Current Anthropology 1997

Haviland, William A. On the Maya State. Current Anthropology June, 1997. 38(3): 443-445.

Haviland offers a brief discussion and criticism of Arthur Demarest’s The Maya State, adding his thoughts to a wider discussion on Mayan social and political organization and challenging cultural evolutionist theories that continue to mar a comprehensive understanding of the history of Mayan social organization. The author maintains that Classic Maya political organization does not conform to one model, and that, like all societies, the Maya have always been, and continue to be, a diverse and constantly changing cultural group, whose social and political structure have taken many shapes throughout history.

To make his case, Haviland compares aspects of the ethnological histories of three Mayan sites, underlining different characteristics of each which speak to their different functions, organization and level of centralization. The examples prove that each went through a number of phases of social structure, based upon numerous interactive cultural and political process which cannot be studied or measured in a linear sense. His examples address the problematic tendency to place Mayan culture within an evolutionary framework, in which the highly centralized habitation centers represent the highest step in the (fictional) cultural evolution of the Maya people.

Haviland’s evidence, which includes several cross-cultural references, succeeds in deconstructing Western notions and assumptions of cultural development and social structure. The author constructs a convincing argument against cultural evolutionist assumptions by offering comprehensive examples of variation within Maya (and other cultural entities’) political organization. In doing so, he clearly establishes the non-linear nature of social/political organization.

MAGDALENE CRESKEY York University (Dr. Maggie MacDonald).

Hawkes, K. J. F. O’Connell, and N. G. Blurton Jones. Hadza Women’s Time Allocation, Offspring Provisioning, and the Evolution of Long Postmenopausal Life Spans. Current Anthropology August-October 1997. Vol. 38(4): 551-577.

Kristen Hawkes, James F. O’Connell and Nicholas G. Blurton investigate the patterns of women’s time allocation and the effects of provisioning on the health and nutrition of their children. Inspired by a distinction that exists between human and other female primates, the researchers focused on mother-child food sharing and longer postmenopausal life spans when observing the lives of Hadza women in Northern Tanzania. They collected quantitative data and examined the effects of a non-nursing mother’s continued support for weaned children, the influence of a new baby on her ability to provision her other offspring, and the role of the grandmother’s foraging efforts in feeding her grandchildren upon the arrival of a new infant. As a result of their study, the authors detected patterns in female resource choices, sustained provisioning for weaned offspring and lengthened postmenopausal survival that they had originally suspected to be true.

At five different Hadza camps, the researchers collected information on time allocation by performing random “camp scans” at particular times of day, during which they would make detailed observations. Their field notes included individual locations and activities, which tools and facilities were being used, and who was present and who was absent. The researchers also engaged in “focal-person follows” to collect their information. One of the researchers would travel with one or more of the individuals on day-trips or away from camp, taking detailed records similar to those observed in the camp scans—individual identities, routes traveled and activities engaged in—and developing a detailed time schedule of the day. At the end of each day, the researchers summarized their findings and observations, making note of any patterns, gaps or irregularities they detected.

After processing the data, Hawkes et al. found that maternal foraging strategies affect the health and nutrition of her children. The time and energy needed to nurse and care for a newborn baby decreases the mother’s involvement in maintaining the nutrition of her weaned offspring, but the increased efforts of the grandmother at the birth of a new child prove to offset the mother’s reduction. They paid particularly close attention to their methods, specifically to detect possible disparities caused by the age and sex of individuals being studied and to the influence of “seasonal” variations such as climate, methods of food collection and camp size that may have affected the outcome of their work. In addition, the authors discussed the potential influences of longer life spans and menopause on the mother’s provisioning efforts and the consequential weight changes in her children.


