The idea that early men hunted—and women gathered—has shaped theories of human evolution. But this ‘belief’ is entirely wrong—as a recent study of ethnographic data spanning the past 100 years shows. So why have we held on to it for so long?
Researched by: Nirmal Bhansali & Anannya Parekh
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What’s this Man the Hunter theory?
The symposium: In 1966, University of Chicago hosted a symposium focused on early hunter-gatherer societies. It was titled ‘Man the Hunter’—and attended by 75 experts—of which only five were women. The participants presented “available information about living primates, recent forager societies, and fossils and artefacts.” This was primarily gathered from ethnographic accounts written by white men.
The book: These presentations became the basis for a 1968 edited collection of papers also called ‘Man the Hunter.’ Taken together, they argued that hunting was solely the responsibility of men:
In what has been called the Man the Hunter narrative, ancestral males roamed far and wide in pursuit of prey while their female mates stayed near camp, gathering plants and caring for offspring. Male hunting and female gathering established sex-based labour, perhaps more than 1 million years ago, or so the story went.
Also: all of human evolution was driven by hunting—and therefore men. Women were just watching on the sidelines:
“Man's life as a hunter supplied all the other ingredients for achieving civilization: the genetic variability, the inventiveness, the systems of vocal communication, the coordination of social life,” anthropologist William S. Laughlin writes in chapter 33 of the book. Because men were supposedly the ones hunting, proponents of the Man the Hunter theory assumed evolution was acting primarily on men, and women were merely passive beneficiaries of both the meat supply and evolutionary progress.
Or to put it more plainly: “The assumption has been that everyone depended on the hunters for food, and that big-game hunting was what drove the evolution of our species as brainy tool-makers.”
What’s really interesting: Early hunter-gatherer societies were actually egalitarian—and for good reason:
In nomadic societies where there is little or no material wealth, as was the case with most hunter gatherers, a woman cannot easily be forced to stay in a partnership. She and her partner may move around together with her relatives, his relatives, or other people entirely. If unhappy, she can walk away.
Some researchers suggest that the roots of patriarchy are linked to the advent of agriculture 12,000 years ago. Humans stayed in one place and now had crops and cattle to defend—which in turn made warfare between communities more frequent: “For example, the Yanomamo horticulturalists in Venezuela lived in heavily fortified group households, with violent raids on neighbouring groups and ‘bride capture’ being part of life.” This in turn gave men greater control over wealth—creating inequalities that broadened over time.
Far more than a theory: The Man the Hunter narrative has been vastly influential in almost every field of thought—and framed our broader view of gender. What it means “to be a man” or “wear the pants in the family.” As one history professor puts it:
I think that next to the myth that God made a woman from man's rib to be his helper, the myth that man is the hunter and woman is the gatherer is probably the second most enduring myth that naturalises the inferiority of women.
The ‘hunter’ thesis is used to claim that men are naturally more violent—which is at the core of toxic masculinity. It also helps position men as the “sole” or “most important “breadwinner in the family.” Of course, the flip side of that is women are expected to be “natural” caretakers.
Not ‘outdated’ at all: The Man the Hunter thesis continues to exert great power on the human imagination. For example: a 2019 study found that a Google image search of “prehistoric humans” produced 207 portrayals of men hunting—but only 16 of women.
Ok, so what have we discovered now?
What we knew all along—but wilfully ignored.
The study: Led by biological anthropologist Cara Wall-Scheffler, a team of researchers looked at D-PLACE—a database of ethnographies describing 1,400 human cultural groups in the 19th and 20th centuries. The result is a first-of-its-kind study on gender roles.
They identified 391 hunter-gatherer or forager societies—which both gather wild plants and hunt wild animals. Of these, they found 63 with “firsthand reports on when, how, and what hunting occurred. Then the team sought out patterns: whether women were hunting at all, whether the activity was intentional or opportunistic, and the size of the game being pursued.”
In a third of societies for which there is data, the women hunt large game. In other words, they do go after the kind of big mammals associated with the stereotype of male hunters.
Also important, women were trained as hunters—just like men:
The vast majority of the time, she says, "the hunting was purposeful. Women had their own toolkit. They had favourite weapons. Grandmas were the best hunters of the village." In other words, "the majority of cultures for whom hunting is important train their girls and their women to make their tools and go hunting.”
As for the kids: The study shows that motherhood did not slow women down: “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.” A bit ironic given all the women shunted to the ‘mommy track’ today.
FYI: A recent study showed that Agta women in the Philippines hunt while menstruating, pregnant and breastfeeding—and they are as successful as men.
About that role in evolution: Previous research has already upended the idea that hunting or even men were the sole drivers of human evolution. Even in the 1960s, scholars shared evidence that most of the diet in hunter-gatherer societies came from plant food. More recently, researchers have argued that other activities—taming of fire, cooking, spears and even making wine—may have been just as critical to how our brains developed.
Interesting to note: Previous studies suggest that older women—grandmas—were often key to the survival of their communities—which in turn explains menopause:
[Kristen] Hawkes… believes grandmothers’ hunting and gathering was so important in our past that it drove the evolution of menopause in the human lineage after we split off from other apes. This early, programmed end of fertility is extremely rare in mammals — most reproduce until they are near death, and only humans, orcas and short-finned pilot whales are known to lose fertility in mid-life. Menopause allows women a long period of time when they’re still strong and vigorous but free from the need to care for their own infants.
Rethinking how we think: What the study really reveals is the sweeping effect of gender bias. There was plenty of evidence to challenge the Man the Hunter narrative in existing literature—but it was ignored or overlooked due to our assumptions.
We often see what we expect to see. Example: In Peru, archaeologists wrongly assumed that a 9,000-year-old body was male—simply because of the presence of hunting tools at the burial site. Stunned to find it was female, anthropologists revisited 27 gravesites with hunting tools in North America—and found 11 bodies were female.
The bottomline: The greatest gift of this new research is that it liberates our understanding of the past from the shackles of sexism. As biological anthropologist Sara Lacy puts it:
Now when you think of “cave people,” we hope, you will imagine a mixed-sex group of hunters encircling an errant reindeer or knapping stone tools together rather than a heavy-browed man with a club over one shoulder and a trailing bride. Hunting may have been remade as a masculine activity in recent times, but for most of human history, it belonged to everyone.
The original study is here. Science, New York Times and NPR focus most closely on the study. Scientific American has a fascinating piece on why men may not actually be stronger than women—which was the biological basis of the Man the Hunter thesis. This piece in The Conversation looks at the roots of patriarchy. Noema magazine offers a good overview of recent research. Washington Post has a lively and fun column on the persistence of the Stone Age myths.