The Intelligence of African Hunters, and the Ignorance of Popular Hereditarians
The sophistication and skill of Bushmen hunters is, I had thought, fairly well known to many educated WEIRDos.
In his book The Demon-Haunted World (1995), astrophysicist and public intellectual Carl Sagan discussed the impressive tracking abilities of Kalahari hunters at length, and compared the methods they use in evaluating the depressions of footprints to how planetary astronomers analyze crater impacts.
Similarly, over 25 years later, Steven Pinker in his recent book Rationality (2021) offers a very nice extended discussion of Bushmen tracking skills and strategies,
Hunters distinguish dozens of species by the shapes and spacing of their tracks, aided by their grasp of cause and effect. They may infer that a deeply pointed track comes from an agile springbok, which needs a good grip, whereas a flat-footed track comes from a heavy kudu, which has to support its weight. They can sex the animals from the configuration of their tracks and the relative location of their urine to their hind feet and droppings…The San don’t just pigeonhole animals into categories but make finer-grained logical distinctions. They tell individuals apart within a species by reading their hoofprints, looking for telltale nicks and variations. And they distinguish an individual’s permanent traits, like its species and sex, from transient conditions like fatigue, which they infer from signs of hoof-dragging and stopping to rest. Defying the canard that premodern peoples have no concept of time, they estimate the age of an animal from the size and crispness of its hoofprints, and can date its spoor by the freshness of tracks, the wetness of saliva or droppings, the angle of the sun relative to a shady resting place, and the palimpsest of superimposed tracks from other animals.
Two of the most famous public intellectuals in recent American history, both accomplished scientists, decades apart, taking time in their popular science books to emphasize the intelligence and sophistication of African hunter-gatherers.
And yet, despite this extensive popular discussion of what should be a fairly obvious and well-established point—that Kalahari hunter-gatherers are uh pretty good hunters, with effective and intelligent strategies for obtaining their prey—there are some popular hereditarian psychologists who have claimed that African hunter-gatherers are actually too dumb to hunt, and don’t hunt at all or don’t need to hunt to survive.
Bushmen hunters, occupying the lush paradise of the Kalahari Desert, subsist almost entirely on the abundance of plant life that surrounds them, these hereditarians say, while Eurasian ancestors in contrast evolved particularly large brains in part through figuring out how to hunt and survive during ‘cold winters’.
Richard Lynn writes in Race Differences in Intelligence (2006),
The selection pressure for enhanced intelligence acting on the peoples who migrated from tropical and sub-tropical equatorial Africa into North Africa, Asia, Europe, and America was the problem of survival during the winter and spring in temperate and cold climates. This was a new and more cognitively demanding environment because of the need to hunt large animals for food and to keep warm, which required the building of shelters and making fires and clothing.
Similarly, J. Philippe Rushton writes of the supposed novelty of the need to hunt—and fish, and butcher animals, and even use fire apparently!—among Eurasians specifically, writing in Race, Evolution, and Behavior: A Life History Perspective (2000) that,
To survive the long winters, the ancestors of today's Whites and Orientals made complex tools and weapons to fish and hunt animals. They made spearheads that could kill big game from a greater distance and knives for cutting and skinning. Fires, clothes and shelters were made for warmth.
In a footnote in The Bell Curve (1994), Charles Murray and Richard Herrnstein compare the “relatively benign environments of Africa to the harsher and more demanding Eurasian latitudes,” that ‘Caucasoids’ and ‘Mongoloids’ had to face. Satoshi Kanazawa (2012) claims that, “In the tropic and subtropic climate of Africa, plant food is abundant, and food procurement is therefore not difficult at all.” Kevin MacDonald and Michael A. Woodley (2016) echo these claims, writing of how it was only after humans left Africa into more northerly climates that, “hunting animals and means of storing food were required.”
These guys are all some of the most popular and well-known English-speaking hereditarians of the last few decades, and there appears to be a consensus among them about the supposed ease of survival in Africa and the lack of a need for hunting there.