Commentators Michael Gurven, Kim Hill, Raymond Hames and Takayoshi Kano are similarly concerned with the lack of attention that is given to paternal influences on Hadza children in the research. In addition, Gurven and Hill recommend performing later studies on how the grandmother ’s contribution increases the children’s overall fitness. Hames expresses discomfort and uncertainty in some of the analyzed data presented in the article, and Kano asks for more information on the potential of adolescent females as mothers’ helpers rather than grandmothers. Critics Frances J. White, Steven E. Churchill and Toshisada Nishida question the overall significance of long postmenopausal life spans while Carol M. Worthman simply suggests paying closer attention to the details of this phase in life.


Hawkes et al. respond to these comments by restating and clarifying the main points of their article. They specifically address each of the comments, giving particular emphasis to the distinction among primates in mother-child food sharing strategies, the adolescent contributions of foraging efforts, and the patrimonial involvement commonly found in hunter-gatherer societies. They end their response with a few brief answers to specific questions regarding issues such as the presence of grandmother’s who were not assisting nursing mothers, the return rates of food collection for childbearing versus postmenopausal mothers, time allocation among other members of the camp, and the precision and detail of their research and techniques of analysis.

ANNA PIERCE Smith College (Suzanne Zhang-Gottschang)

Levine, Nancy E. Silk, Joan Why Polyandry Fails: Source of Instability in Polyandrous Marriages. Current Anthropology. June, 1997 38 (3) 375-398

The goal set by Levine and Silk in this paper is to connect the theoretical perspectives of evolutionary biology and sociocultural anthropology and apply these to the study of “human kinship behavior” in Nyinba polyandrous marriages. The attempt made is to identify factors (individual and household) that influence the stability of polyandrous marriages. The study is broken down into the following categories; causes of polyandry, sources of stress in polyandrous marriages, setting and sources of data and causes of dissolution of polyandrous marriages. It is this last category that is the main focus of this article.

The causes of dissolution are categorized into sub-sections: size of the sibling group, disparities in age among husbands and wives, reproductive success and kinship among co-husbands. The causes of polyandry are explained through issues of land ownership and stressed that polyandrous marriages are beneficial for “economic success” in areas where resource is scarce. However, they argue that the functional explanations of human polyandry (by sociocultural anthropologists) are “difficult to establish a connection between specific economic, ecological or demographic variables and the presence or absence of polyandry”(pg.376). The most convincing data produced was the perspective of the Nyinba peoples, in relation to the factors that influence the stability of polyandrous marriages. The factors include the size of the sibling group, the closeness of kinship among co-husbands, the extent of landholdings, the success of the relationship with the common wife and the presence of absence of “own children” within the marriage. This ethnographic source provides excellent hypotheses about factors that influence stability in polyandrous marriages. Also, there is an agreement between sociocultural and evolutionary biological models of polyandry that predict differences in age between husbands and wives will influence stability. Comparisons were drawn between polyandrous men (those who’s marriages are not divided) and active partitioners (those who instigate partitions). Among the men who instigated partitions 82% were younger than their first wife, while only 33 % were younger than their new wife. These men left first wives who were 5.7 years older and married again to women who were 3.6 years younger than them. This is one source of data to prove that age does play an important role in the failure of polyandrous marriages. The test done to predict the degree of relatedness among co-husbands and the influence on stability in polyandrous marriages was done with an “average degree of relatedness” among co-husbands in intact, conjoint and partitioned households (384). This survey was done with only a small amount of households. The result was that there was “no consistent tendency for men to increase or decrease there relatedness to their co-husbands when they realign their marriages” (p379).

In conclusion, the decisions made for Nyimba men to leave their polyandrous marriages are influenced by associations with sibling groups and relationships with older wives which reduce the chance of reproducing in a polyandrous marriage. When partition occurs, this seems to act as a “remedy” for these circumstances as they marry women younger than the first wife, and usually produce more children. Findings suggest that the most important factor in separations in polyandrous marriages is the “reproductive disadvantages” experienced by younger men. This is consistent with evolutionary theory predictions, but is not prominent information in sociocultural theory. This leads to the understanding that trying to bridge the two theories is very difficult, yet the differences found between the two may “enhance” understandings of human behavior.


