New paper: women in hunter gatherer societies hunt more that we thought

June 30, 2023 • 11:45 am

UPDATE: Two tweets on the amount of meat procured by male vs. female hunters (see also tweets at bottom of this page):


Recently I criticized a speculative paper giving weak data that, in the past, women were hunters along with men, a paper that attacked the division of labor scenario that women gathered and men hunted in early societies. I stand by that criticism, as the paper was weak, but now there’s a paper that shows a larger role for women hunting in hunter-gatherer societies than I envisioned.  While men still do most of the hunting in this sample, women do a considerable amount of hunting too, largely small game but it’s still hunting. And they often go along with men to hunt, and take their babies with them or put them in the hands of other women while they’re foraging.

So, to the extent that I implied that ONLY men hunted in either ancient or modern hunter-gathere societies, though I don’t think I implied that, I retract such an implication.  Although these data hold for modern hunter-gatherer societies, it’s reasonable to assume that they held for earlier societies as well, and the authors cite more archaeological findings of female skeleton buried with weapons.

Click the title below to read (the paper is in PLOS One), and you can find the pdf here.

Some suggestive earlier work (quotes from the paper are indented; I’ve omitted reference numbers):

One of the most prominent discoveries recently includes a 9,000 year old burial located in the Andean highland area of Wilamaya Patjxa in Peru. The burial included an adult female alongside a hunting toolkit consisting of stone projectiles as well as animal processing equipment. Researchers typically presume that stone projectiles buried alongside males are hunting tools but are less persuaded when projectiles are associated with females; the specific assemblage clearly evidenced hunting in this case. In their own review of the literature, Haas et al.  examined burials in the Americas from the Late Pleistocene to the Early Holocene period, identifying eleven females from ten sites who were associated with big-game hunting tools. By using a probability analysis of all twenty-seven sites which had evidence of big-game hunting, Haas et al. determined that females made up a “nontrivial” amount of big-game hunters across the Americas. In fact, their analysis suggested that females represented up to fifty percent of big game hunters from the Americas prehistorically.

In this case, the authors looked at 61 modern hunter-gatherer societies where they could get data from anthropological descriptions about whether women participated in hunts or hunted on their own. Here’s a map with the authors’ caption:

Fig 1. World map of the locations of 63 different foraging societies analyzed. The map is in the public domain and can be attributed to Petr Dlouhy,

Besides using data from the literature about women hunting, they took data on whether women were purposefully hunting (going out deliberately to hunt) or spontaneously hunting, taking game when they found it on their perambulations. They also categorized game taken as small, medium, or large, and whether women took their children with them when they hunted.

Here are the main results:

Data were compiled from literature on sixty-three different foraging societies across the globe. These included nineteen different foraging societies from North America, six from South America, twelve from Africa, fifteen from Australia, five from Asia and six from the Oceanic region (Fig 1 & Table 1). Of the 63 different foraging societies, 50 (79%) of the groups had documentation on women hunting. Of the 50 societies that had documentation on women hunting, 41 societies had data on whether women hunting was intentional or opportunistic. Of the latter, 36 (87%) of the foraging societies described women’s hunting as intentional, as opposed to the 5 (12%) societies that described hunting as opportunistic. In societies where hunting is considered the most important subsistence activity, women actively participated in hunting 100% of the time

Of the 50 societies that had data on women hunting, then, 79% of them had women sometimes participating in hunts (note, the analysis, using literature data, couldn’t say how often women hunted relative to men). 87% of these, or 69%, showed intentional hunting. Data on game size:

The type of game women hunted was variable based on the society. Of the 50 foraging societies that have documentation on women hunting, 45 (90%) societies had data on the size of game that women hunted. Of these, 21 (46%) hunt small game, 7 (15%) hunt medium game, 15 (33%) hunt large game and 2 (4%) of these societies hunt game of all sizes. In societies where women only hunted opportunistically, small game was hunted 100% of the time. In societies where women were hunting intentionally, all sizes of game were hunted, with large game pursued the most. Of the 36 foraging societies that had documentation of women purposefully hunting, 5 (13%) reported women hunting with dogs and 18 (50%) of the societies included data on women (purposefully) hunting with children. Women hunting with dogs and children also occurred in opportunistic situations as well.

The upshot: 46% of societies with women hunting involved capturing solely small game (presumably rodents and the like), 15% hunt medium game (rabbit-sized creatures?) and 37% hunt either large game or game of all sizes.

And data on women hunting with children:

Of the 36 foraging societies that had documentation of women purposefully hunting, 5 (13%) reported women hunting with dogs and 18 (50%) of the societies included data on women (purposefully) hunting with children. Women hunting with dogs and children also occurred in opportunistic situations as well. [No data are given on the proportion of opportunistic hunting that involved the presence of children.]

