tell it to the people in the back

Two Scientists Debunk Long-Held Theory About Male Hunters & Female Gatherers

Two women wrote a 'Scientific American' article that rips apart tons of misconceptions about household gender roles.

A lot of people wrongly assume that prehistoric men hunted while prehistoric women gathered.
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When it comes to equality between the sexes, we’re very (very) slowly getting closer to fair. Men are engaging in more childcare at home, for one example, and women can finally, after a long struggle, be have nearly any career they want. It’s more normal than not to see a man take over dish duty after dinner and for a woman to bring home the bread instead of bake it.

Still, there’s more than a little pushback against gender equity. And many of the people who believe women should stay at home while men work use genetics and history to make their points. Aren’t gender roles in our blood, dating back to prehistoric times, when men hunted wooly mammoths and women gathered berries? Aren’t women the weaker sex who must be protected by the stronger one?

Turns out, maybe not!

The truth might instead be that ancient man and ancient woman probably split the chores more fairly than you think.

In fact, we all thought that men were hunters and women were gatherers based pretty much solely on a foundation of sexism, sexist studies, and the fact that until pretty recently most researchers, scientists, and anthropologists were men. Oops!

But don’t worry, women are here to fix it. In the newest edition of Scientific American, anthropologists Cara Ocobock and Sarah Lacy have written a totally fascinating article about why the “Man the Hunter” theory is wrong, why it is wrong, and what the right answer probably is, based on a mountain of research and data.

First and foremost, the anthropologists point out that the “Man the Hunter” theory was developed by men and for men — and during a time, they note, when women weren’t allowed to run in marathons because they are so physically weak and inferior and whatever.

Ocobock and Lacy don’t argue that men and women are physical equals; in fact, they are clear that there are differences in our physiological makeups. But they stress that the higher levels of estrogen in women’s bodies actually make us stronger in different ways.

“Estrogen's ability to increase fat metabolism and regulate the body's response to the hormone insulin can help prevent muscle breakdown during intense exercise,” they write. “Furthermore, estrogen appears to have a stabilizing effect on cell membranes that might otherwise rupture from acute stress brought on by heat and exercise. Ruptured cells release enzymes called creatine kinases, which can damage tissues.”

It’s the reason that while men hold world records in things like sprinting, and women shine when it comes to endurance — ultra-running events and swimming the English Channel, for example. And women do it while caretaking, they point out. Take, for instance, Sophie Power, who ran a 106-mile race while stopping at water stations to breastfeed her three-month old.

Secondly, they argue, what we know about ancient civilizations and prehistoric humans also doesn’t back the “Man the Hunter” theory. The study of male and female skeletons from our past, for example, shows that different skeletons have the same trauma and wear and tear, which suggests they were doing the same things.

“Neanderthal females and males do not differ in their trauma patterns, nor do they exhibit sex differences in pathology from repetitive actions,” they explained. “Their skeletons show the same patterns of wear and tear. This finding suggests that they were doing the same things, from ambush-hunting large game animals to processing hides for leather. Yes, Neandertal women were spearing woolly rhinoceroses, and Neandertal men were making clothing.”

I love that not only were women hunting, but men were likely taking care of the “home,” all the way back then.

This evidence is backed up by instances of women being found buried with tools and weapons for hunting as far back as 9,000 years ago, according to an August article in The New York Times.

And another study, published in PLOS ONE, looked at more modern hunting and gathering societies and found “evidence of women hunting in 50 of the 63 societies they studied; moreover, 87 percent of that behavior was deliberate. In cultures where hunting was the most important means of finding food, women took an active role 100 percent of the time.”

So, when did some of these problematic gender roles and economic inequality actually emerge? The authors say it was probably when agriculture became prominent and men started owning land. Huh.

But please, let this change your thinking that gender roles are in our DNA. They are not.

“Now when you think of ‘cave people,’ we hope, you will imagine a mixed-sex group of hunters encircling an errant reindeer or knapping stone tools together rather than a heavy-browed man with a club over one shoulder and a trailing bride,” they conclude. “Hunting may have been remade as a masculine activity in recent times, but for most of human history, it belonged to everyone.”

Be sure to read the full article in Scientific American here.