The roles of men and women in hunting, revisited

July 7, 2023 • 12:06 pm

On June 30 I reported on a PLOS One paper whose data showed that, in existing hunter-gatherer societies, women participated in hunting a lot more than most people (well, at least I) thought.  (The original paper is here.) Here’s what I wrote, giving the authors’ conclusions (the authors’ words are doubly indented, my short bit singly indented).

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.

These data got a lot of attention because the paper is supposed to have “busted the myth” that in hunter-gatherer societies, both now and among our ancestors, there was a strict division of labor: men did the hunting and women the gathering.  While most anthropologists who weighed in said that nobody in the field really believed in such a strict division of labor, I’m sure that at least some laypeople did, and the data were valuable in dispelling such a myth.

I am keeping track of the reaction to the original paper, for here we have a case of science in flux: a “paradigm” of sex-specific labor appears to have been overturned (or at least eroded), and others will now analyze the data and weigh in.  One thing that wasn’t clear from the original paper was this: given that women do participate in hunting in most modern hunter-gatherer societies, to what extent do they participate? Do they do half the hunting, or only a little hunting?  I emphasize that any such division of labor has nothing to do with inferiority of one sex over another, but may be a byproduct of the differences in strength and speed of men versus women, characteristics that resulted from natural or sexual selection. But before we go speculating, we need the data.

At any rate, in a poorly titled paper in the Aporia Magazine (female hunting is NOT a “myth”, and the article below shows it isn’t), a somewhat pseudonymous author analyzed the data from 11 African societies (the limit of what could be presented in this short piece) and found that yes, women hunted in many societies—but never to the extent that men did.

Author “Alexander” is described this way:

Alexander is a grad student in behavioral and cognitive research. His research interests are in relationships and attraction. You can follow him on Twitter for interesting research threads and YouTube for evidence-based dating tips.

You can read the paper by clicking on the screenshot below. 

Alexander notes the media attention to the PLOS One paper, but said that although the headlines may have gotten the results wrong, the real “big problems” with the paper are these:

  1. The data do not show it is a “myth” that men are the predominant hunters across these cultures.
  2. The data do not show that women hunt as often as men do.
  3. The data do not show that women have always hunted as much as men.

So the “myth” isn’t that females don’t hunt, it is that they often hunt as much as do men. The title should have made that clear.

Here’s what Alexander said was done in the original paper: a simple binary coding with 0 for “no” (hunting, fishing, gathering) and 1 for “yes”.

Anderson et al. (2023) examined the existing ethnographic literature for documentation of women hunting. This was categorized as a binary variable. If there was any documentation of women hunting, it was recorded as a 1, a simple “yes.” This raises a problem. It does not quantify how much men and women participate in hunting. It didn’t matter if hunting was rare for women or if female hunting practices differed significantly from male hunting practices (e.g., trapping birds versus hunting elephants with spears)

Alexander looked at the 11 societies in Africa, consulting the original sources. He quotes from them; in some there appears to be a strict division of labor with no women hunting, in others women hunt with nets, but in others women do very little hunting.  Alexander divides up the division of labor into four subjective categories, and then plots the category for each society (below):

Based on the description of the cultures in Anderson et al. (2023) and the research cited above, I coded cultures according to the following:

A clear sexual division of hunting labor: a binary yes/no.

The extent to which hunting was segregated overall: a scale of 1-4. A 1 indicates no segregation; men and women perform the same hunting tasks in mixed groups. A 4 indicates nearly total segregation.

Here are the results for the African societies used:


Here’s his conclusion:

100% of the societies had a sexual division of labor in hunting. Women may have participated with men in some hunting contexts, typically capturing small game with nets, but participated much less in large game hunting with weapons or by persistence. Even within these contexts, it was usually the case that the role of women during the communal hunt was different. For example, women flushed wild game into nets while men dispatched the game.

These are my subjective ratings based on the papers I read in Anderson et al. (2023) and the supporting literature I cited. You may disagree and assign some different ratings. The point is that there is substantial variation across cultures in sex-based hunting roles. Additionally, none of the societies truly have an absence of these roles.

Again, all you can do is look at the data he reproduces.  His conclusion is that there is generally some division of labor, but there are no societies that rank 1 (“no segregation”) and four show “total segregation.”

Read this article along with my earlier post and Alexander’s post (especially the text he reproduces from original sources ) as well as the PLOS One paper.  And remember that differences between sex roles, large or small, say nothing about ranking.  Remember, too, that the idea that “women never hunt in hunter gatherer societies” is something that anthropologists rejected a long time ago. Alexander finishes with this reminder:

Why did the perception of “man the hunter” arise? It’s likely because we see many sex-segregated hunting practices, particularly in hunting large game with weapons. Additionally, when you think of hunting, the first thing that comes to mind may not be chasing birds into nets. You probably think of a man with a spear — usually a man, not a woman, with a spear.

