Monday, 3 March 2008

Why didn't women hunt?

Among hunter-gatherers, women became less self-reliant in feeding themselves and their children with increasing distance from the equator. This was because longer winters restricted food gathering, thus forcing women to turn to men for food procured through hunting.

But why didn’t these women switch from gathering to hunting? They did, to a limited extent. In non-tropical environments, many would take part in fishing and capture of small animals. Some would even hunt big game if no men were available, as in the case of widows. Among the Inuit: “This type of role exchange did occur traditionally under extraordinary conditions (Kemp, pers. comm.) but normally only males were regarded as potential providers” (Schrire and Steiger, 1974, p. 179).

Why males were so regarded is a subject of debate. Evolutionary psychologists will argue that women are better at resolving certain spatial tasks than men are, and vice versa. Women excel at recognizing food items within complex arrays of vegetation, whereas men excel at tracking moving objects over long distances and performing the mental transformations needed to stay on track over time and space (Eals and Silverman, 1994). Cultural anthropologists, on the other hand, will point to social conventions, notably menstrual taboos, that forbid women to touch hunting gear or weapons. Both positions may be right. If women are less proficient at hunting, cultural selection will favor taboos that steer them away from that activity.

Whatever the reason, according to a comparative study of 71 hunter-gatherer societies, women do not switch to hunting, at least not appreciably so, when opportunities to gather food disappear. They instead become more involved in food processing or in activities unrelated to food (shelter building, garment making, etc.).

What has been established so far is that as the percentage of meat in the diet increases, a concordant shift in both the types of resources women procure and their degree of involvement in manufacturing activities occurs. First, plant-gathering activities tend to focus on high post-encounter returns from items such as fruits and roots, and processing-intensive plant foods like seeds and nuts are generally avoided. Second, the average amount of female time spent in the procurement of food decreases with the proportion of meat in the diet. Third, female participation in nonsubsistence activities increases in societies with hunting-dominated subsistence economies. Although many of the examined tasks such as burden carrying and butchery are likely to be associated with subsistence, they are not directly involved with food procurement. I interpret these general relationships to reflect a substantial difference in the organization of labor between predominately hunting-based versus predominately gathering-based forager economies. As female labor is increasingly oriented to tasks other than direct food procurement and especially activities that facilitate hunting, male hunters may have potentially more time and energy to devote to resource acquisition. (Waguespack, 2005, p. 671).

In short, when women can no longer maintain their self-reliance through food gathering, they don’t shift to other forms of food procurement. Instead, they intensify the pair bond with their male partners, transforming it into one of mutual dependence.


Eals, M. and I. Silverman. (1994). The hunter-gatherer theory of spatial sex differences: Proximate factors mediating the female advantage in recall of object arrays. Ethology and Sociobiology, 15, 95-105.

Schrire, C., and Steiger, W.L. (1974). A matter of life and death: An investigation into the practice of female infanticide in the Arctic. Man, 9, 161‑184.

Waguespack, N.M. (2005). The organization of male and female labor in foraging societies: Implications for early Paleoindian archaeology. American Anthropologist, 107, 666-676.


susanna said...

I'm wondering if this shift happens in part because there is more non-food work to do as people move farther from the equator. Perhaps well-made clothing and sturdier shelter is more important in colder climates? If so, maybe the change in women's roles just reflects a more efficient division of labor?

Peter Frost said...

You make a valid point. At the same time that women were being pushed out of food procurement (by lack of food gathering opportunities), they were being pulled into non-food-procurement activities that were required for adaptation to non-tropical environments.

But, then, if women still had opportunities for food procurement, would they still have been "pulled" into these other activities? This argument was raised in a recent Current Anthropology article: among Neanderthals, the sexual division of labor was less pronounced, so female Neanderthals were under less pressure to diversify into non-food-procurement activities. As a result, the Neanderthals adapted to sub-Arctic and Arctic environements through physiological changes, rather than through cultural innovations.

In short, when women shifted from food gathering to activities like garment making and shelter building, they took a critical step in human cultural evolution. Cultural innovation could now act on a much broader range of activities, and not simply on those directly related to procuring food.

Anonymous said...

In short, when women can no longer maintain their self-reliance through food gathering, they don’t shift to other forms of food procurement. Instead, they intensify the pair bond with their male partners, transforming it into one of mutual dependence.

To a certain extent, I think you ignore the interactions that will evolve between male and female behavior here.

The individuals that are more successful over time (in terms of more often contributing their genes to future generations) are those who are better able to exploit their existing environment, both physical and social.

Adopting risky strategies, like moving into hunting larger animals, is a much worse strategy to adopt if you can trade access to your reproductive equipment in exchange for provisioning ....

Anonymous said...

Couldn't this gender divide in regard to food procurement be explained by the fact that women bear children which makes it very difficult to hunt? Have you ever hunted before? (without many modern conveniences, maybe a bow or snare) I have and it's difficult! I would never take my small children hunting for the very fact that they are too noisy and slow and it could be dangerous.
They do, however, help me with other tasks, such as gardening and fishing where stealth isn't necessary in food procurement. This is similar to the native americans that lived in my area. The women gathered berries, roots, inner tree bark, seeds and various greens with their children while the men usually went after the deer, elk or bison.

Other issues come up, such as average lifespan, and the continuation of a practice beyond necessity based on the very fact that women could get pregnant.

Another issue to consider is that in northern climates the mammals were generally very large and very dangerous. I don't like to hike in the mountains with my children at certain times of the year because there is the very real possibility that they could be eaten or attacked by a mountain lion, wolf, or grizzly. (animals aren't stupid, they go after the smallest or slowest of the herd)

It's just common sense! I don't understand the need to overcomplicate everything.

Slaughter said...

A film about a wolf pair showed their cub dying of starvation when the male returned empty handed. The caribu herd move across barren lands trying to keep heading into the wind (to make it dificult for flying bugs), so their movements are irregular.
Anonymous about women not hunting because of children. Grandparents provide child care in many societies. Peter Frost has said that humans in stepppe tundra type enviroments would have a k strategy.
The grandmothers might not be so old.
My guess is that steppe tundra hunting was just too tough for women.
As the wolf story shows hunters might have to cover huge distances "performing mental transformations ". When they killed the prey it would be dismembered, unlike what occurs in a slaughterhouse, carcass segments would be heavy, sure it would be straight home but consider the weight to be carried -carried not backpacked.

Slaughter said...

I meant "r" strategy

Slaughter said...

Looking for evidence that steppe tundra hunters needed to be big and strong, look at the population of the area in the present day e.g. North Germany. The Dutch are the tallest county on earth, not skinny tall either.

Andrew Lehman said...

Visit to explore the possibility that female infanticide is strategy to preserve patrifocal social structure by culling out all non ideal males.

Anonymous said...

Or, one could turn the situation around and say that women are less psycho-physiologically adept at, and thus less socio-culturally disposed to hunting because of other circumstances which excepted them from hunting to begin with. That seems more likely from an evolutionary standpoint, non?