Comments from the summaries completed by individuals from anthropological backgrounds raised some excellent arguments. Questions about the nature of the authors analysis was raised by Fessler and Hewlett, in relation to the need for an “integrative theoretical framework to link perspectives of evolutionary biology and sociocultural anthropology”. Also, comments from Borgerhoff Mulder and Haddix state that results do not support the hypotheses created by the authors; brothers share “paternity due to economic and demographic circumstances” that may limit the chance of a monogamous family being successful. Srivastava raises an important point that polyandry must be understood in terms of domestic developmental cycles. With a few exceptions (as listed above) the main argument presented by the commentators was that there was a definite need for larger “samples” and more extensive analysis, as the size of the population studied could not develop a strong evaluation of why polyandrous marriages fail.


Levin and silk respond to their critics by first, acknowledging the points raised for means of improvement, and then by discussing (briefly) reasons why certain data was unattainable. Also admitting that the “scope of their analysis” and the “strength of their conclusions” were limited by the fact that “partition is a relatively uncommon event among the Nyinba”. Also, is the fact that the group being analyzed was too small to produce sufficient findings. They are in agreement that more extensive information about issues that affect the “dynamics of polyandry” (in the Himalayas) is needed. Levine and Silk are hopeful that this paper will generate future research.

CLARITY :Clarity: 4
JENNIFER STANLEY York University (Maggie MacDonald)

Wilson, David Sloan. Hunting, Sharing, and Multilevel Selection: The Tolerated-Theft Model Revisited. Current Anthropology, 1997 39 (1): 73-97.

Wilson, an evolutionary biologist, aims to elucidate some of the confusion between process and perspective in evolutionary theories of social behavior. He proposes to accomplish this by examining process and perspective in food acquisition and sharing in hunter-gatherer societies, with special emphasis on revising Blurton Jones’s tolerated-theft model. Wilson notes that the tolerated-theft model seems to change the “status of hunters from ‘altruists’ to ‘forager-thieves’”—a matter entirely of perspective and not process (74).

Wilson begins by revisiting one of the first models of group selection, forwarded by Sewall Wright. Wright’s model, according to Wilson, described the disadvantage of altruism within groups but didn’t include the process of group selection favoring altruism. Wilson views Blurton Jones’s tolerated-theft model as a virtual reproduction of Wright’s. While the tolerated-theft model claims that the evolution of hunting can be explained without invoking group selection, Wilson—citing multiple sources—argues that hunting in the tolerated theft model would be classified as a group-level adaptation. Blurton Jones asked the question, Why hunt? Wilson suggests that sharing must be a predicate to Blurton Jones’s question.

One of Wilson’s main points is that many multilevel evolutionary theories offer different perspectives on evolution, yet “they do not explain the evolution of social behaviors purely on the basis of natural selection within groups” (83). Noting that all of the major evolutionary theories that form the foundation for the study of behavior were originally proposed as alternatives to group selection, Wilson questions whether the differences between these theories are merely a matter of perspective, in which case—he argues—“we must return to the basic issues that endowed the controversy with such importance in the 1960s” (83).


Comments are provided by Michael Alvard; Henry Harpending; Christopher Boehm; K. Hawkes, R. L. Bliege Bird and D.W. Bird; and Eric Alden Smith. They are in general agreement that Wilson is at times contradictory but that he concurrently makes valid points regarding food-sharing in hunter-gatherer societies. Alvard provides the most critical comments of Wilson and is in least agreement with him. Many agree that Wilson is too caught up in semantics regarding “perspective” in his attempt to explain multilevel selection processes. Some criticize his interpretation of Blurton Jones’s original model as too limiting.


Wilson replies to broad questions raised by the commentators regarding multilevel selection and human evolution, in addition to specific concerns regarding the tolerated theft model. He reiterates highlights and flaws in Blurton Jones’s model and proposes how we might make sense of it for studies of how human groups function as adaptive units (which can only be determined by through multilevel selection theory).

DAVID CHAUDOIR Western Michigan University (Bilinda Straight)