Women ‘actively hunt in 70% of hunter-gatherer societies still in existence’

Researchers said their work challenges the widely held belief that men exclusively hunt and women solely forage.

Nilima Marshall
Wednesday 28 June 2023 19:00 BST
The study researched existing hunter-gatherer societies from around the world, including the Hazda people in Tanzania (C David A. Raichlen/University of Southern California/PA)
The study researched existing hunter-gatherer societies from around the world, including the Hazda people in Tanzania (C David A. Raichlen/University of Southern California/PA)

Women hunt in at least 70% of foraging societies still in existence – challenging the widely held view that men exclusively hunt and women solely forage, scientists have said.

Researchers analysed data from the past century covering 63 hunter-gatherer societies from around the world, including the Hazda people in Tanzania and the Innuit in the Arctic.

The found that women played active roles in hunting in nearly four out of five foraging societies.

The researchers said that in 70% of the cases, hunting appeared to be intentional, rather than opportunistic killing of animals encountered while doing something else, and often involved large game.

Women in foraging societies across the world historically participated and continue to participate in hunting regardless of child-bearing status

Study into hunter gatherer societies

They said the findings, published in the journal Plos One, challenge the perception of “man the hunter and women the gatherer”, and are calling for evidence from previous studies that may be been influenced by this stereotype to be re-examined.

The authors wrote: “Women in foraging societies across the world historically participated and continue to participate in hunting regardless of child-bearing status.

“The collected data on women hunting directly opposes the traditional paradigm that women exclusively gather and men exclusively hunt and further elucidates the diversity and flexibility of human subsistence culture.

“Because the hunter-gatherer paradigm has prevented the recognition of contributions by women to hunting, a new framework would enable past and future discoveries to be evaluated in the context of female hunters.”

The hunter-gatherer lifestyle relies on hunting and fishing animals and foraging for wild vegetation and nutrients like honey, for food.

All humans practiced hunting-gathering until around 12,000 years ago, before agricultural practices developed.

The population of hunter-gatherers has declined dramatically over the last 500 years and very few exist exist today.

For the study, the team examined data from 19 different foraging societies from North America, six from South America, 12 from Africa, 15 from Australia, five from Asia and six from the Oceanic region.

Foraging societies show incredible flexibility in their strategies

Prof Cara Wall-Scheffler

The researchers found that in societies where hunting is considered the main source of livelihood, women actively participated in it “100% of the time”.

Study author Cara Wall-Scheffler, a professor in the Seattle Pacific University’s Department of Biology in Washington, US, said: “Foraging societies show incredible flexibility in their strategies.

“Even when populations show strict taboos, there are always circumstances where individuals can overcome those taboos to survive.”

This work follows recent research by Professor Randy Haas, from the University of California, Davies, in the US, where his team found big-game hunting tools next to the the remains of a teenage girl at a 9,000-year-old burial site in Peru.

Prof Haas said at that time that his findings made him “rethink the most basic organisational structure of ancient hunter-gatherer groups” because “among historic and contemporary hunter-gatherers, it is almost always the case that males are the hunters and females are the gatherers”.

He said that because of “sexist assumptions about division of labour in western society”, archaeological remains of females with hunting tools “didn’t fit prevailing worldviews”.

He said: “It took a strong case to help us recognise that the archaeological pattern indicated actual female hunting behaviour.”

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