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Prehistoric Women Were Both Gatherers And Hunters

Prehistoric women were both gatherers and hunters, debunking a commonly heard narrative that suggests that in prehistoric times, men were hunters while women were gatherers. The reasoning behind this division of labor was that women's physical differences made them unsuitable for hunting, thus attributing the driving force behind human evolution to men.

William Willis
Oct 24, 20235818 Shares77567 Views
Prehistoric women were both gatherers and hunters, debunking a commonly heard narrative that suggests that in prehistoric times, men were hunters while women were gatherers. The reasoning behind this division of labor was that women's physical differences made them unsuitable for hunting, thus attributing the driving force behind human evolution to men.
Nevertheless, recent research by Sarah Lacy, an anthropology professor at the University of Delaware, which has been published in Scientific Americanand two papers in the journal American Anthropologist, challenges this traditional story.
Lacy and her colleague Cara Ocobock, hailing from the University of Notre Dame, conducted a comprehensive analysis of gender-based labor divisions during the Paleolithic era, spanning from approximately 2.5 million to 12,000 years ago. Their examination of existing archaeological evidence and literature yielded limited support for the notion that roles were distinctly designated for each sex. Also, their investigation into female physiology revealed not only women's physical suitability for hunting but also a lack of substantial evidence to suggest that they did not participate in hunting activities.

Addressing Archaeological Gender Bias

Lacy, a biological anthropologist specializing in early human health, and Ocobock, a physiologist drawing parallels between the modern era and the fossil record, joined forces after their shared frustration with the prevalent assumption in research. This assumption regarded a strong gendered division of labor among early humans, with males as hunters and females as gatherers. Questioning this default hypothesis, Lacy asked, "Why is that the default? We have so much evidence that that's not the case."
The researchers discovered instances of gender equality in ancient tools, dietary practices, artistic expressions, burial customs, and anatomical 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. 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. But from what evidence we do have, there appears to be almost no sex differences in roles.- Sarah Lacy

Physiological And Anatomical Evidence

The team also delved into the inquiry of whether anatomical and physiological disparities between men and women hindered women's ability to engage in hunting. Their findings indicated that while men held an advantage over women in tasks demanding speed and power, such as sprinting and throwing, women, in contrast, had the upper hand in activities demanding endurance, like running. Significantly, both of these skill sets were indispensable in the context of hunting during ancient times.
The team emphasized the significance of the hormone estrogen, which is more prevalent in women than in men, as a pivotal element in conferring this advantage. Estrogen's effects include enhancing fat metabolism, providing muscles with a more enduring energy source, and regulating muscle breakdown, preventing muscle fatigue. Researchers have traced the existence of estrogen receptors, proteins responsible for directing the hormone to specific locations in the body, back as far as 600 million years ago.
"When we take a deeper look at the anatomy and 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 said.
A woman holding a spear while standing at the edge of a cliff
A woman holding a spear while standing at the edge of a cliff

Understanding Paleolithic Societies

In the Paleolithic era, the majority of individuals resided in small communities. For Lacy, the notion that only a segment of the group engaged in hunting seemed illogical.
"You live in such a small society. You have to be really, really flexible," she said. "Everyone has to be able to pick up any role at any time. It just seems like the obvious thing, but people weren't taking it that way."

The Beginning Of The Gendered Theory

The concept of men as hunters and women as gatherers gained widespread attention in 1968 when anthropologists Richard B. Lee and Irven DeVore released "Man the Hunter." This publication compiled scholarly papers presented at a 1966 symposium.
In their work, the authors argued that hunting played a pivotal role in advancing human evolution by introducing meat into prehistoric diets, thereby aiding the development of larger brains compared to our primate relatives. Notably, the authors operated on the assumption that all hunters were male.
Lacy highlights the gender bias present in the earlier work of scholars as a primary factor in the widespread acceptance of this concept within academia. Over time, this notion permeated popular culture through television cartoons, feature films, museum displays, and educational textbooks. When female scholars conducted research that contradicted this narrative, their contributions were often disregarded or underestimated.
There were women who were publishing about this in the '70s, '80s, and '90s, but their work kept getting relegated to, 'Oh, that's a feminist critique or a feminist approach.' 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. We wanted to both lift back up the arguments that they had already made and add to it all the new stuff.- Sarah Lacy

Reevaluating Gender Roles In Prehistoric Times

Lacy underscores that the "man the hunter" theory still exerts influence over the field. While recognizing the need for extensive research, particularly into the lives of prehistoric women, she aspires to see her perspective, emphasizing shared labor division between both genders, become the standard approach in future research.
Over a span of 3 million years, both males and females actively engaged in subsistence gathering for their communities, and the reliance on meat and hunting was a collective effort by both sexes, as Lacy contends.
"It's not something that only men did and that therefore male behavior drove evolution," she said. "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."
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