People of the Lake

(Literary Masterpieces, Volume 17)

In the field of anthropology today, the name Leakey stands foremost in public recognition. In People of the Lake, Richard E. Leakey joins with psychologist Roger Lewin for the second time (their first collaboration was on Origins) to challenge the widespread belief that a desire for war is instinctual in man, a theory fostered by Sigmund Freud. Leakey and Lewin challenge this theory, and in so doing utilize archeological research and the observation of surviving primitive tribes, combined with anthropological, medical, psychological, and sociological theory to promote their belief that warfare as waged by man is the result of environmental and social structure and pressure. In the course of their presentation, they touch on such relevant topics as sexual activity, women’s liberation, modern nutrition, and social organization and customs.

Leakey is one of three sons (the only one to become an anthropologist) of Louis and Mary Leakey, who pioneered archeological exploration in East Africa, a geographical area uniquely suited to the preservation of fossilized material. People of the Lake begins with several chapters which suit the average reader’s view of archeology: a detailing of searching, finding, and restoring fossil material found through scientific search (and often through sheer luck) in carefully selected locations. After the chapters dealing with the digs, the authors utilize a broad span of disciplines to support their belief that prehistoric man (homo habilis) was not a bloodthirsty, predatory butcher murdering his fellows, but more likely a peaceful hunter and gatherer living in such small bands that genuine war would have meant fast extinction.

Leakey and Lewin believe that the survival of 300,000 primitive hunting and gathering people in obscure corners of today’s world offers invaluable opportunities for modern researchers to observe and theorize about what our ancestors must have been like. The study of these tribes surviving from earliest times has resulted in numerous conclusions, recurring throughout People of the Lake, which are derived from complex and intertwined observations and explain much about today’s debt to prehistoric man.

The authors conclude that Homo sapiens is unique among living creatures because he alone operates according to choices. He is the only creature who wantonly kills its own kind. The first mixed economy, that of hunting (chiefly a male activity) and gathering (chiefly female), demanded a division of labor that forced mankind to move up the social ladder. Task dictates behavior; thus, when women began to go afar to gather foods, baskets had to be invented. The hominids, man’s ancestors, survived because they alone could develop the concept of sharing and altruism. Throughout history, it has been the malcontents who have forced changes upon the world in their search for a better life. Fierce intellectual curiosity is a distinguishing characteristic of Homo sapiens. Opportunism and adaptability saved early man and allowed him to win the struggle for survival, a struggle which many other species lost.

In their examination of aggression in both men and animals, Leakey and Lewin introduce many smaller points which are of surprising interest to the average reader. Many of their theories are based on observation of surviving primitives, the study of apes receiving so much attention today, and a firm application of common sense to the results of each study. The conclusions reached from study today can be extrapolated and applied to prehistoric man. Thus, anthropology is a two-way street.

Such an example is the discussion of why men hunt. The answer is complex but logical. The location and appearance of discovered tools and teeth indicate that meat has always been a prized food for both physical and emotional reasons. The hunter’s triumphant, though sporadic, return with a dead animal has always excited the tribe. Thus, meat gathering has always given social and political power to the male hunters, who thereby earned the privilege of allocating the meat to others. Thus did the status of meat in a society become directly correlated with male dominance over the female. (The authors cite male dominance in Eskimo society today.) Since man is the only primate for whom meat is a main food, early man was forced to organize and cooperate with others in order to hunt with success, and this in turn led man up the evolutionary ladder toward a social existence. This first mixed economy also led to the first affluent society, for man could then remain in one place and begin to accumulate worldly goods, a practice impossible for nomads forced constantly to move onward in search of food.

A society whose members can accumulate possessions begins to think about protecting them. Hence there developed the laws and kinship patterns which exist today even among the apes. Most...

(The entire section is 2015 words.)


(Literary Masterpieces, Volume 17)

Book World. August 27, 1978, p. E1.

Human Behavior. VII, December, 1978, p. 74.

Newsweek. XCII, September 4, 1978, p. 80.

Publisher’s Weekly. CCXIII, June 26, 1978, p. 111.

Time. CXII, August 14, 1978, p. 86.