Women, hunting and cherry-picking

The following text is the English version of this post originally published in French.

A recent article published in Plos One, which has been widely reported in the international press and which follows in a now well-established vein, sets out to deconstruct what it calls "The myth of Man the Hunter" (the title of a famous collective work on hunter-gatherer societies published in 1968). The point is to reject as illegitimate the vision of a gendered division of labor which, in hunter-gatherer societies, reserves hunting for men alone; ethnological data would indeed demonstrate that women are (and, probably, were also in the past) largely involved in this activity.

In their abstract, the study's authors (Abigail Anderson, Sophia Chilczuk, Kaylie Nelson, Roxanne Ruther and Cara Wall-Scheffler, who, curiously, seem to be more biologists than anthropologists) announce that:

These results aim to shift the male-hunter female-gatherer paradigm to account for the significant role females have in hunting, thus dramatically shifting stereotypes of labor, as well as mobility. (my highlights)

Do they really?

Illustration of an article in a French magazine
that reports the study's conclusions without the slightest critical distance.

1. The article: thesis, method and results

The method adopted was to use D-place, an online database based on Peter Murdock's Ethnographic Atlas and its 1,291 societies. Incidentally, the article oddly attributes this Atlas to Lewis Binford, who had built his own database of 339 societies, also present in D-place. In any case, the authors have identified 391 hunting and gathering societies and explored related sources. They say they identified only those cases in which women "were hunting" or took part in the killing, and eliminated those that simply referred to the fact that they accompanied the hunters.

They found information on women's involvement in hunting in 63 of them. In 13 cases, the women did not hunt at all; of the remaining 50 cases, 45 also provided information on the size of the game hunted, which the authors divided into three categories (small, medium, large). They came up with the following figures:

The type of game women hunted was variable based on the society. [Of the 45 societies where information is available] 21 (46%) hunt small game, 7 (15%) hunt medium game, 15 (33%) hunt large game and 2 (4%) of these societies hunt game of all sizes. In societies where women only hunted opportunistically, small game was hunted 100% of the time. In societies where women were hunting intentionally, all sizes of game were hunted, with large game pursued the most.

From these facts, the authors draw the following conclusions:

The prevalence of data on women hunting directly opposes the common belief that women exclusively gather while men exclusively hunt, and further, that the implicit sexual division of labor of ‘hunter/gatherer’ is misapplied. Given that this bimodal paradigm has influenced the interpretation of archeological evidence, which includes the reluctance to distinguish projectile tools found within female burials as intended for hunting (or fighting), this paper joins others in urging the necessity to reevaluate archeological evidence, to reassess ethnographic evidence, to question the dichotomous use of ‘hunting and gathering,’ and to deconstruct the general “man the hunter” narrative.

And a little further on, they insist that:

The collected data on women hunting directly opposes the traditional paradigm that women exclusively gather and men exclusively hunt.

2. General points of criticism

Before turning to more specific points, it should be noted that these passages raise two major problems.

The first is that we hardly know what exactly is this "discourse on the male hunter" that needs to be deconstructed, and which therefore asserts that women are everywhere and always excluded from hunting. In any case, this is not at all what appeared in the famous book bearing the title that is used here as a foil. On page 74, for instance, Watanabe wrote:

Hunting of small animals by women is not a rare phenomenon. Among such peoples as the Shoshoni (Steward, 1938) and the aboriginal Australians (Berndt and Berndt, 1964 ; Spencer and Gillen, 1927), it is, in fact, a woman's occupation.
In case of relatively large mammals there is information from various peoples that women take part in communal hunts (Turnbull, 1965a, 1965b). Occasional cases are not unknown of women hunting large mammals alone. Some Copper Eskimo women (Jenness, 1922) hunted seal and the caribou occasionally ; Ainu women and children (Watanabe, 1964a) sometimes hunted deer with sticks, ropes, and/or dogs when they had opportunities. But there is no society in which individualistic or noncommunal hunting of larger mammals is the socially recognized regular occupation of women. It is this individualistic hunting of larger mammals that is invariably the task of males. Communal hunts, however, do not always exclude females.
Among modern hunter-gatherers, exclusion of females from the individualistic hunting of larger mammals seems to be closely related to the making and using of hunting weapons, and associated economic and/or religious ideas. Women have no weapons of their own which are specially made to hunt animals. If they want to hunt they must do so without weapons or otherwise with some provisional weapons such as sticks. Rarely do they use specially made hunting weapons such as harpoons or spears, although these might be borrowed temporarily from males. Under these restrictions women's hunting activities are confined to small animal hunts, communal hunts in which they take part in driving, and, very rarely, individual hunts of larger mammals.

Thus, the "traditional paradigm" mentioned earlier, and which this article would shatter, has much more to do with a straw man (or woman?).

