Faye Flam is a science journalist and columnist for Bloomberg Opinion.
Feeling an avalanche of change in the relations between and social roles for genders and sexes, some people are reaching for solid ground in the prehistoric past — when men were supposedly hunters and breadwinners while women stayed home and cared for their kids. Such a view of humanity’s past went out the window in the anthropology community in the 1960s, though in the popular mind, myths associated with our hunter-gatherer past persist.
A batch of new attempts by scientists to skewer what they call the “man the hunter myth” arrived this year. One paper argued that women were as capable as men at hunting, another that the archaeological record showed signs that women hunted, and a third demonstrated that women hunted to some extent in almost 80% of the contemporary hunter-gatherer societies in the study.
These papers have been much discussed in the wider anthropological community, though researchers are pointing out various caveats and uncertainties. They don’t know exactly what people did during the hundreds of millennia of prehistory. What they do have are artifacts and fossils and genetic records, and they’ve inferred much about the past by embedding themselves with the few remaining hunter-gatherer groups around the world.
What they see there is complicated. In some of those groups, women and men hunt together. In others, men do all the hunting. In still others, men and women hunt different game with different techniques. Several anthropologists told me that when asked whose work is more important, people either say it’s women’s work or that the question makes no sense. It’s like asking whether the heart or the lungs are more vital. Both are needed.
Patriarchy probably didn’t emerge until the advent of agriculture, as the anthropologist Ruth Mace wrote in The Conversation: “Contrary to common belief, research shows that patriarchy isn’t some kind of ‘natural order of things.’ … Hunter-gatherer communities may have been relatively egalitarian.”
A male-dominated structure is associated with ownership of land and control of wealth, which came from surplus crops. These were often inherited through male lines, but hunter-gatherers didn’t own land, and nomadic communities usually didn’t even retain more possessions than they could transport from one camp to the next.
That’s what many anthropologists observe in contemporary hunter-gatherers. Barry Hewlett of Washington State University, who studies the Aka hunter-gatherers of Africa, said egalitarianism is a core value. Couples treat each other as equals and children roam freely, he said, while nearby farming communities expect women to obey their husbands, children to obey their elders and people in general to show deference to those deemed to be of superior status.
Other anthropologists say the hunter-gatherers they study rarely tell each other what to do, and the power to make decisions for a group falls to those men or women who are most articulate and wise.
Despite the fact that scientists have understood this for decades, popular myths still feed into stereotypes. “I took a business class once and the instructor said something along the lines of — ‘men are individualistic because they’re hunters, and women are cooperative because they’re gatherers,’” said Sheina Lew-Levy, a psychologist and anthropologist at Durham University in the U.K. She’s lived among several hunter-gatherer groups in Africa, where she’s seen cooperative hunting and a lot of individualistic gathering.
The phrase “man the hunter” was never the name of an official scientific theory, though some anthropologists in the mid-20th century did believe men had always been the primary breadwinners. And it was the title of a symposium held in 1966 in Chicago, which brought together anthropologists who’d been living with contemporary hunter-gatherers. One of the things they concluded was that women usually provided as much or more food as men, mostly from gathering.
Another revelation of the conference was that people generally spent fewer than 40 hours a week working. They had time to sleep, to socialize, to gossip and to play. And the work tended to be stimulating, unlike labor often is at a farm or factory — perhaps not as “nasty, brutish and short” as Thomas Hobbes long ago speculated. Books such as “Sapiens” and “The Dawn of Everything” have made prehistoric life look almost utopian.
Our past can give people a way to understand ourselves and our changing culture in a wider context. There’s a great deal of confusion about gender — what it means to be male or female and how men and women are supposed to relate to each other and the world around us.
The surge in popularity of people like psychologist Jordan Peterson or podcaster Joe Rogan testify to the confusion many men feel. “Women know what they have to do, men have to figure out what they have to do,” Peterson said in one of his wildly popular videos aimed at helping men find their way. Recently, The Washington Post ran an opinion article under the headline, “Men are lost. Here’s a map of the wilderness.” It detailed a litany of problems some men face as they struggle to find meaningful work and relationships.
The emerging understanding of female hunters and egalitarian societies shouldn’t count as a loss for men in a battle of the sexes. Images of a male-ruled past might provide solace for some, but those myths could also seed resentment with the false impression that feminists were interfering with some sort of primordial world order in which men were the dominant and primary breadwinners.
Hunter-gatherer life, while a good clue of what being human was like in the past, isn’t necessarily a model for how we should be living in the present. But it can show what’s possible.
It would be easier to put together a coherent origin story for humanity if there was only one way to be a hunter-gatherer. But there is no single, cohesive origin story for humanity — no defined roles for males or females that exist across communities and societies. But there are patterns.
The University of Utah Professor Polly Wiessner has spent more than 40 years living with hunter-gatherer groups like the Enga of Papua New Guinea and the Kalahari San in Africa. “Women provide the bulk of the food from gathering,” she told me. “And then men supplement that with animal protein. But it’s the women who decide where you go, where you’re going to live — because it’s the plant resources that sustain the group.” The “myth” of “man the hunter, woman the gatherer” is, to her, not a myth — it’s just one way people did (and still do) things.