Nonetheless, it’s important not to devalue the role of small game hunting and foraging. Ichikawa (2021) noted that small game net hunting produced an equal supply of food in tonnes but was also stable and not sporadic compared with hunting elephants. In agricultural societies, women are not merely sitting at home either. Farming labor is shared and women tend to produce as much food as men. Women work hard across cultures. They are not merely sitting in the cave waiting for you to return the mammoth meat.

For some people, that is not good enough. They are driven by a belief that the egalitarianism of hunter-gatherer societies means they have no sex-based roles or divisions. This is not only a belief but an ideological desire. They want to believe that hunter-gatherer egalitarianism means the sameness of the sexes. On that, I will leave you with what Lewis (2014) wrote about gender roles for one pygmy hunter-gatherer group related to those reviewed in this literature:

Mbendjele recognize, cultivate, and celebrate gender differences, but value them equally. To understand egalitarian societies, it is necessary to understand that individual variation and equality coexist, so to understand gender egalitarian societies, it is necessary to recognize that gender difference and equality coexist

[…] Mbendjele men and women spend most of their waking time apart; in the forest women gather and fish together with other women and children, men go looking for honey or hunting in smaller male‐only groups.

11 thoughts on “The roles of men and women in hunting, revisited

  1. The back and forth about science is but one thing that I really like about it. There is that vision and then the revision that goes on in it, until a more nuanced (and maybe more correct) model eventually becomes known. That is a feature which is very different from religion and from other ideologies, where challenges to a paradigm are seen as a crisis. A threat to be resisted.

    1. But it does seem like a sort of religion is part of the equation here. Those with a certain political philosophy want to be able to point to history and say “It has always been thus”
      Except that it has not, so history must be changed.

      I have been ruminating on this since our last such discussion, and reasoned that there may be a logical reason why almost binary divisions existed, from an age earlier than childbearing or male puberty would necessitate.
      That is because the duties of both men and women in such societies were complicated and technical skills. Childhood was a time for training, and play as training. That does not have to mean that a little girl must never touch a spear, or that mom will not teach her son about preserving meat or finding the right berries.
      But to be proficient in one’s role means learning and practicing complicated and strenuous skills. Survival meant, then as ever, efficient use of finite time and resources.

      It seems likely to me that a successful society would be one where specialized skill training would be given to those who would be the most likely to use those skills as an adult in support of the clan or tribe. And that society would generally encourage the young to practice those skills as much as possible.

      Only a skilled professional is going to make a Clovis spear head, and stalk and kill a dangerous giant predator with it. Similarly, a set of quilled moccasins is a very complex undertaking.

      Besides all that, absent outside influence, boys will revert to whacking each other with sticks, and girls will make a doll from what is at hand.

  2. It does not surprise me that the women were involved in the hunting. In modern times they do nearly all the cleaning and cooking. My grandmother, early 20th century who always cleaned and cooked the small game. She also kept the books for her husband’s business. When the work in the fields was busy she was out there doing the work. He always cleaned the fish but she always did the cooking.

    1. When utopia arrives, not only wlll both sexes share in cleaning and cooking the fish, but the academic specialists in Critical Culinary Theory will tell us that cleaning and cooking are on a spectrum and thus not really different operations. The only complications will arise with individuals who claim that they are really fish (having been born in a human body by mistake)—and scholars of Critical Zoology Theory, who will explain that fish and humans are all on a spectrum anyhow.

      1. Wow, my grandmother I think made it thru high school but gramps was about 8th grade. I doubt they were thinking about any of that at any time.

  3. It is quite logical that women do less hunting. First, women have less strength. Second, women are slower runners because their pelvis is adapted for childbirth at the expense of locomotion. Third, women take care of the children, including the babies whom they carry, and this is easily compatible with gathering but not so with hunting. To me, it is difficult even to imagine a breastfeeding mother as a huntress. Others apparently feel the same way, because the fictional huntresses I know are all maidens.

  4. It’s a matter of degree, not surprisingly.

    My sister sent me two videos she took yesterday. The first one depicted her catching a good-sized rock bass. In the second, she caught a largemouth bass. Her husband also landed a largemouth bass, but a smaller one than my sister landed. Both of them ate well yesterday, thanks 2/3 to my sister, 1/3 to my brother-in-law. My sister, the hunter!

    1. Thanks for that link. Wow seems like the scholarship in the Anderson study was superficial in a lot of cases. And counting some societies twice under different names for them is unintentionally funny.

  5. Just a thought… eh, speculation but as the game got smaller in size the more women took up the hunt. This could be seasonal or when 2 types of animal were in close proximity, one large, the other smaller say but in relative abundance. That is to say hunting strategies, responsobilities changed, further, their young could participate learning communal values, skills, with smaller game. Men would also do gathering when needs be.

    I cannot seem to verfy this online but I am sure I read it in Charles Darwin “The Voyage of the Beagle” Janet Browne. The horror story of Darwin meeting a local hunter in Sth America with a young boy who had been gathering eggs. The young boy smashed the eggs accidentally and paid the price of a servere beating and left behind to die, if true, hunting or gathering was a dangerous game.

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