Women have been skillful, purposeful hunters in most foraging societies

Gender roles in hunting and gathering aren't as strict as we were led to believe.
The silhouette of a female hunter with a bow and arrow at sunrise.
More research shows that past and present women in foraging societies are way more than just gatherers and mothers. Deposit Photos

One of the most persistent myths that reinforces traditional gender roles and binaries is the idea that men are best slated to work outside the home due to their nature as hunters, while women are more suited to domestic life to their role as gatherers. A study published June 28 in the open-access journal PLOS ONE is turning that myth on its head once again, finding that women hunt in at least 79 percent of past and present foraging societies. 

[Related: A female hunter’s remains hint at more fluid gender roles in the early Americas.]

Despite the persistence of the myth that women were largely plant gatherers, archaeological evidence from across human history and prehistory shows evidence to the contrary. For example, the remains of women from societies have been found buried alongside big-game hunting tools, including a 9,000 year old burial located in Peru. The woman buried there had a hunting toolkit with stone projectiles as well as animal processing equipment buried alongside her. 

To look further into the possibility that foraging societies didn’t follow those gender roles quite as strictly as we once believed, the team analyzed data from the past century on 63 foraging societies around the world. This covered societies in North and South America, Africa, Australia, Asia, and the Oceanic region.

The team found that regardless of their maternal status, women hunt in 79 percent of the societies they studied.  Over 70 percent of female hunting also appears to be intentional, instead of opportunistic killing of animals encountered while doing other activities. Women’s intentional hunting appears to target game of all sizes, but was most often large game.

“I think we all expected to find the evidence that women hunted; what was surprising was how many women ‘purposefully’ hunt,” study co-author and Seattle Pacific University biological anthropologist Cara Wall-Scheffler tells PopSci. “We were expecting to find evidence that women hunted ‘opportunistically’ (only hunting if they happened across prey while they were out and about), but it ends up that in many places, women go out with the intention of hunting.”

Their analysis also showed that women are actively involved in teaching how to hunt, and that they use a greater variety of weapons and hunting strategies than their male counterparts. They cite the Agta women from the Philippines as an example. Agta men typically heavily rely on a consistent strategy of bow and arrows, while women are much more likely to have personal preferences and show variation in tools. Some of the women prefer hunting with only knives, others use bows and arrows, and some use a combination of the two.

[Related: How to use science to talk to kids about gender.]

According to the team, their findings further support the idea that women are skilled at hunting and play an instrumental role in the practice in many foraging societies. Additionally, these long-held perceptions and stereotypes have influenced earlier archaeological studies, making some researchers reluctant to interpret the objects buried with women as hunting tools. In 2017, a burial in Sweden revealed an individual alongside weapons and equipment associated with high-ranking warriors, so the individual was assumed to be male. A genomic analysis confirmed that the individual was female

The team calls for older archaeological evidence to be reevaluated and caution against misapplying the idea that men are hunters and women are gatherers in future work. The findings also highlight the importance of flexibility in evolution.

“People are very good at being flexible,” says Wall-Scheffler. “Being locked into a specific role with no other options is probably not how we have been so successful as a species.”