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Women May Be Better Hunters Than Men, Latest Research Argues

Men were hunters and women were gatherers, right? Well this is an old myth, and new research should help it go extinct.

Russell is a Science Writer with IFLScience and has a PhD in the History of Science, Medicine and Technology

Dr. Russell Moul

Russell is a Science Writer with IFLScience and has a PhD in the History of Science, Medicine and Technology.

Science Writer

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photo depicting paleolithic humans, with a woman in the center holding a spear flanked by two men

Historically, prehistoric men have always been portrayed as the hunters while women took on more passive roles; but not only is this idea outdated, it is also completely wrong.

Image credit: Gorodenkoff/Shutterstock.com

Men are hunters: they are biologically superior, and stronger and so on, right? Well this myth has a long-enduring history and is still common among many people. But it is not true, despite the force with which some people hold onto it. There are uncontroversial average biological differences between the sexes, and while ones favored by men often gain more attention, women have their own that are rarely discussed and, as it turns out, may have made them better hunters. 

Manly hunters and feminine gatherers? 

Think about any representation of prehistoric men and women and we bet you have the image in your mind of a man decked out in pelts carrying a spear, and perhaps a woman, baby in arms, who may be carrying a basket to gather food. These are old representations and are largely determined by stereotypes and misconceptions, but they are nevertheless popular. 

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"This was what everyone was used to seeing," Cara Ocobock explained in a statement. "This was the assumption that we've all just had in our minds and that was carried through in our museums of natural history."

According to Ocobock’s work, conducted as an assistant professor in the Department of Anthropology and director of the Human Energetics Laboratory at the University of Notre Dame, this idea of a biologically superior male hunter is not telling the whole story. 

Combining both archaeological and physiological evidence, Ocobock and her colleague Sarah Lacy, an anthropologist with expertise in biological archaeology at the University of Delaware, published two recent studies that show how prehistoric women not only engaged with hunting, but were anatomically and biologically better suited to it. 

“Here we review and present emerging physiological evidence that females may be metabolically better suited for endurance activities such as running, which could have profound implications for understanding subsistence capabilities and patterns in the past,” the two wrote. 

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But before people accuse Ocobock and Lacy of trying to rewrite history, it is worth noting that the male-dominated view never existed in the first place. 

As Ocobock says, “Rather than viewing it as a way of erasing or rewriting history, our studies are trying to correct the history that erased women from it.”

How were women so well-suited to hunting?

Hunting is a physically taxing activity, as a successful hunt was often arduous and took place over prolonged periods of time. From a metabolic standpoint, Ocobock argues, the female body is better suited for endurance activities, “which would have been critical in early hunting because they would have had to run the animals down into exhaustion before actually going in for the kill.”

Two hormones - estrogen and adiponectin – play an important part in this, and both are found in higher quantities in female bodies. They help female bodies modulate glucose and fat, which is key for athletic performance. 

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Estrogen is particularly important as it helps to regulate metabolism by encouraging the body to use stored fat for energy before it turns to carbohydrates. “Since fat contains more calories than carbs do, it’s a longer, slower burn,” Ocobock explained, “which means that the same sustained energy can keep you going longer and can delay fatigue.”

“Estrogen is really the unsung hero of life, in my mind,” Ocobock said. “It is so important for cardiovascular and metabolic health, brain development and injury recovery.”

In addition to these hormones, women’s physical structure was found to also be valuable for hunting. 

“With the typically wider hip structure of the female, they are able to rotate their hips, lengthening their steps,” Ocobock added. “The longer steps you can take, the ‘cheaper’ they are metabolically, and the farther you can get, faster.”

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“When you look at human physiology this way, you can think of women as the marathon runners versus men as the powerlifters.”

Alright, but what about archaeological evidence?

There is already plenty of good archaeological evidence showing that prehistoric women carried the same injuries incurred from hunting, but there is also evidence that the activity was held in high esteem among them too.

“We have constructed Neandertal hunting as an up-close-and-personal style of hunting,” Ocobock said, “meaning that hunters would often have to get up underneath their prey in order to kill them. As such, we find that both males and females have the same resulting injuries when we look at their fossil records.”

These injuries are similar to the ones modern rodeo clowns experience – head and chest injuries from being kicked by an animals, or fractures and bite marks left by an attack.

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“We find these patterns and rates of wear and tear equally in both women and men,” she said. “So they were both participating in ambush-style hunting of large game animals.”

In other contexts, such as in Peru, female hunters from the Holocene period have been found buried with hunting weapons.

“You don’t often get buried with something unless it was important to you or was something that you used frequently in your life.”

“Furthermore, we have no reason to believe that prehistoric women abandoned their hunting while pregnant, breastfeeding or carrying children,” Ocobock added, “nor do we see in the deep past any indication that a strict sexual division of labor existed.”

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Ocobock and Lacy’s work is vitally important in our current political climate when issues of sex and gender are receiving so much scrutiny.

“I want people to be able to change these ideas of female physical inferiority that have been around for so long,” Ocobock concluded.

“We have to change the biases we bring to the table, or at least to give pause before we assign those biases. And in a broader sense, you cannot outrightly assume somebody’s abilities based on whatever sex or gender you have assigned by looking at them.”

The study is published in American Anthropologist.


ARTICLE POSTED IN

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  • tag
  • anthropology,

  • prehistoric humans,

  • women,

  • archaeology,

  • hunter gatherers,

  • equality,

  • hunters,

  • physiology,

  • prehistoric culture,

  • ancient ancestors

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