Contrary to accepted wisdom, women and their movement from place to place had a greater influence than the nomadic male on the genetic mix of the global population.
Mark Seielstad, a geneticist from the Harvard School of Public Health, working with Eric Minch and Luca Cavalli-Sforza of Stanford University in California, found that females have gone far further than anthropologists had previously thought in spreading genetic material around the world.
Dr Seielstad looked at the mitochondrial DNA of human blood cells - which men and women inherit only from their mothers - and compared this with the DNA of the Y chromosome - which men only pass on to their sons. "We found there is an eight-fold increase in the dispersal of the female mitochondrial DNA compared to the Y chromosome DNA of the male," he said.
One explanation is thatwomen were often traded or abducted by neighbouring tribes looking for wives, with the result that females and their genes ended up travelling further and more often than men.
Mark Stoneking, a scientist at Pennsylvania State University and an expert in the study of human migrations from DNA analysis, says the role of males in migration "has been greatly exaggerated", and the research questions teachings about "man the hunter".
In the journal Nature Genetics, Dr Stoneking says: "An emphasis on 'women the gatherer' would more accurately indicate who really brings home the bacon in most traditional hunter-gathering societies."