Challenging prehistoric gender roles: Research finds that women were hunters, too

Many of us are familiar with the tale: women were gatherers and men were hunters in the ancient era. Because of the differences in their anatomy between males and women, women were not physically fit to hunt. Additionally, males drove human evolution since they were hunters.

However, research by Sarah Lacy, an anthropology professor at the University of Delaware, has refuted that narrative. Her findings were recently published in Scientific American and two publications in the journal American Anthropologist.

Lacy and her University of Notre Dame colleague Cara Ocobock studied how sex influenced work division between 2.5 million and 12,000 years ago, during the Paleolithic era. They looked through the literature and existing archeological findings, and they couldn't find anything to back up the theory that different sexes were given different duties. In addition, the researchers examined the physiology of females and discovered that there is minimal evidence to suggest that women were not hunters in addition to the fact that they were physically capable of doing so.

Ocobock is a physiologist who draws comparisons between the present and the fossil record, while Lacy is a biological anthropologist who investigates the health of early people. Once they "complained about a number of papers that had come out that used this default null hypothesis that cavemen had strong gendered division of labor, the males hunt, the females gather things," they became friends in graduate school and worked together. "Why is that the default?" we asked. We have a ton of information to refute it, Lacy stated.

Examples of gender equality in ancient tools, nutrition, art, cemeteries, and anatomy were discovered by the researchers.

"When we discovered artifacts from the past, people just assumed they were male and failed to see that all of the people whose remains we have discovered had these marks, whether they be in the form of stone tools buried with them or in their bones. Really, we have no way of knowing who made what? Regarding the process by which stone tools were formed, Lacy remarked, "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."

The group also looked at whether women's inability to hunt was due to physiological and anatomical differences between males and women. They discovered that while women outperform men in sports demanding endurance, like jogging, men outperform women in sports requiring speed and strength, like throwing and sprinting. In the past, both sets of tasks were necessary for hunting.

The scientists emphasized that a major factor in bestowing that advantage is the hormone estrogen, which is more prevalent in women than in males. Estrogen helps protect muscles from wearing down by regulating muscle breakdown and increasing fat metabolism, which provides muscles with a longer-lasting energy supply. Researchers have discovered that the proteins known as estrogen receptors, which help the hormone find its proper location in the body, date back 600 million years.

"When we take a deeper look at the anatomy and the 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 stated.

The majority of individuals in the Paleolithic era lived in tiny groups. The notion that only a portion of the group would go hunting was incomprehensible to Lacy.

"You inhabit such a little community. You must possess extreme flexibility," she remarked. "Any role must be able to be taken on by anyone at any moment. Although it seems apparent, that wasn't how many interpreted it."

The hunter, man

In 1968, anthropologists Richard B. Lee and Irven DeVore released "Man the Hunter," a compilation of academic papers given at a symposium in 1966, which popularized the idea that males are hunters and women are gatherers. The scientists argued that, in contrast to our ape counterparts, hunting contributed to the formation of larger brains in prehistoric humans by adding meat to their diets. The writers believed that every hunter was a man.

Lacy cites the gender bias of earlier researchers as the cause of the concept's widespread acceptance in academia and its diffusion into popular culture. Textbooks, feature films, museum exhibitions, and television cartoons all supported the notion. When female academics produced research that contradicted this, it was mainly disregarded or undervalued.

According to Lacy, "there were women who were publishing about this in the 1970s, 1980s, and 1990s, but their work kept getting reduced to, 'Oh, that's a feminist approach or critique.'" This was prior to the publication of a great deal of research on physiology, the function of estrogen, and genetics. We intended to provide all the fresh information while also bringing up the points they had already made."

According to Lacy, the "man the hunter" paradigm still has an impact on the field. Although she recognizes that there is still a great deal of study to be done on the lives of prehistoric people, particularly women, she believes that her theory—that labor was split between the sexes—will become the standard method for future studies.

According to Lacy, for three million years, both sexes engaged in subsistence hunting and gathering for their groups, which led to a dependency on meat.

"It's not something that only men did and that therefore male behavior drove evolution," she stated. "The gender roles that we now accept as standard are not innate; our predecessors did not possess these traits. For millions of years, we were a pretty egalitarian species in many respects."