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Vivek Venkataraman does not work for, consult, own shares in or receive funding from any company or organisation that would benefit from this article, and has disclosed no relevant affiliations beyond their academic appointment. They viewed hunting — done by men — as the prime driver of human evolution, bestowing upon our early ancestors bipedalism, big brains, tools and a lust for violence. In this narrative, hunting also gave rise to the nuclear family, as women waited at home for men to bring home the meat. As an anthropologist who studies hunting and gathering societies, I was thrilled by the discovery of female skeletons buried with big-game hunting paraphernalia, a pattern that raises important questions about ancient gender roles.
But I found most of the media coverage it generated disappointingly inaccurate. Now, this theory may be crumbling. The researchers had lived with and studied contemporary populations of hunting and gathering peoples around the world , from jungle to tundra. It was there in Chicago that real-life data confronted the myth of Man the Hunter.
Researchers showed that women worked just as hard as men, and plant foods gathered by women were crucially important in hunter-gatherer diets. Hunter-gatherer movement patterns were driven by a variety of ecological factors, not just game. And many hunter-gatherers were quite peaceful and egalitarian.
By the late s, as anthropologists carried out further research on hunter-gatherers and paid attention to issues of gender , the myth of Man the Hunter fell into disfavour. Even so, subsequent research has affirmed a simple division of labour among hunter-gatherers: men mostly hunt and women mostly gather. When anthropologist Carol Ember surveyed societies, she found only 13 in which women participated in hunting.
That myth was born of assumptions, not careful empirical research. Through decades of field research, anthropologists have developed a more flexible and capacious view of human labour. According to this view, women are not bound by biology to gather, nor men to hunt. In this context, ancient female hunters are an expectation, not a surprise. And the focus on Man the Hunter distracts from the more important question of how a society with female big-game hunters might be constructed.
One prominent explanation, elaborated in by feminist anthropologist Judith Brown, is that the demands of hunting conflict with the provision of child care. These constraints play a role in shaping risk preferences. Men tend to hunt alone or in small groups and target big game with projectile weapons, which often requires fast-paced, long-distance travel. In contrast, women prefer to hunt in groups and focus on smaller, easier-to-capture prey closer to camps, often with the aid of dogs. Women are often crucial to the hunting success of others, whether through logistical or ritual assistance.
Husbands and wives sometimes work collaboratively ; in these instances women may help trap an animal, then club it to death and carry the meat home. And in big-game hunting societies, women provide support to hunters by manufacturing clothing, weaponry and transportation equipment. They may also participate in hunting directly by locating, then surrounding and driving game toward a killing location, as seen among high-latitude reindeer hunters and Plains bison hunters. As the authors of the new paper speculate, this is likely how the Peruvian female hunters killed game.
Updated views on plant gathering provide insight into why women may choose not to hunt altogether. This turns out to be wrong. Like hunting, gathering demands extensive ecological knowledge and skill that is socially learned and cultivated over a lifetime. As a result, hunter-gatherers face tough choices about how to divide difficult labor in a hour day. In this context, economic considerations show that it pays to specialize: modest comparative advantages — speed and strength, and the incompatibilities posed by child care — can lead to divisions of labour that increase overall food acquisition by the group.
I conduct my work among the Batek people , hunter-gatherers from the rainforests of Malaysia who are widely considered one of the most gender-egalitarian societies in the world. They have little material inequality, share food widely, abhor violence and emphasize individual autonomy. When day breaks at camp, Batek men trek far, usually alone, to hunt monkeys with blowpipes.
The women gather tubers or fruit in small groups closer to camp. Nothing prohibits women from hunting, as is the case with some hunter-gatherers where, for example, touching hunting weapons is forbidden. Batek women sometimes in group hunts of bamboo rats, but it is otherwise rare. However, there are exceptions. Some teenage girls establish an interest in blowpipe hunting that carries into adulthood. The Batek people say this division of labour comes down to strength differences, incompatibility with child care and differences in knowledge specialization.
The Batek conceive of themselves as a co-operative and interdependent group in which each person makes a unique and important contribution toward a communal goal. Contrary to news reports, the archeological findings from Peru accord well with current knowledge about how and why men and women divide labour among hunter-gatherers. And it has little to do with the myth of Man the Hunter. The Peruvian hunter-gatherers were big-game specialists who used spear-throwing technologies that were likely relatively easy to learn. This may have enabled more flexible divisions of labour and broader participation in hunting by women, similar to what we see among some hunter-gatherers today.
The social implications beyond these facts are not clear. But as the case with the Batek people shows, among a liberated society of equals, status and power has little to do with who brings in the meat. Plymouth Contemporary — Plymouth, Devon. Edition: Available editions United Kingdom. New evidence suggests that contrary to long-held beliefs, women were also big-game hunters. Vivek Venkataraman , University of Calgary. A France24 report on the Peru findings. Anthropology Women Hunting Peru Hunter-gatherers.Rich women hunter
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