Menu

ESSAY: Human Females Could (Should?) Be More Like Elephant Females

By Katarzyna Nowak, Lauren McCall, and Isabel Behncke Izquierdo

What unique skills do women hold for the future of our species and the ecosystems we have come to dominate? What can we learn from elephants as human societies become more out of balance with nature?

They and Us

Elephants and humans are prominent forces in nature. They and us are both long-living, slow-developing, highly social and vastly intelligent “keystone” species, on which many members of our ecosystems depend. Keystone species are by definition highly interactive, creating, maintaining, and modifying the niches or ecological spaces in a biological community. They influence the behavior, reproduction, and diversity of other animals, and the opportunities available to them.

Elephants, as the largest terrestrial herbivores on Earth, maintain savannas, open up woodlands, and plant forests. Humans, of course, do this as well, by altering habitats and domesticating animals and plants, some of which have become our essential resources.

But humans, unlike elephants, are causing the sixth mass extinction through the destruction of habitats and overexploitation of species on a global scale.

Here, we look to elephants to help shape and motivate our path toward social and ecological knowledge and stewardship. We hope that readers will take our perspective as a thought experiment—a call to more sweeping, and female-led environmental action—rather than a moral prescription.

While we draw parallels between elephant and traditional human societies, we’re not suggesting that women—or people in general—revert back to hunter-gatherer ways or turn the clock back on advances in gender equality. We instead aim to celebrate female ties, insight, choices, and voices in times of change—in all the diversity of ways these are expressed.

Many human and cultural ideals are embodied in elephant society, including extended social networks, egalitarian leadership, strong and long-lasting social bonds, especially between females, and transmission of valuable ecological knowledge.

Females tend to hold the power of habitat choice. This is by virtue of their being the ones who decide where to give birth and raise offspring. Elephant females occupy relatively resource-rich areas that are of higher quality than the marginal ones traversed by bull society.

The matriarch of the elephant herd conveys essential skills, from well-digging to orienting the herd across many miles at different times of year. Similarly, in human prehistory our ancestors migrated in small kin-bonded bands, passing down seasonal knowledge about tracking prey and other valuable resources. As with elephants, the youngsters of hunter-gatherer communities learned values and skills from the first-hand experiences of their grandmothers, aunts, sisters, and cousins.

Western women, to a great extent, control their own reproduction, as well as feeding, rearing, and educating the next generation through the passing on of cultural heritage, perspectives, and languages. Given ongoing global ecological transformation, determining how to use this power is a momentous decision.

Resource Knowledge Can Be Female-Led

Elephant females have invaluable resource knowledge, gained from an experienced, older matriarch. By consensus, not power, matriarchs lead family groups to resources that vary in time and space.

Matriarch Felicity leads her family in Amboseli National Park, Kenya. Courtesy of or Photo by V. Fishock, Amboseli Trust for Elephants.
Matriarch Felicity leads her family in Amboseli National Park, Kenya. Photo by V. Fishock, Amboseli Trust for Elephants

 

Elephants (and other socially complex and intelligent animals like whales) inherit from their mothers all the knowledge of migration routes and feeding sites that the herd needs to make its living. Elephant females may move many miles each day to obtain minerals, food and water, shade and safety. Resource-mapping is essential to elephants’ survival, and elephant females hold this intimate habitat knowledge.

Elephant females teach their young cows and bulls where to find dry season water sources such as natural springs, or where to dig for wells in dry riverbeds. Similarly, human females traditionally teach children where to fetch clean and safe water from rivers, streams, and wells. Human children also learn a wide variety of skills from females, including communication, song, storytelling, and ritual. They learn cleanliness and hygiene and how to relate to others, find and process food and medicine, and manage fire safely.

Traditionally, the knowledge inherited by women, like that of elephant matriarchs, meant ecological and social prowess. Traditional human societies such as the Hadza and the San are seasonally nomadic, tracking changing resources, just as elephants do. Females stay connected to their home base, where they learn about resources used for food, cooking, storage, medicine, clothing, and shelter while rearing their own children and those of their kin.

