The idea that men hunt while women stay at home is almost completely wrong, a review of foraging societies around the world has found. In fact, women hunt in 80 per cent of the societies looked at, and in a third of these societies women were found to hunt big game – animals heavier than 30 kilograms – as well as smaller animals.
These findings are likely to be representative of all foraging societies past and present, says Cara Wall-Scheffler at the University of Washington in Seattle. “We have nearly 150 years of ethnographic studies sampled, we have every continent and more than one culture from every continent, and so I feel like we did get a pretty good swathe of what people do around the world,” she says.
There was already growing evidence that women hunted in many cultures in the past. For instance, of 27 individuals found buried with hunting weapons in the Americas, nearly half were women, a 2020 study found. Yet researchers have been reluctant to conclude that these women were hunters.
“There is a paradigm that men are the hunters and women are not the hunters, and that paradigm colours how people interpret data,” says Wall-Scheffler. Her team looked at a database called D-PLACE that has records on more than 1400 human societies worldwide made over the past 150 years. There was data on hunting for 63 of the foraging societies recorded and, of these, 50 described women hunting.
For 41 of these societies, there was information on whether women’s hunting was intentional or opportunistic – that is, whether they were going out to hunt rather than catching animals they stumbled upon while gathering plants, say. In 87 per cent of cases, it was intentional. “That number was higher than I expected,” says Wall-Scheffler.
The team also looked at data on the size of animals hunted by women, which was recorded for 45 societies. In 46 per cent of cases it was small game such as lizards and rodents, 15 per cent medium game and 33 per cent large game. In 4 per cent of the societies women hunted game of all sizes.
The analysis found that women’s hunting strategies were more flexible than men’s. “Women use a wider range of tools when they go hunting, they go out with a wider variety of people,” says Wall-Scheffler.
They may hunt alone or with a male partner, other women, children or dogs, for instance, says Wall-Scheffler. While the bow and arrow was commonly used by female hunters around the world, she says, women also used knives, nets, spears, machetes, crossbows and more.
This greater flexibility could be a result of female hunters’ mobility varying when they are pregnant or breast-feeding, she says. In at least some cases women hunted with babies strapped to their backs, for instance.
In some societies there were taboos on women making or using specific tools or weapons, Wall-Scheffler says, forcing them to find alternatives.
“This paper represents a much-needed meta-analysis,” says Randy Haas at Wayne State University in Michigan, whose team carried out the study of burials in the Americas. “The findings, coupled with related archaeological findings, convincingly show that division of subsistence labour is much more variable than previously thought,” he says.
Given that women did and do hunt in so many societies, Wall-Scheffler says she can’t explain why the popular notion is that only men hunt. “I don’t understand it,” she says. “I think it is just as remarkable that women with babies on their back are going out to shoot animals.”