The authors’ conclusions:

Here we investigated whether noted trends of non-gendered hunting labor known from the archaeological record continued into more recent, ethnographic periods. The descriptive sample described here is sufficient to warrant the conclusion that women in foraging societies across the world participate in hunting during more recent time periods, a finding that makes sense given women’s general morphology and physiology . The prevalence of data on women hunting directly opposes the common belief that women exclusively gather while men exclusively hunt, and further, that the implicit sexual division of labor of ‘hunter/gatherer’ is misapplied. Given that this bimodal paradigm has influenced the interpretation of archeological evidence, which includes the reluctance to distinguish projectile tools found within female burials as intended for hunting (or fighting) , this paper joins others in urging the necessity to reevaluate archeological evidence, to reassess ethnographic evidence, to question the dichotomous use of ‘hunting and gathering,’ and to deconstruct the general “man the hunter” narrative.

Of the 63 foraging societies with clear descriptions of hunting strategies, 79% of them demonstrated female hunting. The widespread presence of female hunting suggests that females play an instrumental role in hunting, further adding to the data that women contribute disproportionately to the total caloric intake of many foraging groups. Additionally, over 70% of hunting done by females is interpreted as intentional, meaning that females play an active and important role in hunting—and the teaching of hunting—even if they use different tools and employ different acquisition strategies. For example, among the Aka, women’s participation in net-hunting was required, whereas men’s participation was not.

It’s clear from these data that hunter-gatherer societies do not show a strict division of labor, though I’d like to see data on the frequency of hunts in which women participate, not just the frequency of societies in which women hunt.  Men still do most of the hunting and most of the big-game hunting, but this shows only moderate rather than extensive division of labor.

Before I go, I’ll call your attention to a series of tweets by Vivek Venkataraman (start here on Twitter), an assistant professor in the Department of Anthropology and Archaeology of the University of Calgary. His university webpage describes his interests:

Dr. Venkataraman is an evolutionary anthropologist who is broadly interested in the evolution of the human diet and food systems, and their relation to life history and behavior. He is assistant director of the Guassa Gelada Research Project ,and also the co-founder and co-PI of the Orang Asli Health and Lifeways Project (OAHeLP)

Venkataraman is somewhat dubious about some of the PLOS One paper’s results, especially the 80% frequency of women hunting among all hunter-gather societies. On the other hand, like me, he applauds any new data that can change our views of biology, and thinks the frequency of hunter-gatherer societies in which women hunt is somewhere between 13% and 80%; but he also thinks that women’s hunting was even more frequent in the past than it is now (see below)

Have a look at these 14 tweets:



The paper to which  Venkataraman refers is here (click on screenshot):

Let no one say, then, that men hunted and women gathered, nor that there was a strict division of sex roles in such societies—either now or in the past!

h/t: Carole Hooven

17 thoughts on “New paper: women in hunter gatherer societies hunt more that we thought

  1. Can anyone comment on whether these results are consistent with expectations from evolutionary psychology?

    1. Hunting in both sexes is a pretty ancient thing that goes well beyond our species. Although in chimpanzees I think it’s the male that do the hunting.
      Now what needs looking at again is gender roles in child care. During hunting, are babies/children more often toted along by the women, or do the men take about equal time on that? It’s seems fair to wonder.

  2. “Hunting” covers a range of tasks. Bison-hunting on the Plains, before Contact brought horses and firearms, consisted of stampeding herds of bison off cliffs. The animals would break their forelegs and be finished off by muscular men with wooden spears and clubs.. The best-preserved of many is Head-Smashed-In Buffalo Jump in Alberta. According to oral history, many women participated in large cooperative efforts, stationing themselves, chanting and dressed in wolf skins, along the desired route to constrain the stampeding bison into going over the cliff. This was as essential to the success of the operation as the spearing and clubbing of the injured helpless animals who were still dangerous.

  3. Very interesting article.
    As a lifetime vegetarian I am not sure I view Buffalo Jumps as communal hunting, more like opportunistic mass slaughter. I know that there is much evidence for this practice at many global locations so it obviously was common much like herding animals into blind canyons or similar. I wonder how much waste there was and was it carried out at specific times in the animal life cycle to conserve or manage the supply.
    I know the (our) ancients are said to be part of the extinction of much of the large fauna in the Americas during their progression .
    I suppose it goes against my super safe romantic armchair view of the skilled hunter pitting his/her witts (and life) against that of the wily beast. Looks too much like a form of ancient factory farming, says he who cannot deliberately step on an ant. But that’s why I cannot eat animals. I really cannot kill anything and that is a luxury my ancestors never enjoyed if they wanted to survive. They certainly could not purchase pre packed buffalo steaks or nice warm woolly coats! I even have real difficulties with the meat department in large supermarkets and avoid them completely wherever possible.

