The Gourmet Q + A: Richard Wrangham

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JZ: So the chimps don’t tend to sit around in groups and hang out?

RW: They don’t. I mean, on one level you can just chart up the raw data on how often they lose their temper or have some kind of impulsive aggression and get into a fight. And it’s something like a hundred to a thousand times the frequency of humans. And then how do they feed? Well, you can get a whole party of chimps in a big tree feeding together, but they’re all feeding in their own individual little stations. And if there’s ever a monopolizable food source, a chunk of stuff that you can put in your arms and walk away with—like a big bunch of bananas—under those conditions, then fighting breaks out. And the fighting is very intense. I mean, they stamp on top of each other and bite each other and chase each other.

JZ: Males and females alike? Is everyone is in the mix?

RW: Everyone’s in it. The females tend to be very nervous, but if a female is so hungry and drawn to the food, then she’ll reach a hand in or try to get a piece, and she can get beaten up, just like the others. But it’s mostly males beating on males. And these are tremendous fracas. There’s an enormous contrast to what happens when a man brings an antelope into the camp of a hunter-gatherer group, or a woman comes back and unfolds an animal cloak and reveals all her food. And again, if someone’s cooking their food, a nice big meal, and some strangers come into camp, they do not follow the chimp style, rushing and attacking.

JZ: And the woman’s part in that contract is that she makes the food?

RW: Yes. It’s kind of a primitive protection racket. The woman is protected from having her food taken. And in exchange she cooks for a man, the husband, and then he provides the conduit into the social group, who will protect her if a bachelor comes along and tries to take her food. One of the things that continues to fascinate me is the difference in the status between bachelors and married men.

JZ: You talk about that in the book, and about how, in some societies, a bachelor’s first wife could easily be a post-menopausal woman.

RW: The society I quoted in the book is the Tiwi, of northern Australia. And the thing about them is that they are polygamous, so one man can have up to 20 wives. And so the bachelors find it very difficult to get wives at all. In every society, bachelors are very keen to get a wife, but there, the ones that are most often available are when a man dies and leaves widows. And so 80 percent of them are older than [the bachelors] and many of them are post-menopausal.

I think what that is revealing is the essential nature of marriage in hunter-gatherer societies. Which is, what a man really needs is a woman who can give him the status of being an elder. Because once he’s married to a woman who is going to cook for him every night, then it does two great things for him. One is that it enables him to go off during the day and do things that men are culturally supposed to do—all the manly things of hunting and going off to war and so on, and still being able to count on a meal when he comes back. And the other thing is it enables him to be a host.

JZ: So does that translate to modern western society? Would you say that when it comes to finding a wife it may be, even subconsciously, more about cooking than about sex?

RW: Well, clearly our society has really emphasized the importance of sex. Yet I think there are fascinating explorations to be made in this area. Of course everything is complicated by the availability of fast food and restaurants, not to mention just packaged food, which is very easy to cook. So I’m uncertain as to how deep this goes in modern society. But I would think there are some really interesting questions to be asked about, as the consequences of the easy availability of food, has this really contributed to the breakdown in the marriage system? And this sort of shift towards what is viewed as important in terms of sex, and whether we’re forgetting about these critical household domestication issues.

JZ: Has this cooking idea infused all your research now, or are you moving on to something different?

RW: Well, for 22 years now, I’ve been studying this community of chimpanzees in western Uganda. I’m following the soap opera of their lives and looking at all sorts of aspects to do with their social relationships. So I’ll continue to do that. But I’m just so totally intrigued by this whole cooking area. I’m sure one of the things that came out in the book is my repeated astonishment at finding out how little has been explored around the significance of cooking. So it’s going to be very hard for me not to continue playing with it.◊

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