Stone age myths about gender roles have been hard to dispel | Mint
Active Stocks
Thu Feb 22 2024 15:29:56
  1. Bharti Airtel share price
  2. 1,134.50 -0.46%
  1. Tata Steel share price
  2. 145.85 1.39%
  1. State Bank Of India share price
  2. 765.95 -0.73%
  1. HDFC Bank share price
  2. 1,419.80 -1.28%
  1. Power Grid Corporation Of India share price
  2. 282.55 0.86%
Business News/ Opinion / Views/  Stone age myths about gender roles have been hard to dispel

Stone age myths about gender roles have been hard to dispel

The age-old notion of ‘man the hunter’ needs frequent debunking

Over the last several decades, “man the hunter” has been debunked many times. (Photo: Duncan Thomsen/SWNS)Premium
Over the last several decades, “man the hunter” has been debunked many times. (Photo: Duncan Thomsen/SWNS)

People today continue to be fascinated by our hunter-gatherer ancestors. We’ve long looked to them for clues about ourselves. But it’s always been difficult for us to interpret their lives cleanly, unsullied by our own assumptions.

Consider a study that came out recently, trumpeted in Science as felling the “man the hunter myth"—the idea that stone-age men hunted big game while women peacefully gathered edible berries and roots. This study, published in Plos One, was a re-analysis of past data collected on 391 contemporary hunter-gatherer societies. The authors found 63 of those contained data on gender and hunting. Of those 63, 50 indicated that women hunted.

Over the last several decades, “man the hunter" has been debunked many times. It’s not clear it was ever something scientists had proposed or just one of those ideas kicking around our culture that scientists believed along with everyone else.

The popular understanding has two parts. One is that men and not women hunted, and the second is that hunting was the most important job in our prehistoric past. The assumption was that everyone depended on hunters for food, and that big-game hunting was what drove the evolution of our species as brainy tool-makers.

Most debunking efforts focused on the gender part. In contemporary foraging societies, women sometimes hunt alongside men. In prehistoric societies, women were sometimes buried with hunting knives. As for the question of whether hunting was really the top job for most of human prehistory, latest evidence shows those assumptions are probably wrong.

If people back then were anything like they are today, surely the bloody and violent nature of hunting wouldn’t be for everyone. Wouldn’t some women and men have preferred other jobs? Weren’t there always nerdy types who wanted to experiment with medicinal plants, or tinker with tool-making or cooking technology?

I consulted Vivek V. Venkataraman, an evolutionary anthropologist at the University of Calgary, who had written a previous debunking of the “man the hunter" idea, citing work going back to the 1980s. The idea of a male-dominated, hunter-dominated prehistory was never a real scientific idea, he said, but a reflection of society in the early 20th century. It may go back to a desire among some men to excuse both patriarchy and violence as something ingrained in us by evolution, he said.

In 1965, anthropologists met in Chicago that started unravelling the popular notion of male dominance. As described in a 2022 New Yorker article, researchers brought data from long stays with contemporary hunter gatherers, and one revelation was that men and women were skilled at obtaining a wide variety of foods of animal and plant origin. These people weren’t on the verge of starvation and their survival didn’t depend on big-game hunters.

They worked far fewer than 40 hours a week, and had leisure time. Modern foragers have been pushed to some of the world’s harshest environments, so in prehistoric times food would have been more varied and abundant.

Venkataraman said the evidence shows humans were nomadic for most of our existence as a species, and nomadic people today tend to be egalitarian. In the group he studies, the Batek of the Malaysian rain forest, nobody bosses anyone around. Some men are skilled at stalking animals with a blowpipe. Women are free to do that, but many prefer other kinds of skilled work, including gathering and killing large edible rodents with machetes.

One pattern, he said, is that people are both interdependent and autonomous. They don’t have jobs, but skills that contribute to group welfare. There’s room for diverse interests, he said, “as long as you’re contributing in some kind of way, whether it’s being a shaman or being really good at finding animal tracks." You could be good at gathering materials to be traded or climbing trees to get honey. “There’s always a niche for somebody," he said.

In prehistoric societies, people who did other activities weren’t rejects from the equivalent of Harvard hunting school. People had different inclinations and talents, and favourite foods. Resources were shared, so there was no pay scale. As for driving evolution, one newer idea is that our biological evolution is nudged along by cultural innovations—our genes changing in response to the taming of fire, cooking, spears and even wine-making.

Maybe it was the peaceful nerdy men and women staying home and inventing things who pushed us to become intelligent and technological—though we all have to be careful not to project our own values on people we don’t completely understand, and a past we can’t completely reconstruct. ©bloomberg

Unlock a world of Benefits! From insightful newsletters to real-time stock tracking, breaking news and a personalized newsfeed – it's all here, just a click away! Login Now!

Catch all the Business News, Market News, Breaking News Events and Latest News Updates on Live Mint. Check all the latest action on Budget 2024 here. Download The Mint News App to get Daily Market Updates.
More Less
Published: 14 Aug 2023, 08:21 PM IST
Next Story footLogo
Recommended For You
Switch to the Mint app for fast and personalized news - Get App