We know that our early human ancestors lived on meat that they could hunt, supplemented with any other foodstuffs that could be gathered off the land. We also know that in this scenario, it was the men doing the hunting and the women doing the gathering – right? Well, it might be time to rip up that textbook, as a new review of the data has found little actual evidence for these prehistoric gender roles.
In two new papers, Sarah Lacy of the University of Delaware and Cara Ocobock of the University of Notre Dame summarize archaeological and physiological evidence that suggests women were not only just as capable of hunting as their male cave-mates, but that there is no reason to think that they didn’t help share the load.
Lacy and Ocobock’s collaboration was born out of a shared fatigue with the lack of scrutiny that was being given to the age-old stereotype of the male hunter and the female gatherer. “We were like, ‘Why is that the default? We have so much evidence that that's not the case,'" Lacy said in a statement.
For example, there’s been a tendency to assume that activities such as flintknapping to produce tools were predominantly the preserve of males. However, according to the new studies, these assumptions have been based on essentially no empirical evidence.
“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,” Lacy said.
“We can't really tell who made what, right? We can't say, ‘Oh, only males flintknap,’ because there's no signature left on the stone tool that tells us who made it.”
What we know of the physiology of our Paleolithic ancestors also indicates that it’s unfair for modern scientists to discount the physical prowess of early females.
“When we take a deeper look at the anatomy and the modern physiology and then actually look at the skeletal remains of ancient people, there's no difference in trauma patterns between males and females, because they're doing the same activities,” Lacy explained.
Whilst it is true that men may have had the advantage of greater strength, women were likely better adapted to endurance activities thanks to their higher levels of estrogen, and you need a combination of both of these skills for a successful hunt. Given that these early humans would have lived in small groups, it makes sense that everyone would have had to pitch in to keep the community going.
If there’s seemingly so little evidence to back it up, it’s easy to wonder where the theory of “man the hunter” came from in the first place. To understand that you need to go back to the publication in 1968 of a set of papers by anthropologists Richard B. Lee and Irven Devore. Their assumption that all the hunting was carried out by males stuck in the public consciousness, and matched other hard-to-shake stereotypes about the roles and abilities of men and women that have endured within science and many human societies.
The assumption was sufficiently ingrained that it resisted challenge by female academics over the coming decades.
“This was before any of the work on genetics and a lot of the work on physiology and the role of estrogen had come out,” Lacy explained. “We wanted to both lift back up the arguments that they had already made and add to it all the new stuff.”
While Lacy acknowledged that there’s still much to learn about prehistoric societies, she had hope that future researchers would approach their questions with an openness to the idea of a more equal division of labor between the sexes.
“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.”