The myth of man the hunter

How we’ve fundamentally misunderstood the ‘natural order’

The age-old narrative of men as hunters and women as gatherers has shaped our understanding of gender roles for millennia. Kimberly Hamlin argues this story is not only fictitious but dangerous, pointing to cutting-edge research which challenges these deeply ingrained assumptions about human development and the natural order.

 

In prehistoric times, so the story goes, men hunted; women gathered. This gendered division of labour from thousands of years ago explains, supposedly, how and why it is natural for men to lead and women to follow; for men to complete dangerous and heroic tasks while women complete mundane and thankless tasks; and, eventually, for men work outside the home for pay and for women to work inside the home for no pay.

In the 1960s, the academic hypothesis that male hunting was central to early human civilization gave rise to an influential symposium and book called Man the Hunter (1968), edited by anthropologists Richard Lee and Irven De Vore. The publication of Man the Hunter inaugurated the academic field of hunter-gatherer studies and cemented the caricatures of man-the-hunter/woman-the-gatherer in the popular imagination.

___

The twinned myths of man the hunter/woman the gatherer continue to support, both explicitly and implicitly, a variety of social policies and cultural norms that place the brunt of domestic labour on women.

___

But what if that story isn’t true? What if women also hunted? This is precisely what an exciting new study argues, and it has radical consequences for the supposedly naturalistic basis for the gender divide. In “The Myth of Man the Hunter: Women’s Contribution to the Hunt Across Ethnographic Contexts,” lead researcher Cara Wall-Scheffler and her co-authors present data showing that women, of all ages and in all parts of the globe, have always hunted.

This is not the first time that the myth of man-the-hunter has been soundly challenged and found wanting. In the 1960s and 1970s, the feminist backlash against Man the Hunter was swift and multi-pronged, inspiring legions of female anthropologists to enter the field. While men hunted, female graduate students wanted to know, what were the women doing? Hunting provided only a small fraction of the necessary caloric intake, women argued, while gathering is what actually sustained communities.

At a time of pervasive male bias in anthropological research, these critiques of man-the-hunter were often published in new feminist journals, such as Signs, rather than in the leading anthropological and scientific journals, limiting their ability to dislodge man-the-hunter within the mainstream of anthropology or the broader culture. These publications did undoubtedly succeed, however, in adding “woman-the-gather” to the stories we tell ourselves about our ancestral past.

As anthropologists continued to probe the extent to which ancestral men hunted while women gathered, the myth became only more deeply embedded in popular culture and in parts of the academy. Perhaps because this gendered myth tracks so closely with Judeo-Christian origin stories about the primacy of Adam, it was easily accepted as an explanatory model for modern gender relations.

Over the past 50 years, man-the-hunter has become a catchphrase that naturalises existing inequalities. It stymies demands for change by providing a seemingly historical and evolutionary explanation for the inevitability of male rule and male violence. As Lori Hunter, one of the female anthropologists who published in response to Man the Hunter, argued in 1977: “When a link is made from our ancestors to us, behaviours such as sex and gender roles become credible and justifiable since they are seen as ‘inherent’ or ‘natural’ to the species.” Once these features, such as the gendered division of labour, male violence, and the sexual double standard, “become identifiable as part of ‘human nature,’” Hunter continued, “it is inferred that they cannot be easily modified or altered.”

To probe the origins and validity of the man-the-hunter myth, Cara Wall-Scheffler and her team combed through ethnographic reports dating to the 1800s to mine what was actually written in the raw data – rather than what was previously interpreted and published from it. The researchers found that, in fact, women hunted in 79% of hunter-gatherer communities and that, in some cases, grandmothers were actually the best hunters.

DNA research has also revealed that several women (previously assumed to be men) were buried with their weapons. Based on these various and mounting findings, Wall-Scheffler and her co-authors have urged us to “reevaluate archeological evidence, to reassess ethnographic evidence, to question the dichotomous use of ‘hunting and gathering,’ and to deconstruct the general ‘man the hunter’ narrative.”

