food for something else, such as an alliance, require a keen mind. The sharer must have a sharp memory to be able to remember alliance networks. At the same time, the resources involved can become the focus of a web of social interactions. In human evolution, complex ways of sharing key resources may have accompanied the recent escalation of brain size and accompanying cognitive advances.”

Even with the sharply political food sharing found in chimpanzees, the fundamental nature of cooperation toward a common goal is indelibly wedged into the ritual. That cooperation, and the cleverness of the individuals who capitalize on it, would carry over into the primates' nearest neighbors: early humans.