Women are often in charge of a whole society’s material needs and are therefore relatively more adapted to certain environmental constraints (seasonal changes and shortages) than men are. Women are also the educators and communicators of culture to the next generation.

Cooperative Upbringing of Young in Female Support Networks

Human childhood, like that of elephant calves, is an extended period of dependence, development, and play during which ecological and social knowledge is learned and practiced.

The cooperative upbringing of young—known as allocare—characterizes many species, including elephants and humans. As the large brains of elephants and humans are energetically expensive and take time to develop, their young require care beyond the mother.

Allocare frees up each individual female by providing a network of mutual cooperation. With a support network, females can devote more individual time to activities like foraging and socializing. With support from other women, we can also invest some of this time in learning, thereby bridging education and income-generating gaps.

In our modern societies, we could realize the greater practical benefits of more flexible social bonds, “mommy groups,” and distributed childcare (see our separate but related essay here). Like elephants and our closest living relatives—chimpanzees and bonobos—humans too live in multi-female, multi-male “fission-fusion” societies: fluid ones that splinter into smaller groups and then join again dynamically with changing contexts.

If we were women in traditional societies like the !Kung, with heavy loads on our backs of small children and forage material, we’d face lower constraints if we lived in compounds where we could safely leave our children with carers we knew and trusted. This can hold true for Western women as well as bush-living women.

Bonobo society is structured around dominant females – like these two in Wamba, D.R.C. – who bond strongly despite not being related. Photo by Isabel Behncke.
Bonobo society is structured around dominant females—like these two in Wamba, Democratic Republic of Congo—who bond strongly despite not being related. Photo by Isabel Behncke

 

Humans have an exceptional feature among mammals: long-lived, post-menopausal grandmothers, whose evolutionary function is precisely to share knowledge and help care for the next generation.

Humans are therefore even more inclined, evolutionarily pre-disposed, and adapted to a female-based social glue that facilitates teaching and communal rearing than elephants, because elephant females continue to have offspring past the equivalent of human menopausal age (45 to 50 years). Human females are freed up from their own reproduction to become grandmothers, educators, and leaders.

Human boys, like elephant bulls, also initially grow up in a female-dominated world of mothers and maternal helpers. Such upbringing encourages the collective decision-making that allowed hunter-gatherer societies to thrive for tens of thousands of years without causing the extreme depletion of resources we’re experiencing today.

Human females—particularly those in the West —should draw inspiration from elephants: They should retain their close female bonds and forge and prioritize shared spaces. Such relationships will not only help spread valuable traditions and essential resource knowledge but also provide a context for sharing the personal narratives and joy that are health-creating and life-affirming.

A female elephant will almost never leave her herd, until she dies.

It’s Time to Act on Evolutionary Potential

Human females, like elephant females, have evolved to provision others besides themselves, which requires using resources differently from males—so women’s decision-making and social strategies differ from those of men.

Women’s clout in society has often been informal, as in the case of the bassia, a woman, or women, in charge of other women’s affairs in the Saramacca tribe of Guyana. Or historically in Ancient Rome, via conventus matronarum, or “dames’ clubs.”

Within the context of a female-bonded elephant family, an experienced older elephant matriarch is like a bassia. Elephant females choose their matriarch—typically the family’s eldest female—on the basis of her personality, her kinship with the family, and her ecological knowledge gained over decades.

Human women too need to elect and support strong, eco-conscious bassia—women like Gro Harlem Brundtland, Vandana Shiva, Isabelle Ameganvi, Malala Yousafzai, the late Wangari Maathai—to create better living and working conditions for people and to invigorate and maintain the health and education of our societies and the resilience of the ecological communities we depend on.

We can take our lead from egalitarian elephant leaders.

Taking Action: the Caring Economy

Women drive the globe’s patterns of consumption of material goods. It’s now up to women to recognize and act on our evolutionary potential, not only as consumers but also as producers, cultivators, and stewards, by creating and preserving niches, as the elephants do. Women can regain control of the types of resources we use and the ways in which we and our children use them.