Though they’re mostly the hunters, men also know how to gather, Wiessner went on. Their hunts can fail, she said, so they often gather something on the way home — “they’re ashamed of returning empty-handed.”
Likewise, anthropologists have observed that women often learn how to hunt and are quite capable, even if they prefer getting food closer to home. As Cara Ocobock and Sarah Lacy argue in a paper published this year, women are physically as capable of hunting as men — mostly because they are equal to or better than men at extremely long-distance running, a vital trait for persistence hunting.
Most other mammals, even the fleetest ones, will become exhausted and overheat if they have to run more than 6-10 miles in the heat of the day. Humans can eventually outrun them thanks to our unique hips, legs, waist and gluteus maximus, and especially our ability to sweat. The longer the distance, the more women excel compared to men. In mixed-sex competitions, women are winning and setting new records in 100- and 200-mile ultramarathons.
One of the big questions anthropologists want to solve is not just how we used to live but how we became human. What factors pushed our species to become so different from our closest relatives, chimpanzees and gorillas? Back in the 1950s and 60s, some thought it came down to hunting, which was so challenging that it drove our transformation into the intelligent, technological beings we are today.
But today scientists point to a variety of factors that pushed our evolution toward our current state — everything from cooking food to grandparenting to a form of “self-domestication,” where females choose less aggressive, more caring males for mates.
We are not just smarter and more technological than our great ape relatives — we are also more cooperative and less violent. Human males are much more likely than male apes to form pair bonds and participate in the care of children. Gorilla and chimpanzee babies can grab food for themselves while still riding on their mothers’ backs, but human children are unable to feed themselves for years, and in hunter-gatherer groups, they need more food than what one parent alone can provide.
But who brings in the extra food? Most argue that it’s the fathers, but Kristen Hawkes, another anthropologist at the University of Utah, says it’s the grandmothers. Men may bring in some food from their hunts, but she believes showing off is their primary motive. In her view, mothers and grandmothers do the essential work of gathering plants and trapping small game, and men go after big game to impress the women. Hunting in that view is like a peacock’s tail — showy, good for attracting mates, but perhaps less helpful for survival.
Hawkes says the role of older women is vital in the groups she studies and 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.
Competition is also less fierce in animals that form bonds and work together to care for their offspring. And there’s data showing that in most groups, hunter-gatherer men do form pair bonds and bring home food for their families. Many contribute directly to caring for children. When men become fathers, their testosterone plummets and they get a boost in the hormone oxytocin, which is associated with bonding.
Kim Hill, an anthropologist who has spent almost half a century studying hunter-gatherers around the world, told me that in the groups he’s studied, between 2% and 5% of biological males in hunter-gatherer groups are effectively transgender. He’s observed them in groups he’s studied — the Aché of South America, the Kuna of Panama and hunter-gatherers in the Philippines.
“They dressed and did their hair like women, and adopted female body language, postures, etc.,” he said. They were mainly involved in gathering plant resources, helping with childcare and tending to the sick. “They were generally accepted and even appreciated. … They were definitely not social outcasts,” he said. Their role was considered a natural one.
I asked the evolutionary anthropologist Edward Hagen of Washington State University what traits are valued in men in the hunter-gatherer groups he studies. For both men and women, he said, sharing is critical. “When you get food, you share it. If you get tobacco, you share it. If you get money, you share it. If you get clothing, you share it. Share, share, share.”
Some societies have almost no gender-based division of labor. Among the Aka in Africa, men and women hunt equally, usually together, using massive nets to ensnare antelope and other game. It’s a system that lets both parents stay close to home.
Not all men are great hunters. Across different groups, the anthropologist Vivek Venkataraman of the University of Calgary told me, there are men who focus their energies in other pursuits like trading and bartering or climbing trees to get honey.
Lew-Levy emphasized that “There is no human nature, there’s just human flexibility.” Hagen similarly warned against the naturalistic fallacy — that there’s a natural way for humans to live. Scientists shouldn’t have to prove that women hunted in the past in order to argue that it’s a good idea to have equality between women and men in society today.
But there are lessons that can help both men and women navigate a world undergoing dramatic changes. “Today in Africa and other developing countries,” said Wiessner, “a lot of emphasis is on development for women — getting women into business and earning their own income. But, she went on, “It’s been shown that when you have development programs for both men and women together, it greatly takes the burden off of women.”
In traditional hunter-gatherer groups, women sometimes take on certain roles, like ensuring reliable access to plants and small game, because their children’s survival depended on it — even if they have the physiological and psychological attributes to hunt big game. Though that doesn’t give us a complete picture of how men and women structured their societies in the prehistoric past, it does make clear that there have never been strictly defined roles for the different sexes across time, geography and civilization. What we do with that information now and in the future is up to us.