Humanity Owes Our Females a Huge Debt

The Gender of Debt: The Last 50,000 Years – Mariano Pavanello (2019)

When I began this book review journey, my wife asked me what I hoped to be a good end-result for this endeavor.  I told her that I wished to create a resource, a website that readers could use to find interesting books to read, and that it would be awesome if writers thought enough of my commentary to seek me out so I could provide a review of their work.  I specifically considered writers of science books, science history, and other such work to be ones I would love to collaborate with and provide reviews of their writing.  Through hard work and diligence, this has indeed come to pass.  I am contacted regularly by book publishers and authors with requests to review their work, which is extremely satisfying.  However, receiving an email from a renowned anthropologist asking if I would consider reviewing their book on my site was a tremendous thrill.  Reading the work, and understanding the implications this book could have on our understanding of human social development, is a privilege.

Mariano Pavanello’s aim with The Gender of Debt is to shed some light on the erroneous assumptions that many anthropologists still hold in regards to the role of labor sharing in early humans, and the motivations that drove the specializations of hunting and food gathering into a sexual division that we still take for granted today.  He seeks to correct the social debt that human males owe to human females, a debt which is never acknowledged in our patriarchal society.

It is currently assumed that what drove humans to develop the society and culture we see around us today was the increase in meat provided by the male hunters of early tribes.  Meat is highly nutritious and full of energy.  The idea was that, as this great resource requires a large expenditure of effort and energy, and came fraught with danger, the risks associated with hunting became more and more a male dominated pursuit, leaving women to tend the camps, care for children and elderly, and gather up other food items such as plants, tubers, honey, and other such food sources as could be collected not too far from their camps.  This, they assume, is what drove the push to patriarchy and male control over women.  Mr. Pavanello goes into great detail explaining why previous researchers and scientists drew these conclusions, and then adroitly points out why these assumptions are dead wrong.  The complexities of human social order do not fall so neatly into the categories our assumptions place them in.

One of the most interesting chapters in this book delves into the scientific literature to explore exactly what we know about how tribal people throughout the world manage to subsist.  Various charts are used to explain the variations between the amount of labor that goes into hunting and the amount of labor that goes into food gathering.  What the data shows, and what is not present in the modern conversation about early man, is that, for the most part, the food gathering side is the crucial one.  It is the side that allows for all other functions of humanity to continue, including long, arduous hunting excursions. Many groups could survive on just food gathering alone, but no one could survive on just hunting alone.  In fact, without the steady, constant work of the food gatherers the hunters would have no sustenance to support their physical work.

Mr. Pavanello posits that, because the hunters realized how much they depended on the gatherers, they began to implement cultural methods by which they would control the females, assuring the hunters of constant food, constant care for their children, and autonomy in the hunting process.  This was not done by coercion or force necessarily, but by the strict codes of societal control, such as food sharing, child care, daughter exchange for marriages, etc.  Most tribal cultures share all food items as a rule.  The gatherers will share their supplies with all in the tribe, while the hunters would divide up the kill for all people to share.  This reciprocity is integral to understanding early human cultures.  It is because of this system that humans thrived in a manner that our Neanderthal and other relative species could not.  Assuring communal survival through food sharing allowed humans to develop free time, to eventually come up with higher social structures such as religion, markets, etc.

What is evident throughout this book is that humanity indeed owes a huge debt of gratitude to the females of our species, for without their abilities, knowledge, and wisdom we humans would have stayed tribal peoples, never developing the complexity and intricacy of our modern human society.  I hope more people read this book, or at least study its conclusions, so that as a society we all accept, understand, and appreciate the achievements of the female of our species, instead of solely focusing on the achievements of male humans in our history.  

This is quite a dense treatise, and explores far more data and ideas than I could possibly cover in this review.  I hope it is a touchstone for scientists and social anthropologists to view the human condition through a new spectrum.  The debt humanity owes to our females is over 50,000 years old, and needs to be addressed sooner than later.  We are all one humanity, with shared goals and shared credit for our successes. 

(This book can be purchased here: Cambridge Scholars Publishing )

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