Back in the early 1970s, Barry Hewlett was part of the whole counterculture thing. He designed his own major at California State University, Chico—sociology, anthropology, and psychology—and set off after graduation for Europe. By the time he got to Greece, he was bored.
“I thought, ‘This is so familiar to me,’” recalls Hewlett, now a Washington State University anthropology professor.
Other people his age and temperament were heading to India. Not wanting to follow the crowd, “I went the other way, directly south,” he says, “and there were no other European folks with me.”
He ended up in central Africa, encountering hunter-gatherers for the first time. Two years later, he was doing field research among the Aka Pygmies, whose culture he has now studied for more than four decades. With his wife and fellow WSU anthropologist, Bonnie Hewlett ’99 Social Science, ’01 MA Anthropology, ’04 PhD Anthropology, he was part of a World Health Organization team working on the 2000 Ebola outbreak in Uganda. The lessons they learned from working on several outbreaks helped healthcare workers understand local customs and fears among the communities in last year’s Ebola outbreak in West Africa.
The Aka are one of the last hunter-gatherer tribes in the world, and to people from the Western industrialized world, they can seem exotic, even outlandish. As Hewlett has amply documented, infants bond to their fathers and are nursed by women other than their mothers. A Caterpillar Moon, a 1996 BBC documentary produced in collaboration with Hewlett, shows the Aka in caterpillar season, when food is usually plentiful. Yes, they eat the caterpillars. Viewers of the film also see them push a decorative stick through a young woman’s nose and make a young man’s teeth pointy with a knife and no anesthetic.
The Aka’s lifestyle may sound foreign, but in the grand sweep of human history and pre-history, our urban-industrialized crowd is only the new normal. Some 99 percent of our time on the planet has been spent as hunter-gatherers. So if you want to understand human nature, says Hewlett, you need to look to the Aka and back. They are actually more like us, more like humans have been across the arc of time, than we are.
Yet when psychologists look to analyze human behavior, they tend to tap our narrow band of urban and industrialized existence. In 2010, University of British Columbia psychologists published a survey of their field’s literature that found their colleagues were making broad conclusions about human psychology and behavior based on people from Western, educated, industrialized, rich, and democratic societies. They called them WEIRD. Quite often, researchers sampled an even narrower subset of the WEIRD: college students.
To be fair, this often turns up fascinating insights. WSU psychologists in recent years have surveyed Pullman students—often couching their work in terms like “undergraduate students attending a public university in the Pacific Northwest”—to learn about altruism and spite, for example.
But the Canadian researchers found enough variability across populations to say that, compared to the rest of our species, the WEIRD subjects are “frequent outliers.”
“The findings suggest that members of WEIRD societies, including young children, are among the least representative populations one could find for generalizing about humans,” they said in their report.
“If you ask psychologists, they say they’re much more comparative than they were in the past, which is true,” says Hewlett. “But they’re comparing France and Germany and China and Japan—highly industrialized, hierarchical societies.”
The Aka, on the other hand, have a small-scale culture of routine, almost unavoidable face-to-face contact. Where our capitalist societies celebrate individual gain, the Aka and other hunter-gatherers are egalitarian, sharing resources outside the nuclear family and, says Hewlett, “trying to remind everyone else that we’re all equal.”
Last fall, Hewlett was one of 22 researchers who asked if human notions of attractiveness in the opposite sex are universal. It seems like a given. We might debate People magazine’s selections for “Most Beautiful People” and “Sexiest Man Alive,” but the formula of hotness seems implicit: pronounced chins, sharp jaws, and round eyes for the men, narrower eyes, rounder chins and finer noses for the women.
The researchers made computer generated faces with such features running across a masculine-feminine continuum and showed them to nearly 1,000 people from 12 different populations. They then asked which faces were more attractive for short- and long-term relationships and which appeared most aggressive.
People from developed nations were drawn to the usual indicators. People in urban settings were more likely to say the masculine features were more aggressive.
The Aka were the outliers. To them, how masculine or feminine one looks doesn’t really amount to much.
In evolutionary terms, it might be helpful for a person to look at someone and judge their fitness, says Hewlett. It might also be helpful to signal your fitness to a potential mate. In fact, Bonnie Hewlett has unpublished work in which she found that Aka tend to be more attracted to members of the opposite sex with a higher body-mass index and lower parasite load, two reasonable indicators of fitness.
“The Aka can tell when somebody is sick or not or potentially has particular issues,” says Barry Hewlett. “There are probably evolved propensities to identify healthy and not-as-healthy individuals. But in terms of masculine versus feminine, that does not hold.”
Our notions of attractiveness, says Hewlett, are heightened by idealized media images. We also live among strangers, so we tend to rely on the billboard of our physical features more than people would in a small-scale group like Aka and other hunter-gatherers.
Which puts us People-reading, modern-day humans in an odd spot. Compared to the long line of hunter-gatherers who came before us, we’re all part of one big counterculture.