First, I will draw on the ethnohistorical evidence to show how badly this hereditarian account misses the mark. Next, I will address some potential objections to the case I make. Finally, I will conclude with some general thoughts on what I consider to be one of the major current failures of hereditarianism.
The Social Importance of the Chase
The hunt is of extreme importance, central to masculine identity, and has substantial reproductive implications among Bushmen groups. Anthropologist Lorna Marshall offers an extended description of how essential hunting is in The !Kung of Nyae Nyae (1976), writing that,
With the rarest exceptions, all !Kung men hunt. Little boys play with tiny bows and arrows from the time they can walk and practice shooting throughout their childhood. At adolescence, they begin to hunt with their fathers. They learn the skills of tracking and stalking and begin to participate in actual hunts. They continue through their manhood till they are gray-haired old men who can no longer endure the exertion of the hunt. A young man may not marry until he has killed a big game animal, proved himself a hunter, and had the Rite of the First Kill performed for him. John Marshall's film, “A Rite of Passage,” depicts the rite as it was performed for young /Ti!kay, son of Khan//a of Kai Kai. The pressure of group opinion upon men to conform to their society's expectation, to hunt and provide meat, is enormously strong. In the Rite of the First Kill, a scarification (one of several) is cut in the skin of the boy's chest and a magic substance rubbed into his body to insure that he will not be lazy, that his heart will say to him, “Why am I sitting here at my fire? Why am I not out hunting?” [emphasis added]
First marriages were customarily arranged among many Bushmen groups, and the parents of daughters placed significant importance on the prospective husband being a good hunter. Marshall writes that,
The parents of a girl want the boy to be responsible, kind to their daughter and, above all, a good provider—which means a good hunter. They want him to make his arrows straight, to shoot swiftly and accurately, to be able to run down an eland, and, most of all, they want a son-in-law whose heart says to him, ‘Why am I sitting lazily here in the werf? Why do I not get up and go hunting?’ and who, in obedience to his heart, and the group’s desire, and the magic which has been rubbed into his scarifications in the Ceremony of the First Killing, gets up and goes…A boy who never killed any large meat animal would not be given a wife, informants said. This was why the strange old deviant, /Gaishay, had remained a bachelor. For reasons no one understood he could not hunt; he gathered veldkos like a woman. Gossip had it that twice he had tried to drag a woman against her will into his scherm but had not succeeded. Informants remarked, ‘Women like meat’. [emphasis added]
Hunting plays an important role in ornamentation and displays of status as well. For the Auin Bushmen, “Among men, decorative scars take the place of a hunt record. For each piece of big game that a man has killed, he wears a horizontal decorative scar, on the right upper arm for male game and on the left upper arm for female game.” And as I noted in a previous piece, hunters at Nyae Nyae would often cut antelope skin from the forehead of their prey and make them into bracelets for their wives. The wife and daughter of the man known as Short Kwi wore dozens of these, demonstrating his hunting prowess.
Territorial boundaries oriented around rights to hunting grounds are also known and respected. Anthropologist George Silberbauer writes of the G/wi of the central Kalahari that,
The exclusiveness of the rights of a band to occupy its territory and to exploit its resources is expressed in interband relationships of the sort described earlier regarding interband migration and the visits of single persons or small groups. These rights are also dramatized in girls' menarchial ceremonies, during which the girls are ritually introduced to the territory and its resources. The rights are also expressed when an infant has been away for some time and is reincorporated into the band by a welcoming ritual….The boundaries are recognized in the statements of informants and in the behavior of people working border zones. Gathering across the border is considered to be an invasion of rights and, to my knowledge, was always avoided. Hunting across a border is also not done, although wounded game is pursued into the neighboring territory. When an animal is brought down only a short distance across the border, it is considered to be killed on home ground. Sometimes an animal that is slow to succumb to arrow poison (see later in this chapter, under “Hunting”) or a wounded animal flees deep into a neighboring band's land. The hunter either gets help from that band if they are camped near the animal's path, and gives most of the meat to the helpers, or later tells the band of the incident and gives the meat to the band as a present to affirm their rights. [emphasis added]
Food Storage and Preservation
In the book The Harmless People (1989), on the Nyae Nyae Bushmen, Elizabeth Marshall Thomas writes that, “Most of the meat is dried to preserve it, causing it to last at least a few weeks,” clearly describing food storage and preservation. This is only one of the most popular and well-known ethnographies ever written, so naturally I do not expect most hereditarians to have read it before making strong claims about the people it describes. Ethnohistorical descriptions from over a century ago also mention the Auin, another Bushmen population, storing gathered foods in sacks of duiker or ibex leather within their huts.
