Sex at Dawn

sex at dawnOne of my goals for this space is to write about food-related books, so it is only appropriate that I start with one about sexuality! Sex at Dawn: The Prehistoric Origins of Modern Sexuality by Christopher Ryan and Cacilda Jethá explores the fairly recent development of monogamous relationships as the norm in many societies.  Our anatomy, what we know about prehistoric societies, and comparison to our closest animal relatives (primarily bonobos) suggests that for most of human existence we lived in equitable groups that shared everything, including food, child care, and sexual partners.

I picked up the book intrigued by this premise alone, but really got into it when Ryan and Jethá started discussing when the transition from egalitarian groups to property owning individuals happened: the onset of agriculture. This shift caused many changes in the set-up of society. Hunters and gathers stopped doing so much of those defining activities, and spent far more time in one spot. Individualism, owning property, monogamous relationships and having more offspring to work on the farm became main priorities.

I assumed that this shift would have accompanied more continuous prosperity and reliable food sources, but skeletal evidence proves the opposite: that our ancestors did not experience widespread scarcity until they settled in agricultural societies (181). The health changes caused by shifting from foraging to farming around 1200 AD were not positive: “Archaeologist George Armelagos and his colleagues reported that the farmers’ remains show a 50 percent increase in chronic malnutrition, and three times the incidence of infectious diseases (including bone lesions)….increased infant mortality, delayed skeletal growth in adults, and a fourfold increase in porotic hyperostosis, indicating iron-deficiency in more than half the population”( 173-4). This outcome is very similar to the nutrition transition that occurs when people move from traditional to western style diets highly concentrated in sugar, fat, and animal products, which increases obesity and the many diseases that accompany it.

There was no need for people to stay rooted to a spot that was not producing enough food before farming. Being constantly on the move also made close, successive pregnancies very unlikely so there were rarely more mouths than could be fed. This kept the population small and mobile in a world with abundant food (160). Because there was very little property and all things were shared, there was no such thing as poverty. There was also very little abuse of resources, because in a small society it is very easy to keep people accountable. But once the population size grew so big that individuals could not easily keep track of one another (Dunbar’s number), there began an inevitable abuse of resources (170-1).

In Sex at Dawn Ryan and Jethá quote Marshall Sahlins from his book Stone Age Economics: “Poverty is not a certain small amount of goods, nor is it just a relation between means and ends; above all it is a relationship between people. Poverty is a social status. As such it is the invention of civilization.” The shift to an agricultural society caused more disease, scarcity and the creation of poverty. We have also far surpassed the point where reverting back to a nomadic lifestyle would be a solution to our current widespread health, resource, and other issues.  Obviously our current population could never be supported by hunting and gathering, nor would most people want to live that way. So the question now is: how can we live in a capitalist agrarian society and be healthy, happy people? Can we live in large populations without poverty, and without reverting to an extreme vegan communist society?

PS – He doesn’t mention the agricultural aspects, but Ryan did give a TED talk that gives a good overview of the rest of the book.