___

The implications of Wall-Scheffler’s research have the potential to upend several commonly held assumptions about the supposedly “natural” distinctions between men and women. 

___

The implications of Wall-Scheffler’s research have the potential to upend several commonly held assumptions about the supposedly “natural” distinctions between men and women. These include the linked ideas that women are inherently maternal, that male labour (and time) is more valuable than that of females (because it occurs outside the home and is rewarded with a paycheck), and that women should perform the majority of domestic work because they are somehow naturally suited to it.

These ideologies undergird the persistent global pay gap between men and women – a gap predicated on the historical assumption that men earn a “family wage” while women earn “pin money” – along with discrepancies in social welfare policies in the United States dating to the Great Depression. These provided male breadwinners with unemployment insurance, no questions asked, while unemployed women only qualified for minimal welfare assistance in the hopes that they would soon tether themselves to a husband for financial stability.

The twinned myths of man the hunter/woman the gatherer continue to support, both explicitly and implicitly, a variety of social policies and cultural norms that place the brunt of domestic labour on women, especially those in heterosexual marriages. If woman-as-gatherer is only ever restricted to a supporting role in economic production, it follows that her purpose must instead be domestic and gestational.

Studies repeatedly show that working women in the U.S., even those with ostensibly egalitarian marriages, perform up to 80% more domestic labour than their husbands; similarly, in Europe, research shows that domestic labour skews female too.

An even more troubling ramification of this idea is the contention, recently articulated in the U.S. Supreme Court’s decision to overturn women’s right to legal abortion, that motherhood – chosen or otherwise – is a woman’s most important contribution to society and that a fetus’s rights trump those of living, breathing women and girls.

The origin stories we tell about our pasts shape not only what we understand to be true, but also what we think is possible in the present and in the future. In the late 19th century, Darwinian evolution forced an earlier generation of women and men to grapple with what was “natural” when it came to gender and sex. If God did not create Adam in his image and Eve from Adam’s rib, what precedents for gendered behaviour could men and women look to when trying to better understand the challenges faced by modern humans?

Readers of Darwin looked to our relatives in the animal kingdom. While male evolutionists often fixated on species such as warring elk and virile peacocks, women saw male fish who cared for the young and fierce lionesses who violently defended their dens. Pioneering female evolutionists including Antoinette Brown Blackwell, the first woman to write a book-length response to Darwinian evolution, and Eliza Burt Gamble also noted the wide array of sexual and reproductive practices found among animals, forcing them to conclude that perhaps patriarchy and the sexual double standard were not “natural” after all.
Twentieth-century evolutionists and anthropologists expanded on these early inklings by creating robust disciplines to analyse animal behaviour and what it might mean for modern women and men. Science – natural, physical, and social – has often provided the terms of the debate for what it means to be human, male and female (as Angela Saini has described in her books Inferior: How Science Got Women Wrong and Superior: The Return of Race Science).

More often than not, institutional science – comprised of gatekeepers, peer reviewers, editors, conference organizers, and funders who remain disproportionately male – has served the side of patriarchy. But increasingly in the modern era, scientific research such as that conducted by Wall-Scheffler and her team has provided compelling evidence that challenges the supposed naturalness of male superiority.

___

Because this gendered myth tracks so closely with Judeo-Christian origin stories about the primacy of Adam, it was easily accepted as an explanatory model for modern gender relations.

___

Just as God Almighty did not forge woman from man’s rib to be his helper, all prehistoric men did not hunt while all prehistoric women gathered and tended to children. Nevertheless, such myths have buttressed generations of ideas about what men and women are “naturally” like and what men and women are capable of. This recent displacement of the man-the-hunter story offers us a rare opportunity to challenge the myths that sustain inequality and replace them with more accurate findings that, instead, reaffirm the dignity and full humanity of us all.

Continue reading

Enjoy unlimited access to the world's leading thinkers.

Start by exploring our subscription options or joining our mailing list today.

Start Free Trial

Already a subscriber? Log in

Join the conversation