Culture Loss and Complexity
By the time the most detailed ethnographic studies were conducted of Bushmen by Richard Lee and the Marshall family in the 1960’s, most groups had been wiped out by colonial contact.
However older ethnohistorical documents point to various complex cultural behaviors that were relatively common in the past, but rare or not found in the few contemporary groups that survived into recent years. Some examples:
Among the Auin, “In isolated cases the skin of an ostrich, with a stick placed in the neck, is used as a mask. The hunter slips into the skin after he has colored his legs with chalky soil. This mask is used for hunting ostriches as well as other types of game.”
And war practices and military accoutrements, with local conventions and traditions for navigating conflict.
Technology and Archaeological Evidence
Many important hunting technologies, such as the bow and arrow, seemed to have first emerged in Africa.
Among the Hadza of east Africa, anthropologist James Woodburn writes that, “The possession of a powerful bow is necessary for prestige and a Hadza man uses a bow with a draw-pull in the neighborhood of 120 pounds. The bows in use by other East African tribes are generally much weaker, as are European bows.”
Further, all African hunter-gatherer societies that I have surveyed used complex poisons requiring multi-stage preparation for hunting, again demonstrating the importance of hunting, and a common emphasis on effective hunting tactics among African hunter-gatherer societies.
The Affluent Paradise of the Kalahari
Despite the strange claims hereditarians have made about ease of survival for African hunter-gatherers, as Richard Lee notes in his book on The Dobe Ju/’hoansi (2012),
The northern Kalahari is a semidesert, and water scarcity is a major problem. The Ju rely on a hierarchy of water sources ranked in order of abundance…With these sources the Ju plan their annual round, spending the winter season close to the permanent waters and the summer months ranging widely at the secondary and lesser water sources.
Thus, Bushmen must strategically plan their movements in relation to scarce and sometimes disappearing water sources. And in fact, water is even more scarce in the central Kalahari where the G/wi live, as there are no permanent water sources in many parts of the region, unlike further to the north. There is also a great fluctuation of resources. Silberbauer notes that where the G/wi live,
There is great seasonal variation in the amount and variety of food plants available to provide for the nutritional and fluid requirements of the band. A square kilometer that has esculent plants sufficient to feed 50 people for 20 days in May will only meet the needs of 2 persons for the same period in September. The small-community strategy of the nexus-tied band must take into account the extreme and fairly regular fluctuations of the availability of resources. [emphasis added]
Hereditarians are often vague about what ‘cold winters’ is supposed to mean, but note that it gets below freezing in the Kalahari, and frost regularly blights plant foods during parts of the year, reducing their availability. Careful planning of individual and band movements are important for survival in the Kalahari.
Some Possible Objections
Total Meat Consumption
According to most estimates, the majority of the calories that !Kung Bushmen traditionally consumed came from plants. Reuning (1988) puts most estimates between about 15-40% of food consumed by weight being meat. However, remember we are talking about hunters in the Kalahari Desert—among the G/wi most of this plant food consumption is effectively fluid intake to deal with the shortage of water. Silberbeauer notes that, “Plant foods, which constitute by far the greatest component of the diet, are eaten every day and are also the main source of fluids in all but the six to eight weeks of the year during which rainwater can be found in pools.”
