A thousand just-so stories have suddenly cried out in shock and died a miserable death. Hunter-gatherer societies don’t think that hyphen separates men from women? This is what you learn when you don’t do your anthropological research by surveying Psych 101 classrooms in Western colleges. These researchers actually did a world-wide survey of foraging cultures!
For decades anthropologists have witnessed forager women—those who live in societies that both hunt and gather—around the world skillfully slay prey: In the 1980s, Agta women of the Philippines drew bows and arrows as tall as themselves and aimed at wild pigs and deer, and Matses Amazonians struck paca rodents with machetes. Observations from the 1990s described Aka great-grandmothers and girls as young as age 5 trapping duiker and porcupine in central Africa.
A study published today in PLOS ONE has united these reports for a first-of-its-kind global view of women hunters. Reviewing accounts penned by scholars who study culture, known as ethnographers, as well as those by observers between the late 1800s and today, the researchers found that women hunted in nearly 80% of surveyed forager societies.
These data flatly reject a long-standing myth that men hunt, women gather, and that this division runs deep in human history.
It makes sense. You’re not going to tell half your community that they can’t exploit a rich and highly-valued food source, so of course women would poke tasty animals with sticks when they could. Restricting women’s choices is a pathological condition that could only be tolerated in a wealthy society with a wasteful surplus already. There were some gender differences, and hunting was a wholesome activity that could be enjoyed by the whole family!
The reports also revealed considerable flexibility and personal preferences, both within and across cultures. Individuals wielded various weapons including spears, machetes, knives, and crossbows. Some relied on hunting dogs, nets, or traps. Women followed tracks to big game and beat the ground with sticks to flush out critters. Child care posed little problem: Mothers carried infants or left them at camp with other community members; older children often tagged along, hunting as well.
The team did discover differences between male and female strategies. For example, among the Agta, men almost always wielded bows and arrows, whereas some women preferred knives. Men were more likely to head out solo or in pairs, whereas women generally hunted in groups and with dogs.
Despite gender differences, the team found little evidence for rigid rules. “If somebody liked to hunt, they could just hunt,” Wall-Scheffler says.
That’s just what people do. But what about the CHILDREN?
Suggestions that children are put in danger by accompanying hunts can be mediated with current literature on the numerous ways in which infants and children are carried during expeditions by parents and alloparents. The importance of infants remaining with adults (versus being parked) is an important part of our lineage, with children accompanying the wide range of expeditions consistently evidenced in the archaeological, as well as the ethnographic record. Data explicitly mentioning that infants are carried while hunting exist for the Aka and the Awa, as well as for foraging bouts that might result in opportunistic hunting (e.g., among the Batek and Nukak). Among both the Hadza and the Aka, children (potentially as young as age three) accompany adults on over 15% of hunting trips. The idea that women are hindered by childcare and thus cannot hunt is an area where increasing data collection and thoughtful interpretation is lending a much richer lens to our understanding of human mobility strategies.
But what about vegetarians?