A Biocultural Investigation of Gender Differences in Tobacco Use in an Egalitarian Hunter-Gatherer Population

Abstract

In the developing world, the dramatic male bias in tobacco use is usually ascribed to pronounced gender disparities in social, political, or economic power. This bias might also reflect under-reporting by woman and/or over-reporting by men. To test the role of gender inequality on gender differences in tobacco use we investigated tobacco use among the Aka, a Congo Basin foraging population noted for its exceptionally high degree of gender equality. We also tested a sexual selection hypothesis—that Aka men’s tobacco use is related to risk taking. Tobacco use, income, tobacco purchases, tobacco sharing, reasons for using tobacco, risk taking, and other variables were measured using structured surveys and peer reports. Tobacco use was verified by testing for salivary cotinine, a nicotine metabolite. Contrary to expectations, we found a very large male bias in tobacco use. Low levels of use among females appeared to be explained by aversions to tobacco, concerns over its negative effects on fetal health, and a desire to attract husbands, who prefer nonsmoking wives. High male use appeared to be related to a desire to enhance hunting abilities and attract and/or retain wives, who prefer husbands that smoke. We conclude that low levels of smoking by Aka women are better explained by the hypothesis that women evolved to avoid plant toxins to protect their fetuses and nursing infants. High male use might be better explained by sexual selection. We also highlight the important role that recreational drugs appear to play in hunter-gatherer sharing relationships.

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  1. 1.

    Now at the Wildlife Conservation Society's Global Conservation Program & Lukiru Wildlife Research Foundation, Gombe, Kinshasa, Democratic Republic of Congo.

  2. 2.

    In order to provide labor to the farmers, Aka make temporary camps near the village. These camps are located on trails that radiate out from the village into the forest. There are numerous trails in the village, but this study included all of the available adults (i.e., those who were present in the camp on the day of the survey) from only one of these trails.

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Acknowledgments

The authors thank Aubin Moboulou and the late Nicaise Molende for assistance in the field, and the Aka for generously agreeing to participate in our study. This investigation was supported in part by funds provided to EHH and CJR for medical and biological research by the State of Washington Initiative Measure no. 171. The manuscript does not contain clinical studies or patient data.

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Correspondence to Casey J. Roulette.

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Roulette, C.J., Hagen, E. & Hewlett, B.S. A Biocultural Investigation of Gender Differences in Tobacco Use in an Egalitarian Hunter-Gatherer Population. Hum Nat 27, 105–129 (2016). https://doi.org/10.1007/s12110-016-9255-x

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Keywords

  • Smoking
  • Gender inequality
  • Fetal protection
  • Risk taking
  • Sexual selection
  • Sharing