Women have always hunted as much as men

A review of dozens of traditional societies shows that the sexual division of labor in these communities is a myth

Awa men and women prepare to go hunting
Awa men and women prepare to go hunting. Among the Awa, who inhabit a portion of the Brazilian jungle in the state of Maranhão, there are communities that have not yet had contact with the whites.Scott Wallace (Getty Images)
Miguel Ángel Criado

In 1968, the book Man the Hunter was published as the result of a symposium held two years earlier. Edited by anthropologists Richard Lee and Irven DeVore, the tome presented numerous ethnographic and archaeological works on primitive hunter-gatherer societies and laid the foundation for the hunter paradigm: hunting’s relevance in human evolution and its characterization as a fundamentally male activity. But that was just one more gender bias, which in this case existed in science. In 2020, an influential paper showed how prehistoric women also hunted large animals. Now, a review of dozens of traditional communities shows that females hunted just as much as males.

It did not take long for academics to criticize the claims in Man the Hunter. Anthropologist Frances Dahlberg compiled a series of works in her edited volume Woman the Gatherer, which took a feminist perspective. Based on a series of field investigations, Dahlberg questioned the male hunter paradigm for diminishing the role of gathering and other female tasks in human history. But this feminist critique unwittingly accepted the sexual division of labor: men hunt, women gather fruit. But what if this separation never existed or was not so stark? The discovery of a young woman buried with her weapons in the Andes some 8,000 years ago (followed by many others) finally dismantled the myth of the male hunter in the past. And in the present?

A group of anthropologists from Washington and Seattle Pacific Universities has scoured the ethnographic databases to find what anthropologists and ethnographers have written about hunting in present-day traditional societies (or ones that existed until relatively recently, such as the Iroquois, Apache and other Native Americans). They selected nearly 400 cultures, but narrowed the sample down to 63, because, as study co-author Cara Wall-Scheffler says, they were explicitly looking for “studies detailing hunting behavior and strategies.” If the studies lacked tables, statistics or details, they were discarded.

According to the data in this study, which was published in PLoS ONE, women also hunt in 50 of the 63 traditional societies analyzed; that is, 79 percent of them. There is evidence of that in communities on every inhabited continent except Europe (which has not had hunter-gatherer groups for a long time). Because it is possible that the hunting is due to a woman encountering an animal while picking fruit, the authors of the review narrowed the field down further and found ethnographic works on 40 societies that distinguish between intentional hunting and occasional or unplanned hunting. They found that women hunt in 85 percent of those societies, including the Aka pygmies of Central Africa, the Agta women of Luzon province in the Philippines, and the 1,000 or so women of the Matsé indigenous group in the Peruvian Amazon.

“In some cultures, women and men use the same [hunting] techniques and tools, while in others women use a greater variety of strategies.”
Cara Wall-Scheffler, anthropologist at Seattle Pacific University, U.S.

“In some cultures, women and men use the same [hunting] techniques and tools, while in others women use a greater variety of strategies than men,” Wall-Scheffler says. Her analysis determined what women hunted in 45 of these hunter-gatherer communities. In almost half of the cases, women preferentially hunted small animals, but they focused on large game 33% of the time. As for how motherhood modulates this activity, Wall-Scheffler says that two patterns predominate: “Data is emerging that indicates that children either stay with caregivers, or they take [the children] along on their hunting forays (carrying the children on their shoulders or backs), as well as on foraging trips”

These findings suggest that in many gathering societies, women are hunters and play a key role in hunting. This work adds to a growing body of evidence that challenges entrenched perceptions of gender roles in gathering societies. The authors point out that these stereotypes have influenced previous archaeological studies. They maintain that some researchers have been reluctant to interpret the objects buried with women as hunting tools and call for a re-evaluation of past findings, warning against misusing the idea of men as hunters and women as gatherers in future research.

“Early fieldwork was done primarily by men, who mainly or exclusively talked to men in the societies they were studying.”
Steven L. Kuhn, archaeologist at the University of Arizona, United States

When the young Andean huntress was discovered in 2020, University of Arizona archaeologist Steven L. Kuhn, who specializes in ancient hunting, told this newspaper that “since gender division of labor has been widely documented among traditional societies, archaeologists have assumed that it was also widespread in the past.” But now that initial premise is also being called into question. After reading Wall-Scheffler’s work, Kuhn agrees about the need to reevaluate the thinking on this topic. “Certainly, there are biases at all levels. Some are rooted in the original ethnographies. Early fieldwork was done primarily by men, who mainly or exclusively talked to men in the societies they were studying. In some cases, this resulted in an inflation of the importance of men’s roles. That was one of the conclusions of the Man the Hunter conference in the 1960s,″ Kuhn notes.

But the archaeologist goes further and points to a deeper bias: “Other biases are rooted in our own social norms. It is true that archaeologists often focus on hunting because it is more visible in the record. And, in regard to human evolution, the constant predation of large animals by hominid ancestors was a major deviation from ancestral primate diets. However, we have to wonder whether the disproportionate academic emphasis on big game hunting as an economic strategy is also a reflection of how different activities and foods are valued in academics’ own societies.” At present, recreational trophy hunting is the only form of hunting that is primarily dominated by males.

Randy Haas was one of the anthropologists who found the Andean female hunter in 2020, as well as several other similar burials. Haas believes that there are several explanations for the male-hunter bias contradicted by the data: “First, Western notions of how labor should be divided between the sexes have skewed our understanding of the sexual division of labor in human societies in general. Second, hunter-gatherer ethnography was largely conducted by male scholars, which almost certainly contributed to the false sense that hunting large mammals was a strictly male activity. Third, it is also likely that colonial processes and missionization imposed Western ideas on foraging communities,” the Wayne State University professor argues. Like the authors of the study and Khun, Haas believes that the accumulation of new data makes reviewing past findings from a new perspective inevitable.

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