Another stereotype squashed by the evidence

An Awá woman holds hunting bows and arrows in Brazil’s Caru Indigenous Territory in 2017

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?


  1. StevoR says

    ^ That’s : Guess they have a much easier time hunting given their “prey” doesn’t move that is. Sorry.

  2. microraptor says

    Have there been any studies about how much gathering men in these cultures do?

  3. Silentbob says

    Child care posed little problem: Mothers carried infants or left them at camp with other community members

    She hunted the mammoth.

    … with bub in a papoose!

  4. Silentbob says

    men almost always wielded bows and arrows, whereas some women preferred knives

    So you’re telling me women don’t prefer pink because of looking for berries, but because of ripping out gizzards?

  5. badland says

    I’ve been waiting a decade for a study with this focus to be published, and omgwff it shits on the evopsych Pink Berries Ladybrains narrative.

    So surprised!

  6. says

    I recently read Charles King’s 2020 Gods of the Upper Air: How a Circle of Renegade Anthropologists Reinvented Race, Sex, and Gender in the Twentieth Century. Any time I read books about this era, I’m shocked at how little the prejudiced arguments have changed in the century that’s passed. They were laughably stupid and already refuted then, and yet here they still are. (Also, Edward Sapir was abusive and controlling – I felt like this was not sufficiently recognized in the book even as his behavior was described in some detail.)

  7. René says

    Agta, Matses, Aka, Awa, Batek, Nukak, Hadza

    Surely this deals with very primitive two-syllable peoples! Even Neanderthals had already several syllables. /s

  8. beholder says

    It’s heartening to hear that making vegans cry was an egalitarian pastime for the past 60,000 years.

  9. wzrd1 says

    lumipuna @ 13, have you ever hunted wild game? Try it with a heat hardened sharpened stick some time.
    Gathering, OTOH, one had to know what was safe to eat, what was to be avoided, medicinal plants and herbs and how to avoid predators.

  10. chrislawson says


    But the reason for that is the skewing of popular narrative by the large media corporations, which are (with very, very few exceptions) owned by billionaires.

  11. chrislawson says

    lumipuna: yep, the idea that hunters do nothing but hunt while gatherers do nothing but gather is, shall we say, a primitive view?

  12. tuatara says

    lumipuna. Yes, at which point do gathering and hunting actually diverge?
    My own experience here with Yolngu people revealed to me that there is little distinction between the two practices.
    Imagine wading through a waterhole feeling for and gathering edible tubers in the mud and chancing on a file snake hiding there. The snake is simply gathered as another food source. Of course the people know that file snakes like to hide in the same places as the tubers hide but are they actually hunting them? No.

    Or what about wandering through the Arafura collecting magpie goose eggs and chancing upon a long-neck turtle among the reeds? Must you then be classified as a hunter because you gathered an animal for food?

    Then consider hunting cheeky yam? These tubers are dug from the soil, but you would not think so when you see people walking slowly among the trees scanning the canopy for the tell tale signs of a subterranian meal. Hunting cheeky yam takes as much tracking skills as hunting wallaby or kangaroo.

    I presume from the OP that hunting is classified as the taking of any animal for food, even though traditionally many animals were taken for food, by any and all members of society, without any hunting at all.

    I think the classification of hunting so adhered to is a silly and overly romantic one that should be re-examined. I won’t even go near the systemic misogyny embedded in it.

  13. StevoR says

    @ ^ tuatara : Glad to see you commenting here again. I’m not sure I wasn’t sure what Cheeky Yams are until checking & seeing :

    But I do know a lot of Indigenous Peoples in Oz have cultivated Murnong or Yam daisy (Microceris species) see :

    As a major food source as featured in among other things Kate Grenville’s The Secret River story (see ) and which I see growing locally in the Bush still.

  14. wzrd1 says

    There is one yam I simply adore. It’s purple skinned, white fleshed, not sweet at all, but heavy on starch.
    Common in Asian cuisine, especially Indian, I can only manage to eat half of one, the rest turns into tomorrow’s lunch, whereas a sweet yam of the same size would be fully eaten.
    Starches are high sugar chain carbs.
    No clue what they’re properly called. I do believe that they’re largely cultivated in Africa, based upon a few comments I overheard.

    Yams in the wild can be tricky, but trickier are another favorite of mine, cassava.
    Wild cassava, which isn’t available at all in the US, is tasty when properly prepared. I’m not comfortable with even attempting to process it, that whole hydrogen cyanide thing and all. But, the flavor is unique.
    Knowing the two of either species, far beyond me. Far easier to hunt for walking food, as few are toxic, alas, most can smell, see or hear me in advance.

  15. says

    Some anti-vegetarians really are as bad as the comic shows them to be. Case in point: Timothy Tsiao, a truly loopy right-wing-Christian ideologue/”philosopher” most famous for being one advocate of the “Perverted Faculties Argument” as a rationalization of Christian bigotry against LGBT+ people. He’s also argued — with a really creepy degree of urgency — that being vegetarian is both ungodly and anti-American. Dude gives motivated reasoning a bad name…

  16. says

    The distinction between hunting and gathering seems often arbitrary.

    It’s about as arbitrary as assigned gender roles — most likely because the former is part of the latter. Men hunt the mammoth, women gather plants — the roles are kept separate and distinct because, and to the extent that, male and female characteristics must be kept separate and distinct, maintaining the “perfect binary” so many people seem desperate to maintain in their heads.

  17. wzrd1 says

    Not really. Assigned roles can be due to proficiency, as in you don’t send someone utterly incapable of hunting out to hunt. It can also be for either age related inability, incapacity (either temporary or permanent) to gathering, due to proximity to village/camp.
    So, even the best hunter of all, being injured during a hunt and unable to hunt well, could gather while recovering.
    Permanently disabled, teaching and gathering and instructing on the hunt.

    Once successful enough to have excess, hunters return empty handed and regale all about “the one that got away”, not relating their drinking expedition.
    Oh wait, that’s farming stage.

  18. brightmoon says

    Heh heh heh , wish I could show this to my late father who was a strong believer in the myth of “ women can’t do that!” Unfortunatelyfor him, he had a daughter who didn’t believe him – me


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