Socialist Worker

Cavemen series is a turn-off

Warring males eager to drag women off by their hair - it's more woolly myth than woolly mammoth

Issue No. 1845

WAR, TERRITORIAL conquest, violence. Nothing we can do about that mate, it's human nature. That stock pub argument sums up the BBC's new Walking with Cavemen series on human evolution. The first episode looked at one of earliest apes to walk on two legs, a small animal called Australopithecus afarensis.

A few of its fossil bones have been found in eastern Africa. The most famous example is a skeleton dubbed Lucy, an animal which probably lived around 3.5 million years ago. The programme attempted to recreate Lucy's world.

The scene opens with presenter Robert Winston against the backdrop of an African landscape dressed like some Boy's Own 'great white hunter' character. In alternately hushed and excited tones he talks us through 'a turf war'. This is a world where 'it's the leader's strength that holds the troop together'. We soon have 'two males as contenders for the throne' and 'the winner will gain privileged access to the group's females'.

Then a group of 'intruder males' from a hostile band appears. Some even have a darker skin colouring. Soon full-scale war breaks out between rival male gangs, and Lucy is killed while protecting her young child.

Only one small problem. There is not a shred of evidence to back up this tale. We have almost no solid knowledge of the way Lucy's species may have behaved.

Chimpanzee behaviour The programme takes aspects of some animals' behaviour, exaggerates it, dresses it all up with aspects of modern capitalism, and then suggests this is 'human nature'. Much of the supposed behaviour of Lucy and her companions is clearly modelled on baboons - yet baboons are monkeys and not apes at all. Some is also modelled on parts of chimpanzee behaviour - though exaggerated beyond belief.

Chimps are undoubtedly a close relative of humans. But the programme makers could as easily have used another chimp species as a model - the bonobo or pygmy chimpanzee. Bonobos and chimps, though genetically almost identical, have quite different social behaviours. Bonobos live in female-dominated social groups, and are constantly having sex to defuse tensions.

'Make love not war' would be a pop version of their behaviour. No one knows which is more closely related to humans, or what the implications are for how the first human-like apes may have behaved. We know something of what happened much later when fully modern humans evolved, probably around 150,000 years ago.

For the vast bulk of time since, over 99 percent, there is no evidence at all of systematic violence and warfare in human society. The foraging bands that in some parts of the world survived into modern times give the closest glimpse of how our ancestors lived.

As every serious study has found, these bands of humans lived in cooperation, not competition, with each other.

War, violence, women's oppression are rooted not in our supposed 'nature', but in how society is organised and in how it has become dominated by class. If you want a justification for war, and much else in modern capitalism, this series fits the bill. If you want informative discussion on human evolution, look elsewhere.


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Sat 5 Apr 2003, 00:00 BST
Issue No. 1845
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