22. Overpopulation


Our species started in very harmonious groups with the women as the dominant gender. Survival on the savannahs was extremely precarious. Groups living in harmony flourished better than groups with tensions: natural selection advanced harmony within the groups or tribes. Millions and millions of years of harmony is what made us the most social beings in nature, while the other side of our nature – violently defending ourselves and our kin – was pushed far away to the background. On the sparsely populated savannahs, such violent behavior was just not needed for survival.

Why then are men the dominant gender now? Why did Plato live in a time of civil war and slavery? Why then a Holocaust, Nanking massacre or, more recently, the Rwanda tribal mass murder? Why was our natural tendency to live in harmony overshadowed by other, more violent tendencies? We find the answer in the chimpanzees, and the keyword is overpopulation.

We may assume the ancestors of the chimpanzees lived more harmoniously than their descendants now, and again climate changes were a main cause here. Two million years ago, the start of the Ice Ages caused a dryer climate, shrinking the rainforests area. This shrinking of their territories caused overpopulation among the ancestors of the modern chimpanzees, which incited a more fierce struggle for survival. Struggle and war made the males more important. In the fiercer competition between different groups, the groups with the most violent men had a better survival chance. This process repeated itself with each new Ice Age, over and over again, about twenty times. In the long run, this made chimpanzees more violent (unlike for example bonobos, who thanks to a different environment were able to retail their original nonviolent lifestyle).

For our ancestors, this situation of overpopulation started not 2 million years ago, but just some 100 thousand years ago in Northern Africa, where the Anatomically Modern Humans (AMHs) had appeared as descendants of a local African Middle Stone Age (MSA) population, who in their turn were descendants of the African Homo erectus.

The tropical H. erectus (par exemple Nariokotome Boy) and the MSAs had been long and slender. Just like the stocky figures of the Neandertals (NT-s) had adapted to a colder climate, their African contemporaries (the MSA-culture, you could see them as Afro-NT’s) had adapted to a hot climate. Their being long and slender also meant longer necks with more place for a lower throat and a bigger pharynx. Our pharynx plays an important role in singing and making vowels. This makes spoken language possible.

We already told about the communication moment. In most discussions, you get little time to make your point and each woman wants to contribute her part. From the very beginning, their voices played a role in the sign communication. When communicating in the dark, or with full hands, they always felt pressed to put more lingual content in their vocal sounds, with clicks! and pfffs! and mmms![1]. I also mentioned the influence of the daily dancing-and-singing of the Creation Story in gradually developing more cortical voice control. For the long and slender Afro-NT’s, longer necks may have facilitated this process. 100.000 years ago, the communication of this African population was in the midst of a transition from pure sign language supported by a few sounds, to ever more spoken language supported by gestures.

I think this had to do with the females in the first place. Women were dominant in religious performances, like they were dominant in medical care and magic. Males should never put the success of their hunting at risk by using female speech to pray to the Big Ancestor: they clung on the sacral sign language for their hunting prayers. Nowadays before each hunting trip, the Semai hunters still use sign language to pray to their Big Ancestor. When we look at the important role of gestures in sacred rituals today, we see that sign language must have survived a long time in the sacral singing-and-dancing of the Creation Stories which had such a dominant place in the lives of our ancestors.

To get back to the point: why war and why male dominance? We saw that with chimpanzees, overpopulation brought fighting and fostered violence in males. The same mechanism applies to humans in more recent times. During most of our evolution, populations grew slowly and the world was wide. So equality between the genders or even female dominance was common in the groups and clans. But because women will defend their children, and may quarrel to find their place in the status order, they will often look for a powerful hulk as an arbitrator. It is quite possible that from the earliest times, even female dominated communities had a headman. Of course, he had to be accepted by the women[2] and under female control. In larger and later groups, males and females may have lived apart for most hours of a day, and each have had their own rituals, but even then a headman ‘headed’ a group.

We still see the same in all tribes with incessant and hopeless tribal wars: it occurs always and only in a situation of overpopulation. But why do all these tribes know machism (male dominance) and sometimes severe violence against women? Why this unproductive suppression of their indispensable and attractive partners in life? This may be the consequence of the female dominance in the long, long times before the overpopulation situation. In times of survival fights however, the ‘fittest’ groups are the groups with the most violent males, as we saw. Therefore, women began to see violence as a good quality in males and to promote this warrior-attitude in their men and sons.

The males learned their warrior qualities were very, very important. And by inference, they began to see their own rituals as far more important than the rituals of the women. In many cultural myths all over the world this is illustrated by the element of males taking over the holy flutes for their own ritual use.

The first indication of overpopulation (accompanied by the start of wars and male dominance) in European AMHs may date from the onset of a cold period of OIS-2[3] about 35.000 years ago. Hunting territories shrunk, groups were driven together in the southern refugia. The cave paintings of Chauvet and elsewhere may be seen as male initiation sanctuaries: as places for secluded male rituals, separated from the women. At the same time, female rituals became more concentrated on the growing importance of food plants like peas and lentils, the boons of Mother Earth which they venerated with the renowned Venus figurines such as the Willendorf statuette.

