Skepticism

Did a New Study Debunk “Man the Hunter?” Not Quite

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At last, the myth of “Man the Hunter” has been tracked down, lured into a trap, and beaten to death by a plucky group of Amazons led by Diana herself. The myth was then stripped of its meat and organs, and every last tiny bone put to use for new weaponry, toothpicks, and jewelry. Man the Hunter is dead. Long live Man the Hunter.

Okay, here are the facts up front as I understand them: this is not news.This is good and important science and it is in no way groundbreaking and it tells us nothing we didn’t already know about gender roles, past and present.

It’s all based on a new paper published in PLOS One: “The Myth of Man the Hunter: Women’s contribution to the hunt across ethnographic contexts.” Over the past 50 years or so, anthropologists have carefully documented evidence of women in foraging cultures who participate in hunting game, and they’ve generally found that it occurs often enough that no serious person has thought for some time that hunting was the exclusive domain of men in our past or in the present of hunter/gatherer communities. This paper combs through that research and compiles an overview of what they’ve discovered about the subject thus far: how many societies have female hunters, what weaponry and techniques women use to hunt, what size game women tend to hunt, and how they deal with things like child rearing while hunting.

The researchers started with 391 foraging societies around the world and narrowed it down to just 63 that had adequate data on gender breakdowns. Of those, they found that 80% had data showing that women participated in hunting.

Of the 90% of THOSE who had this data, they further learned that “46% hunt small game, 15% hunt medium game, 33% hunt large game and 4% of these societies hunt game of all sizes. In societies where women only hunted opportunistically, small game was hunted 100% of the time. In societies where women were hunting intentionally, all sizes of game were hunted, with large game pursued the most. Of the 36 foraging societies that had documentation of women purposefully hunting, 5 (13%) reported women hunting with dogs and 18 (50%) of the societies included data on women (purposefully) hunting with children. Women hunting with dogs and children also occurred in opportunistic situations as well.”

As they drilled down looking for more data, they obviously had a smaller and smaller sample size. So, we can’t say that 80% of ALL those initial 391 societies have female hunters – we need more data, and I’d be willing to bet that there’s an entire legion of anthropologists out there who are champing at the bit to go out into the field and get it.

This study also can’t speak to the frequency of female hunters: “80%” is a binary number, meaning that it only tells us that at some point 80% of these societies showed evidence that yeah, women here actively track, locate, and kill animals for sustenance. It doesn’t mean they did a greater or even equal amount of hunting as men. It only supports what seems to have become a pretty well-accepted fact: many modern hunter-gatherer societies, and probably many ancient ones, don’t or didn’t have strict gender roles that would forbid an able-bodied person from doing whatever they can do to help the health and safety of the larger community. 

We can look at certain physical realities about the majority of men and women that would see some differences in their relative roles: most notably, women give birth and nurse their young, meaning that a portion of them will by necessity need to stay close to home for a significant amount of time. In those cultures, we only see women hunting when there’s prey to be found close to home. If they prey requires long travel away from the central village, then it will mostly be men going out to get it.

There are also certain tools and methods of hunting that are easier for men due to their statistically larger upper body strength. In societies that use bows, we’d expect to see more men than women hunting. In societies that use atlatls, which require less brute strength, we’d expect to see more women participating. By the way, if you ever get a chance to fling an atlatl at something, I highly recommend you take it because it’s VERY satisfying.

That’s why this new paper specifically mentions the use of dogs to hunt: in societies where dogs are trained to help bring down game, women may be more likely to participate because there’s nothing about a dog that requires testosterone. For more information on that, please check out the excellent 2022 documentary “Prey” about a nice young Comanche girl who uses her dog, plus some clever tracking and trapping, to hunt an unspeakably terrifying hostile extraterrestrial being.

Anyway, it’s all very interesting but just to be clear, “Man the Hunter” hasn’t been a serious hypothesis for a very long time amongst anthropologists. Vivek V. Venkataraman at University of Calgary wrote a very good history of the myth for The Conversation last year, ending with his own experience amongst the Batek people of the Malaysian rainforests, and the fact that there’s little evidence that hunting is in any way a marker of social standing. And that’s where I think the “Man the Hunter” myth persists today in the general public: the flawed idea, bolstered by some evolutionary psychologists with a certain bias, that our male ancestors hunted exclusively because it gave them status and access to reproductive success, and that women gathered because of an inherent weakness, a lower status, and a genetic or biological predilection for peace and love and child-rearing, and that those behaviors influence the way we’re all wired today. That’s clearly a huge oversimplification: men in some societies may hunt for status but it’s also to provide for themselves and their family; women might experience lower status in certain societies but not because of their success at gathering, which is actually really hard and requires a lot of specialized knowledge. And if you don’t believe me, head out to your local forest and find a tasty treat that won’t give you life-changing shits.

So: yes, women in foraging societies hunt and while it’s not groundbreaking, this is good research mapping it out and I look forward to hearing more from the anthropologists studying the roles of women in these communities!

Rebecca Watson

Rebecca is a writer, speaker, YouTube personality, and unrepentant science nerd. In addition to founding and continuing to run Skepchick, she hosts Quiz-o-Tron, a monthly science-themed quiz show and podcast that pits comedians against nerds. There is an asteroid named in her honor. Twitter @rebeccawatson Mastodon mstdn.social/@rebeccawatson Instagram @actuallyrebeccawatson TikTok @actuallyrebeccawatson YouTube @rebeccawatson BlueSky @rebeccawatson.bsky.social

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