A recent study published in Plos One, has challenged the long-held belief that men solely hunt while women gather in hunter-gatherer societies.1
The study, which compiled data from ethnographic reports of foraging communities around the world, found that women actively participate in hunting in the majority of these societies.
For centuries, the prevailing notion in social science disciplines and public discourse depicted distinct sustenance roles for males and females in hunter-gatherer societies. The dominant belief that women primarily engaged in child-rearing and gathering, while men took on hunting, was rooted in the belief that these activities naturally aligned with their respective strengths and roles. This perception was rooted in observations of traditional societies where men took on the role of hunting for food, while women participated in gathering plant-based resources and caring for children.
These activities were thought to align with women’s supposed innate nurturing qualities, as they involved nurturing their offspring and tending to the gathering of essential resources for the community.
Additionally, gendered traits such as men exhibiting reduced emotional expression and heightened aggression, while women displayed nurturing conduct and a concentrated interest in children, were commonly associated with these presumed gender roles. However, recent discoveries and reevaluations of archaeological and ethnographic evidence are challenging this long-standing paradigm, highlighting the adaptability and diversity of subsistence strategies in foraging societies.
One of the most significant discoveries challenging traditional beliefs comes from a 9,000-year-old burial site in Wilamaya Patjxa, Peru, situated in the Andean upland region. Alongside an adult female, archaeologists uncovered a hunting toolbox consisting of stone projectiles and animal processing equipment. While stone projectiles buried with males are often interpreted as hunting tools, their association with females has raised questions in the past. However, this particular burial provided clear and compelling evidence of female hunters actively engaging in hunting activities.
Apart from hunting, the association of tools related to warfare with male burials has been another stereotype. However, recent findings have revealed multiple instances where females were buried alongside weapons and warrior equipment. In Sweden, a burial thought to belong to a male Viking warrior was confirmed through genomics to be that of a female. Similarly, a 2,500-year-old burial site in Eurasia contained four females linked with weapons, indicating the prevalence of female warriors among the Scythians. These anecdotes demonstrate a pattern of female engagement with weapons and tools traditionally labeled as “violent”, challenging biases in interpreting archaeological evidence.
The accumulation of these remarkable discoveries has fueled a renewed interest in investigating the intricate organizational structures of societies during the Holocene period. These findings serve as a catalyst for further research aimed at unraveling the complex social dynamics that characterized human communities during this pivotal era.
This study aims to bridge the research gap by examining the subsistence strategies of foraging groups worldwide and shed light on the division of labor between females and males in these societies. The researchers hypothesize that the majority of hunter-gatherer communities expect women to contribute to hunting strategies, challenging the prevailing paradigm of sex-specific gender roles in foraging subsistence labor.
To investigate this hypothesis, the researchers compiled data from ethnographic reports on hunter-gatherer societies worldwide, focusing on their subsistence activities and the involvement of females in hunting. The study analyzed 391 foraging societies, with explicit data on hunting obtained for 63 of these societies. The data included information on the extent of female participation in hunting, the type of hunting performed, and the presence of women hunting with children and dogs.
The results of the analysis are striking. Among the 63 societies studied, documentation of women hunting was found in 50 societies, representing an overwhelming 79% of the groups. Further analysis revealed that in 87% of the societies with available data, women’s hunting was intentional rather than opportunistic. This challenges the perception that women only accompany men on hunting trips to carry the kills home and highlights their active involvement in the hunting process.
The study further revealed that women employ a variety of hunting strategies and tools, distinct from those used by men. Women are skilled hunters in their own right and exhibit flexibility in their hunting methods. For instance, among the Agta people of the Philippines, women prefer a combination of hunting with knives and bows and arrows. They also collaborate with different partners, including other women, children, and dogs. In contrast, men primarily hunt alone or with a single partner.
Contrary to the belief that women’s involvement in hunting is hindered by childcare responsibilities, the study found evidence of women carrying infants and children during hunting expeditions.
The researchers assert that these findings carry significant implications for how we interpret archaeological evidence and understand human subsistence cultures. By questioning the conventional hunter-gatherer paradigm, the study urges the adoption of a fresh framework that recognizes the diverse strategies and adaptability of human subsistence practices. This shift will enable us to develop a more comprehensive understanding of our ancestral past.
The Role of Female Hunters in Hunter-Gatherer Societies
Hunter-gatherer societies, by their very nature, are characterized by a close relationship with the natural environment. Survival depends on the ability to secure food resources, and the division of labor is essential for the overall success of the community. However, this division of labor is not strictly determined by gender; rather, it is influenced by a combination of factors, including ecological conditions, cultural practices, and individual abilities.
While it is true that in some hunter-gatherer societies, men tend to engage more in hunting activities, it is not an exclusive domain. Women often contribute significantly to the hunting efforts of their communities. They may participate in cooperative hunting, working alongside men to capture game and ensure the group’s sustenance. The active involvement of women in hunting activities challenges the notion that hunting is solely a male role and highlights the cooperation and interdependence within these societies.
Moreover, the roles performed by men and women in hunter-gatherer societies extend beyond hunting and gathering. Women play critical roles in childcare, transmitting cultural knowledge, and maintaining social cohesion. They possess intimate knowledge of local plant resources, their uses, and medicinal properties. This knowledge is vital for the survival and well-being of the community.
It is important to note that the division of labor in hunter-gatherer societies is not fixed or rigid. Roles may vary based on factors such as age, individual skills, and specific cultural contexts. Children learn skills and acquire knowledge through observation, participation, and guidance from community members of both genders. This flexible approach to gender roles allows for the development of a diverse skill set within the community and fosters a sense of interdependence and cooperation.
The study of gender roles in hunter-gatherer societies challenges prevailing ideas about gender and highlights the importance of cultural and contextual factors in shaping these roles. Rather than subscribing to a binary understanding of gender, these societies often exhibit a more fluid and adaptable approach. The absence of strict gender divisions in these societies suggests that gender roles are social constructs influenced by cultural norms and practices.
- “The Myth of Man the Hunter: Women’s…ethnographic contexts“, Abigail Anderson, Sophia Chilczuk, Kaylie Nelson, Roxanne Ruther, Cara Wall-Scheffler, PLOS ONE, June 28, 2023