Women—who predominate in food market stalls and kitchens—can recover a sense of seasonal knowledge, which is rapidly being lost in modern human societies. “Eat seasonally, eat locally,” and “garden instead of shop,” movements restore seasonal, local, and horticultural knowledge. Subscribing to these and other movements, such as urban agriculture, heirloom gardening, and beekeeping, could help reconnect us to nature and its cycles.

Practices such as polyculture—cultivating several types of crops concurrently—encourage diversity and discourage monoculture, in which single crops are vulnerable to disease and agricultural pests.

We also need to more actively participate in the cooperative movement—cooperative gardening, cooperative animal husbandry, cooperative grocery stores, community-supported-agriculture. None of these activities excludes males; indeed incorporation of men is essential to achieving a critical mass in these environmental and social movements.

Transition Towns—one man’s idea—recreate community-level subsistence, self-sufficiency, and resilience. They help foster a caring economy, which can help us achieve:

1) wiser, more selective resource-use, 2) biophilia—humans’ hard-wired connection with nature that should yield a higher regard for life and recognition of our dependence on the natural world, 3) preservation of heritage in the form of human skills and traditions informed by biophilia; and 4) health and overall well-being as a result of more connected and cooperative social systems.

We can hone the important parts of our cultures and dispel with customs that threaten ecological spaces and non-human species, such as elephants.

Women’s Influence Can Be Tech-Assisted

Modern women have the mobility of elephant females. While a home base that’s returned to seasonally or is guarded continuously through the generations is ideal from the point of view of retaining appreciation for and knowledge of local resources, we have to be realistic. National and global job markets offer opportunities that women are increasingly able to reap benefits from. These same opportunities, however, often lead to fragmented social networks.

Satellite technology can help strengthen and cultivate global female networks. We use cell phones—not unlike the way elephants use low frequency communication—for social signaling over wide distances. We use satellites to access radio stations around the world to obtain a wealth of information that could benefit us.

With GPS navigation systems and social media, we can—as elephants naturally do—explore and network beyond the home base. Even Saudi Arabian women, prohibited to drive, are empowered by a mobile phone-based ridesharing service.

Tools like Coursera, TED talks, distance and online learning could be instrumental in reinstating a learning method that extends the period of contact between old and young, too often isolated from each other in Westernized societies. These same tools could help feminize farming and also economics, by empowering women and attributing value to women’s unpaid labor which often includes teaching.

Of course, social media have been much maligned for increasing the fragmentation of social networks and isolating us behind screens. Yet an incipient backlash involves attempts to use portable devices to increase face-to-face contact and real human interaction. Connect—created by a woman—aims to use mobile phones to encourage people to get together in person to share experiences and put their mobile phones away.

Without satellite technology and social media, organizing global movements and campaigns such as 350.org or Moms Rising would not be possible. This is the kind of cooperation and public momentum that technology affords and that we—women and men—must capitalize on.

Benefits of Adopting Principles of Elephant Societies

At the same time, human females still often lack the sociopolitical voice of our ancestors. Until women embrace the power of female cooperation in the context of our ecological communities—demonstrated so effectively by elephant females—our unique skills may be squandered.

Women’s influence and solidarity are especially important now. The ecological crisis is evident in the loss of biodiversity and habitats, declining soil fertility and nutrition of our food, and increasing use of desperate measures such as hand-pollination of orchards where bee colonies have collapsed.

We are also facing social crises in the form of high partnership divorce rates and disintegration of social networks overall. Many isolated people are over-reliant on the pharmaceutical industry for their mental well-being.

These crises are at least in part attributable to the loss of sisterhood and the corresponding decline in female altruism, including in community volunteering, women’s support networks, mentoring, and allocare.

Consider the benefits of a more female-bonded and interdependent society, with passing down of valuable knowledge rooted in local ecologies. If we want resilience and well-being of people and planet, we would do well to follow the elephant way.

Katarzyna Nowak is a conservation scientist affiliated with Durham University, the University of the Free State, Qwaqwa, and the Center for Research in Social Complexity, Universidad del Desarrollo (UDD). Lauren W. McCall is an evolutionary anthropologist teaching at Philadelphia University and the American Museum of Natural History. Isabel Behncke Izquierdo is a primatologist at Oxford University and at the Center for Research in Social Complexity, UDD.