Photo by Getty Images/Ken Griffiths.
When Martu women choose to hunt goanna as opposed to bustard or kangaroo, they’re choosing reliability of yield, not low effort of capture. In the wet season, goanna cannot be smoked out of their burrows. They must be tracked on the surface, something that demands considerable skill, endurance, ecological expertise, and physical courage. Even then, goanna don’t come close to bush tomatoes and honey as far as expected energetic yield goes, nor, for that matter, do bustard or kangaroo. Even grubs—caterpillars of Endoxyla species, which grow to about 7 centimeters (3 inches)—represent a more reliable, if lower yielding, source of protein and fat than sand monitors.
In Rebecca Bliege Bird and colleagues’ observations, more than 70 percent of the Martu diet, when they camped in the bush, came from things that must be hunted. Of the rest, more than half was store-bought. That is, there is way more meat in the Western Desert forager diet today than was the case historically. Women’s foraging strategies have shifted toward the more risk-prone strategies of men. This reflects three developments. The first is the introduction of a novel tool kit that includes four-wheel-drive vehicles and high-powered rifles. The second is the introduction of a novel subsistence cushion in the form of store-bought flour and jam. The third is the trend toward a less mobile way of life where community members have regular contact with a wider range of individuals with claims of relatedness to them. The first two have lowered the stakes of a high-variance/high-yield foraging strategy. The third has raised the stakes of appearing selfish.
This provides a clue as to what hunting might be for, what function it might serve, if it is neither the most reliable source of food energy available, nor, historically, did it provide the bulk of the protein in the foraging diet. At least in some cases, the impetus to hunt is less meat’s metabolic value than its value in a symbolic register predicated on relatedness and holding. To provide meat not just for close kin or those you regularly share a camp with but for an extended network of classificatory (totem sharing) kin is to reaffirm the web of relatedness that makes it possible to thrive in the desert.
To provide meat is to express your commitment to a constellation of interdigitated forms of custodial responsibility: for children and the community, for the country and the living things in it, and for a cosmogonic order in which kinship, animals, and country are three faces of a single phenomenon. The fact that meat is unreliable makes it costly to provide, all the more so because high-variance resources are subject to such extensive sharing that hunters incur a net energetic penalty for hunting. If your sole object were to ensure you were adequately fed, you’d be better off not going out at all and simply waiting for others to get home with small but reliable yields than going out to hunt kangaroo.
Hunting, that is, functions as a form of costly signaling, a way to demonstrate one’s commitment to the community. Does this mean that women, because they adopt a lower-risk provisioning strategy, are less committed to sharing? No. It simply means they are less given to this one form of peacocking. What is clear is that the decoupling of two stages of provisioning, foraging and distribution, represents a long-term trend in human economy. As human behavior comes to exhibit the marks of modern sapience, meat’s value comes to derive less from the physiological exigencies of growth and maintenance, more from its status as an emblem of cooperation.
Excerpted from The Meat Question: Animals, Humans, and the Deep History of Food by Josh Berson, Copyright, The MIT Press, 2019.