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.