Venus of Willendorf, Austria. Limestone, ca 25.000 BC

Many paleos wonder why the AMHs in Europe developed brilliant cave paintings and Venus statuettes (the ‘Upper Paleolithic Revolution’), while those living in Africa for much longer did not produce that many art works. For example, archaeologist Richard G. Klein theorizes about some brain-related gen mutation leading through symbolic language to symbolic art. We think there is a more simple explanation: artistic activity may have been fostered by a colder climate, where in a long icy winter (when people lived mainly from food gathered in autumn) there was less to do. This may be corroborated when we compare the activities of Inuit gatherer-hunters with African gatherer-hunters such as the San.

Later on, other events contributed to overpopulation and male dominance. About 16.000 years ago, in the northern hemisphere, the big mammals (mammoths, cave bears, giant deer, sabre toothed tiger, etcetera) became extinct. This was the time of the invention of bow and arrow, and the domestication of the wolf. This also was the time of the dispersion of AMHs all over the world, including the Americas. This was the time of beginning horticulture. In regions of Eurasia with a high density of shabono’s (the temporary villages or long-houses of semi nomadic horticulturers) the first acute struggles for survival arose.

But on a more fundamental level, it was only the situation that had changed (war), not the males or the women themselves. So the males had to suppress their incertitude, to allay their own doubts: they declared their newly-won importance holy. A deep incertitude of the males may have contributed to a new phenomenon: a constant denigration of female abilities. Present-day religious fundamentalists still display this primitive incertitude, by isolating and over-protecting their wives, by limiting female freedom of action, or by demonizing love affairs or abortions.

A good question is: was machismo not a legacy of the early AMHs? Was their immigration Out of Africa not a result of overpopulation? Even the most egalitarian tribes like the Mbuti (Congo) know a certain degree of machismo. In the past, Mbuti males annexed the molima, the rites of the holy flutes and excluded the women from it. As a part of the present ritual, women still disturb the males’ ritual crying that the men have stolen the molima and the holy flutes from them.

So when you say machismo may be very old, I agree. For example, as we can see with chimpanzees, machismo may always have been a strategy to cope with situations of overpopulation and/or competition. Both peacefulness and a warrior-attitude have always been strategies to cope with specific environmental challenges. For most of human history, a predominantly peaceful way of living was the most successful way to interact with the environment. When about 20,000 years ago overpopulation started to become an environmental factor, gradually a warrior-like style of living became the more successful attitude.

I paraphrased a few pages from the book The other side of Eden (London, 2001) about the lifestyle of ‘noble wilds’. But human nature is a three-stage rocket. So here is an anecdote about noble wilds in an overpopulation situation, already forty years in my mind, so I have forgotten the source. It is from a visitor or missionary :

Oh what a noble people, so respectful for each other and for their children! So much better humans than we in our western civilization!

One day men learned that strangers were roaming in the north of the territory. So they had to go down there. Perhaps whiteman would like to come along? Oh yes, sure, whiteman was always ready to learn some new.

They stalked the camp of the strangers. It appeared that the men were hunting and the women gathering, so they found only old people and children in the camp. All of them were slaughtered ruthlessly. A desperate girl crawled to the petrified onlooking visitor for help. “Oh, you want to fuck her, whiteman?” asked a helpful Indian, “wait a moment”– and he pushed his spear through the girl’s body into the ground.[4]

From this story we may conclude that we are very social, but only to those we see as fellow humans. For the Indians, the strangers were not fellow humans. Not even humans. To them, these others were rather a form of harmful wildlife that you need to destroy. It can also be concluded that this awful behavior didn’t make them less social: it had survival value. Only one group can make a living from a given territory. Those Indians didn’t have a government to regulate their behavior. In any threatening situation, selfishness is dominating, and this also applies to a GH-collective. Today we still see the same behavior in AGR-societies such as Rwanda. It can be seen in any civilization, such as the Japanese (the Nanking massacre) or the German civilization (Holocaust). Such behavior can be revived by ideological indoctrination and can happen even when the supposed threat is in fact an imaginary one. In the just-mentioned cases, the Tutsi, the Chinese, the Jews were not a real threats, but ideological indoctrination had caused them to be felt as a threat. In a sense, such indoctrination created an imaginary overpopulation situation.

[1] in the 1950s, the American Hayes couple raised a chimpanzee, Vicky, as if she was a human child: this was intended as an experiment of training in speaking. But the only result was ‚mama’, ‚papa’. ‚up’ and ‚cup’, soundlessly spoken

[2] As described by Frans de Waal, even the dominant bonobo females prefer an alpha male, because females to one another have difficulties in amending quarrels; but the alpha female makes the foraging decisions, not the alpha male

[3] Marine isotope stages (MIS), marine oxygen-isotope stages, or oxygen isotope stages (OIS), are alternating warm and cool periods in the Earth’s paleoclimate, deduced from oxygen isotope data reflecting temperature curves derived from data from deep sea core samples.

[4] surely not from Jesuit Relations, field letters from the missionary priests, published for two hundred years beginning in the early 17th century as a fundraising tool. Because the Jesuits found their own civilization superior, and urged the native men to beat their children and to suppress their women

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Used abbreviations

GHs: gatherers/hunters (the phase from 2 million years ago to 10.000 years ago)

AGRs: agriculturers (the phase from 10.000 years ago till now)

NT(s)Neanderthal people

MSA(s): Middle Stone Age people (African NTs)

AMH(s): Anatomical Modern Humans (H sapiens people), like we are

(m)ya: (million) years ago

ANBOs: Ancestor Bonobos (ape-men), our earliest human ancestors

Paleos: all scientists that are important for our story.