Kaplan et al. (2000) further provide a qualification noting how encroachment by agropastoralist societies may affect hunting success in some regions,
Another study of !Kung food production shows much higher hunting success than Lee reported. Yellen provided data showing that !Kung men acquired twice as much meat per day when they were in bush camps than they did in the permanent dry-season water-hole settlement where Herero raised cattle, which probably had a depressive effect on game densities. Yellen’s sample of person consumption days was larger than Lee’s and covered all months of the year. The daily meat consumption in Yellen’s sample was about 1,600 calories per capita, which would represent 68% of all calories if total food consumption was the same as Lee reported. [emphasis added]
Naturally even if the majority of calories come from plants that doesn’t mean meat is unimportant. As Reuning (1988) writes, “Meat is greatly desired as food and is a vital contributor of protein to the Bushmen's diet. By far the greater quantities of meat (about 80%) are obtained from large (eland, gemsbok, wildebeest) and medium-size (hartebeest, springbok) antelopes.”
In his 2006 book Richard Lynn puts the IQ of Bushmen at 54, concluding that adult Bushmen have the same average intelligence as eight-year-old European children. He got this number taking the average scores from a maze test and the Leiter International Performance Scale administered by Porteus (1937), and a modified pattern competition test from Reuning (1972). However, Reuning (1972) actually mocks and criticizes the kind of ridiculous conclusion that Lynn (and Porteus before him) comes to,
It makes no sense to set a problem simply because it is of vital interest to you, the investigator, if it does not normally exist in the world of your respondents or is put to them in an incomprehensible form. Take the example of the maze test, which is generally regarded as universally applicable. In the Central Kalahari there is never a situation in which you have to ask yourself: ‘Should I turn left here? Will I get stuck in a blind alley if I turn right?’ A motorist may get stuck in the sand, but the ordinary Kalahari dweller can go straight as far as he wants. There is no barrier or wall of any kind for him. One just cannot expect a Bushman to see the thin lines on a tester's maze as impregnable barriers. Furthermore, how can one who does not speak the subject's language fluently make clear to him such arbitrary rules as ‘Don’t cross the lines with your pencil’, ‘Don’t enter a “blind alley”’, ‘Do not retrace your way’, etc.? If one tries, he must not be too surprised if the results indicate, e.g. that the average mental age of the adult Bushman is, say, 7 1/2 years (Porteus, 1937). This is probably still better than the conclusion a Bushman would draw should he put the average European to the test by, say, leaving him alone in the Kalahari for three days; he would not get a response at all. [emphasis added]
Reuning (1988) further indicates how Lynn’s inferences are unwarranted from his results,
In order to assess the Bushmen’s average intelligence, in comparison with “IQs” of other people, our tests would first have to be standardised with one or more reference groups. A statement about the absolute level of intelligence, the “power of mind” of the Bushmen, is not, therefore, feasible.
Because of the demands of a nomadic lifestyle, Bushmen technology has to be portable or quickly reproduced. This simplicity is not due to stupidity but intelligence. As Megan Biesele writes in Women Like Meat (1993),
Habitation and government are based on flexible, opportunistic exploitation of the best resources available at any given time. Because of the need for mobility in following the movements of game, and the water sources usable at different times of year, Bushmen traditionally have very little property. Since they must walk wherever they go and often have to carry babies and small children, they usually have no more possessions than they can comfortably carry. A woman has a few ostrich eggshell water carriers, her digging stick, a wooden pestle and mortar perhaps, and some ornaments and skin bags. A man has his bow and quiver, a spear, sometimes a hunting bag made from the whole skin of a small buck, and a carrying net made of twisted sansevieria fibres and not much else. Most of Bushman technology is carried in the mind as information and technique, in fact, rather than in the hands or on the back. [emphasis added]
One popular hereditarian who was actually very impressed by Bushmen technology is Francis Galton. In Inquiries into Human Faculty and Its Development (1883) Galton writes that,
Among the races who are thus gifted [as natural artists] are the commonly despised, but, as I confidently maintain from personal knowledge of them, the much underrated Bushmen of South Africa. They are no doubt deficient in the natural instincts necessary to civilisation, for they detest a regular life, they are inveterate thieves, and are incapable of withstanding the temptation of strong drink. On the other hand, they have few superiors among barbarians in the ingenious methods by which they supply the wants of a difficult existence, and in the effectiveness and nattiness of their accoutrements. One of their habits is to draw pictures on the walls of caves of men and animals, and to colour them with ochre. These drawings were once numerous, but they have been sadly destroyed by advancing colonisation, and few of them, and indeed few wild Bushmen, now exist. [emphasis added]
In his travel guide, The Art of Travel (1855), Galton repeatedly draws attention to various Bushmen methods of extracting and storing water and suggests their use. For example,
To filter Muddy Water .—When, at the watering-place, there is little else but a mess of mud and filth, take a good handful of grass or rushes, and tie it roughly together in the form of a cone, 6 or 8 inches long; then dipping the broad end into the puddle, and turning it up, a streamlet of fluid will trickle down through the small end. This excellent plan is used by the Northern Bushmen—at their wells quantities of these bundles are found lying about.
