UPDATE: Two tweets on the amount of meat procured by male vs. female hunters (see also tweets at bottom of this page):
(The previous numbers of hunters don't quite add up because some records include 1 or more assistants)
Average per hunter per trip:
M: 9.5 kg
F: 1.4 kg
rstats data package: https://t.co/36XbiZqQ1U
From the SI, warning against doing what I did. Caveat emptor. 2/2 pic.twitter.com/IB1mpSKgP5
— Ed Hagen (@ed_hagen) June 30, 2023
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:
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