Robert Ardrey’s Hunting Hypothesis

Robert Ardrey (1908–1980) was not only a noted playwright but also the author of four influential books on evolutionary anthropology. If you’ve never heard of him that’s because he was an outsider of the academic establishment, both as an amateur and as an early critic of the ludicrous Marxist propaganda known as the “blank slate” theory of human nature. I only heard of Ardrey myself thanks to the tireless work of Helian Unbound who has devoted an entire blog category to the man, including an account of the disappearance of this unperson from academic history.

The book I picked up first was Ardrey’s last, The Hunting Hypothesis (ISBN 978-0-9886043-8-4). Originally published by Atheneum in 1976, it never seems to have acquired another major publisher; my paperback copy states “republished by Storydesign Limited 2014” (apparently owned by Ardrey’s heirs) and “printed in Germany by Amazon Distribution.” A lack of commercial promotion likely contributed to Ardrey’s vanishing down the memory hole, but thanks to the wonders of the Internet this is of no consequence today. Indeed you can now simply get all of his books on Amazon Kindle.

Although well-grounded in academic sources, you can immediately tell that Ardrey himself is not a professional academic because his writing style is highly readable and even entertaining. The Hunting Hypothesis constructs a plausible theory of the evolution of forest-dwelling primates into modern humans under the forces of massive climate change, specifically the shrinking of forests during the ice age (Pleistocene glaciations). Abandoning the original jungle lifestyle of the primate family had numerous important consequences for the emerging humanoids:

  • Prehensile feet suitable for climbing trees turned into flat feet suitable for walking and running long distances. This permitted living on the plains but also closed off the option to quickly escape predators up the nearest tree, forcing cooperative group defense for long-term survival.
  • Stable bipedal motion freed up the hands for greatly increased tool use, which in turn allowed large dangerous fangs to shrink into weak chewing teeth – another irreversible change that now permanently required competence with tools, especially weapons.
  • Diets changed from fruits and nuts, plus some bird eggs and insects, to primarily or (in the case of several known hunter-gatherer tribes) exclusively the meat of cooperatively hunted animals. No other food that would keep primates alive is naturally available in any quantity on grasslands, let alone ice age tundra.
  • Early humans had to become strongly territorial as their populations grew while still reliant on hunting (farming is a very recent invention in evolutionary terms). Living off game requires a fairly large exclusive territory, free from competition by other hunting groups. Clear distinction between friendly in-group and hostile out-group would have been a necessity for survival.

Ever-increasing reliance on cooperative action and tool use favored growing brains but also a longer childhood spent learning and socializing. Ardrey’s most surprising chapter, The Sexual Adventure, explains the oddness of human sexuality – clear visual distinction of the female sex and year-round mating season – by the emerging need of women to stay put for a long time during and after childbirth, in an environment where they somehow had to incite men to frequently return with food to keep them alive! Ardrey counters the common explanation for relative human hairlessness: if the principal cause was to facilitate heat loss through sweating, then why did most savanna mammals keep their fur – and why did women lose body hair much more thoroughly than the bigger, stronger, physically more active men? His own theory sounds funny but accounts nicely for why humans differ so sharply from the sexual primate norm.

Ardrey also has a laconic explanation for what happened to the Neanderthals: “We ate them.” Cannibalism has been observed in surviving stone-age tribes and suggested by the archaeological record. As primarily meat-eaters with a hunting habit and ready hostility against territorial competition, obliterating weaker tribes in this most direct way would have been the obvious choice. Swelling one’s own population with slaves or allies would have been pointless when the maximum group size was determined by the hunting yield of a territory that men could traverse on foot.

Are all or most of Ardrey’s hypotheses correct? I don’t know but they do sound plausible enough to me, and to my knowledge are supported or at least not contradicted by more recent findings. For example, the idea that humans are natural vegetarians for whom meat is unhealthy has been quite thoroughly shredded in anthropological and nutritional studies; and widely enforced social “diversity” in recent decades has tended to intensify hostile tribalism, rather than erasing it as planned. But whatever the case in each scientific detail, Ardrey’s book is a pleasure as well as an inspiration to read.

2 thoughts on “Robert Ardrey’s Hunting Hypothesis”

  1. I didn’t realize Ardrey was an “outsider” considering that his African Genesis was a bestseller.

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