Calabashes and other gourds, cocoa-nuts and ostrich eggs, are all of them excellent for flasks. The Bushmen of South Africa make great use of ostrich shells as watervessels. They have stations at many places in the desert, where they bury these shells filled with water, corked with grass, and occasionally waxed over. They thus go without hesitation over wide tracts, for their sense of locality is so strong that they never fear to forget the spot in which they have dug their hiding-place. [emphasis added]
Sounds pretty smart to me! Note again these sophisticated methods of water storage are at odds with the hereditarian claims about lack of storage. Hereditarians ought to be reading more Francis Galton, apparently.
I think giving hunter-gatherers who have never been indoors or held a pencil before a maze test, and concluding that they are dumb because they didn’t follow the instructions you are reciting to them in like their 6th or 7th language, is comically stupid.
In my opinion, if you want to understand and be knowledgeable about cross-cultural differences, you really have to read ethnography. You have to dig into the ethnohistorical evidence. There’s over 1200 societies listed in the Ethnographic Atlas. Documents for over 360 societies are provided for in the eHRAF World Cultures database. The Standard Cross-Cultural Sample consists of 186 societies. The Probability Sample Files on HRAF has 60. The latter two samples were developed in part to deal with Galton’s problem (i.e., non-independence/cultural influence between societies).
Modern nation-states are not independent from each other, but with ethnohistorical data we can better evaluate behaviors in contexts that were genuinely independent. Wicherts (2010) put it perfectly, “National IQs cannot be viewed solely in evolutionary terms but should be considered in light of global differences in socio-economic development, the causes of which are unknown.”
It does not make sense to me to take current population differences in IQ—or pretty much any other measured psychological or behavioral trait—as face value evidence of evolutionary differences between populations as many hereditarians often do, particularly when they haven’t looked at the ethnohistorical evidence, which I generally consider far more relevant to evaluating such claims, because it better addresses issues with Galton’s problem, and the varying pace of economic development and the demographic transition.
Further, comparisons of intelligence differences between populations are naturally highly culturally influenced and contextual.
As Jared Diamond correctly notes in Guns, Germs, and Steel (1997),
Of course, New Guineans tend to perform poorly at tasks that Westerners have been trained to perform since childhood and that New Guineans have not. Hence when unschooled New Guineans from remote villages visit towns, they look stupid to Westerners. Conversely, I am constantly aware of how stupid I look to New Guineans when I’m with them in the jungle, displaying my incompetence at simple tasks (such as following a jungle trail or erecting a shelter) at which New Guineans have been trained since childhood and I have not.
And British geologist H.B. Guppy puts it quite nicely in his work on the natives of the Solomon Islands,
The superior knowledge, which these natives possess of each plant and its uses, has often led me to reflect on the meagre acquaintance with the commonest trees, shrubs, and herbs, which the ordinary white man can claim. Had my native companions asked me to instruct them in a similar manner on the vegetation of an English woodland, if such a rapid change of scene were possible, they would probably have regarded me as a very ignorant and unobservant fellow.
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Related Posts: The Sad Story of Short Kwi, Legendary Hunter of the Kalahari, The Oldest Trick in the Book, The Northman, the decline of western civilizations, and the rise of 'Western Civilization', A Survey of Poison Use in Hunter-Gatherer Societies.