    1. I have wondered, too, about the conservation aspects, Robert. How many in the stampeded herd, how many went off the cliff, how many were killed, butchered, and eaten? How many events each year? We don’t know, because the Indians couldn’t count. “Many”, “not so many”, and “more than fingers and toes on me and him” would be about it. Once a stampede is going, you can’t arbitrarily yell up to the drivers on top, who could be half a mile away drowned out by thousands of hooves, “OK, that’s enough! We’ve got enough for the winter.” It seems inescapable that the vast majority of the animals who went off the cliff would be left to die and rot….or “returned to the Earth Mother.” “Putting them out of their misery” would be a dangerous, Herculean task like killing them to eat multiplied 100-fold. Just impossible to quantify this, and modern-day indigenous people have no incentive to dispel the notion that they lived in harmony with Nature and took only what they needed, unlike the white man with his rifles. Even if they had wanted to kill only a dozen bison—and there is evidence that they were in fact thrill hunters— I don’t see how, with their available methods, they could have avoided maiming hundreds who would surely die.

      I like to eat meat. I respect the Plains hunters who had no other way to kill an ornery animal weighing close to a ton that bolts if it smells you and gores you if you corner it. Really, indigenous stewardship just reflects small numbers and primitive exploitive technology. The bison kept coming for centuries until they didn’t, probably due to anthrax and bovine tuberculosis from cattle.

      But I digress. Women did paricipate in this hunt. But the “wastage” has always troubled me, too. and I’m glad you raised it.

      1. Another paper to maybe do is a survey on whether hunter-gatherer populations, both recent and past, lived sustainably in their environment versus not sustainably. That they were in harmony w/ nature does smack of romantic mythology, and it deserves to be tested.
        I have a hypothesis (not tested as far as I am aware), that the earlier succession of our ancestors featured a lot of basic genocide. As larger brained species appeared, the smaller brained ones never lasted long.

        Well, off to dinner! I plan to hunt and gather at the Mongolian Barbecue Buffet.

        1. Examples of unsustainable stewardship easily come to mind:
          – On Easter Island, deforestation and the concomitant exterminations
          – In New Zealand, extinguishing the Moa.

      2. Conservation as a mentality requires an understanding that space and resources are finite.
        Plus, there is a religious aspect. It was not uncommon for Native American tribes, like lots of people elsewhere, to believe that everything that happened did so because the Great Spirit was pleased or displeased, or due to sorcery performed by some evil person.
        Such beliefs tend to lead you to thinking that game scarcity, poor weather, or disease can be fixed through the right sort of sacrifice, or by an attack on the group responsible for the curse.
        I read an account of a particular plains tribe killing a whole herd of buffalo just to get the tongues. The pioneer who witnessed and wrote of the event felt that it was tremendously wasteful. And this was just a few decades before the numbers of buffalo dropped precipitously.

        The mechanics of hunting by driving the animals into peril do not often permit one to stop the process once it is started. The whole point of herd animals and group defense is that they are very resistant to becoming separated from the group.

        I am glad that the point was brought up that the article attempts to debunk a claim that nobody has made, of strict divisions of labor among people living a nomadic subsistence lifestyle.

        Another issue is that there seems to be a general assumption that grave goods were property of the deceased before they died, and needed for their personal use in the afterlife. And also that they would do the exact same things in the afterlife that they did in life.

        I have no doubt at all that groups of humans in the past occasionally decided to reverse the more conventional roles, with the larger and stronger men staying at camp while the women went out to fight cave bears. We have just not heard of them because it was an unsuccessful strategy.

        Also, the same sorts of weapons used in hunting would be used for defense against hostile neighbors or hungry predators.

    2. Just a thought or two. I’ve watched footage of an elephant (it died of injuries from fighting for the rights to mate) being consumed over several days by many different fauna in Africa. This includes insects and bacteria. I’ve even seen footage of lions and hyenas sharing a large carcass, sworn enemies otherwise
      My point is with the hunting strategy of running the, in this case, bison over a cliff many other species may have benefited. I could invision some animals gathering and watching for the signs of a hunt. As have been seen in the wild, birds and mammals working together for nutritional benefit. It is not surprising that a so called intelligent species like ourselves would not have multiple strategies but for when it is highly marcho, as in, religious or mythical constaints etc. I know that Maori women menstruating had some restrictions IIRC to do with fishing.

  4. Perspective: Genus Homo has been on the ground, scavenging and hunting, for 2.6 million years. If we had a time machine with persistent recording we would no doubt see dozens of variations on the m/f participation. All are welcome!

  5. Seems as though hunger was a greater driving force than the obligation to adhere to gender assigned roles.

  6. Maybe those hunter women were really trans-men. 🙂 Or maybe sex roles weren’t written in stone then just as they are not now.

  7. The title is misleading and V.K.Venkataraman hits the nail on the head when he implies that it is a bit of a strawman argument. Hunting and gathering have not been asssumed to be binary for decades, rather bimodal depending on context. Risky (high resource investment or personal risk) hunting/gathering is mostly done by males because it is pragmatic. Regardless, the paper is a nice, useful summary of the available data.

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