One of The Biggest Hunter-Gatherers Myths Is Finally Getting Debunked

New evidence suggests that contrary to long-held beliefs, women were also big-game hunters.

According to two recent studies, the notion that only men hunted during the Paleolithic era is false. Archaeological evidence, including an equal distribution of tasks between genders, challenges the hypothesis. Furthermore, physiological and anthropological arguments propose that, despite anatomical differences, women were adapted to endurance activities, such as tracking large game.

The notion that prehistoric men hunted while women gathered gained prominence in the 1960s, reaching its peak with the influential scientific collection “Man the Hunter” by anthropologists Richard B. Lee and Irven DeVore, presented in a 1966 symposium on contemporary hunter-gatherer societies. Based on ethnographic, archaeological, and paleoanthropological investigations, the authors argued that man, as a hunter, played a pivotal role in human evolution.

The consumption of meat is suggested to have contributed to the enlargement of our lineage’s brain size compared to other primates. Additionally, the role of men as hunters supposedly brought essential elements to our evolution as a civilization, including genetic diversity, inventiveness, vocal communication systems, and social coordination. In this perspective, women were portrayed as passive beneficiaries of meat provisioning and evolutionary progress.

This unequal view has influenced archaeology and related scientific disciplines for generations. Research challenging this narrative has often faced skepticism. Even studies conducted between the 1970s and 1990s were criticized. Sarah Lacy, the lead author of the two new studies from the University of Delaware, explains the motivation: “We wanted to both lift back up the arguments that they had already made and add to it all the new stuff.

Some experts even went as far as disregarding evidence contradicting “Man the Hunter.” Despite documenting Ainu women hunting with dogs, anthropologist Hitoshi Watanabe rejected the possibility of equality with men in this community.

Nevertheless, an increasing body of evidence supports an egalitarian contribution to hunting. Lacy suggests, “What we take as de facto gender roles today are not inherent, do not characterize our ancestors. We were a very egalitarian species for millions of years in many ways.” According to her, the dominance of the hunter-man perception prevailed in scientific interpretations before the publication of studies on genetics and human physiology during the Paleolithic era (between 3 million and 12,000 years ago).

In their new studies, published in the journal American Anthropologist, Lacy and her colleague from the University of Notre-Dame (Indiana, USA) propose archaeological and physiological evidence indicating that women hunted as much as men during this period of history.

Archaeological Evidence

The two researchers reanalyzed the archaeological evidence initially used to support the hunter-gatherer vision of humans, such as tool manufacturing, flint knapping, and spear throwing. They claim that there is no proof that men were specifically responsible for these tools and activities. Furthermore, these weapons were present in both female and male burials. While human remains unearthed alongside weapons were previously systematically attributed to men, more in-depth analyses revealed that some of these skeletons were female. On the other hand, female remains exhibited the same traumatic markers attributed to male hunters.

People found things in the past and they just automatically gendered them male and didn’t acknowledge the fact that everyone we found in the past has these markers, whether in their bones or in stone tools that are being placed in their burials,” explains Lacy. “But from what evidence we do have, there appears to be almost no sex differences in roles,” she adds.

It would make sense to consider that since Paleolithic communities were generally small, everyone had to contribute to bringing in food, whether through hunting or gathering. Each community member had to be versatile to participate in all tasks, especially those where games constituted the main food source. A previous study also revealed that this tradition of equal task distribution persists in nearly 79% of present-day hunter-gatherer communities, such as the Agtas in the Philippines.

Estrogen: The Endurance Hormone

The duo of researchers also examined whether anatomical and physiological differences between men and women could hinder women from hunting. They found that, contrary to popular belief, estrogen—the dominant sex hormone in women—can provide unexpected advantages. By increasing fat metabolism, it would provide more sustainable energy to muscles and could help mitigate fatigue. One could deduce that this hormone imparts endurance to women.

According to the experts, while men outperform women in activities requiring speed and power (such as sprinting and throwing), women may have greater endurance in activities like running, for example. Both types of activities are essential for hunting. For large game, men could, for instance, attack and seriously wound the animal, leaving the role of tracking over long distances to women to finish it off. This scenario echoes the hunting dynamics among lions, with the female being better suited to pursue and finish off prey due to her greater endurance.

The two papers were both published in American Anthropologist.