But whether or not the thesis the article claims to demolish has actually been defended by anyone, the other question is to what extent the data it collects actually invalidates it. For - and this is the second major problem raised by its conclusion - identifying women's participation in an activity (in this instance, hunting) in no way means that this participation occurs on the same scale as that of men, nor that it is carried out according to the same modalities.

It's quite possible (and in this case, indeed it is the case) that in many societies, women occasionally hunt one game or another, but that what is for men a central occupation remains for them an accessory or occasional task. And what many ethnological data show, but which the method followed in the article makes totally invisible, is that women and men can perfectly well take part in the same activity (here, a collective hunt) on a gendered basis - in a very banal way, women do the driving and men do the killing. To say that women don't hunt would certainly be misleading. But to say that they hunt on the same footing as men is at least as misleading. It's somewhat like pointing out the towns in France hosting women's soccer clubs and, having found a number of them, concluding that the outdated idea that soccer is a gendered sport needs to be challenged.

So when archaeologists a priori attribute sharp-edged or piercing weapons to men, they're certainly taking a shortcut; in each case, this attribution should be verified if possible, and not just assumed. But this attribution is not arbitrary: it corresponds to a very general pattern. Denying it does not advance our understanding of reality – quite the contrary. In other words, it's a matter of trees and woods.

3. A few more specific points

It's all the more important to take the measure of these issues since, in science, there's a general principle according to which the revision of established knowledge requires all the more abundant and solid evidence the more radical that revision is. In the present case, however, a cursory examination of this evidence casts doubt on this.

  1. As for the attribution of the Ethnographic Atlas to L. Binford, it may be a detail, but I fail to understand how the 63 foraging societies selected include cultivators such as the Kikuyu or the Iroquois.
  2. Many of the sources used, such as Brightman (1986), are second-hand, and it's hard to see why such a work didn't systematically seek out information from direct witnesses. But there's something more embarrassing: I certainly didn't carry out a systematic check, but in at least one case, that of the Lardils in the Gulf of Carpentaria, Australia, the coding clearly distorts the data. Two sources are provided to support the idea that among this people, women hunted. One is a database called DICE. It contains the following sentence:
    Men hunt and fish, women care for child and gather or do craft work.
    So let's turn to the other source, the article by Memmott et al. (2008) on fish traps. While it contradicts the previous statement by highlighting women's participation in fishing, it doesn't utter a word about their possible activity in hunting, which doesn't enter into its scope at all.
  3. at no point does the article specify the criteria used to define small, medium and large game. A reading of some of the sentences suggests that the notion of "big game" has been handled rather loosely. For example, the authors have assumed that among the Matses, an Amazonian people, women hunted big game simply because they were armed with heavy sticks and machetes. I'm not particularly knowledgeable about Amazonian wildlife in general and the Matses in particular, so I may be venturing into shaky territory here. But out of curiosity, I consulted an article listing the game hunted in the south-western Amazon. It appears that the largest prey is the tapir, weighing in at 150 kg. Next come two species weighing 30 and 18 kg respectively, with all others under 10 kg. The tapir's size therefore equals that of the reindeer, and is still a long way from that of the elk or the horse, not to mention the mammoth.
  4. the article mentions in passing that these results constitute a
    further adding to the data that women contribute disproportionately to the total caloric intake of many foraging groups
    However, there is a double flaw here. The first, already mentioned, is to confuse the number of groups in which women hunt with the importance of this activity (to use the comparison employed above, to confuse the percentage of towns with women's soccer clubs with the percentage of women among soccer players). The second error consists in presenting women's "disproportionate" caloric intake as an established fact. I don't think there are any reliable statistics on this point, but the few elements we do have point to a very different reality. Fabrien Abraini, who runs the excellent blog Anthropogoniques, for example, drew up the following sketch based on data from F. Marlowe, "Hunting and Gathering. The Human Sexual Division of Foraging Labor", Cross-cultural research, 41-2, 2007 :

In conclusion

Finally, the article explicitly aims to contribute to:

(...) acknowledge the non-sexual division of labor concerning hunting and gathering, in order to develop an inclusive framework for understanding human culture.

However, as we have seen, the data it compiles in no way allows us to conclude, against decades of convergent observations, to a "non-gendered division of labor" within hunting-gathering societies. I can only repeat once again what I have insisted on many times in my other writings, namely that it is seductive, but illusory, to pin present-day claims on the past, however legitimate they may be, in the belief that this would give them strength. Women's emancipation need not be based on the fantasy of a bygone matriarchy, nor black people's on electrified pyramids. Aspirations for a non-gendered world are the fruit of the upheavals introduced by capitalism, not a return to an alleged human nature. To delude oneself about the absence of division of labor among hunter-gatherers will not make today's world more inclusive; on the contrary, it will contribute to weakening the side of those who aspire to such a future, by preventing them from properly understanding why and how this model of society has become thinkable.


NB : other colleagues have begun to react to this study, from different angles. In particular, see this text, written by Vivek Venkataraman, which review the ethnographic sources on hunter-gatherers and what they actually say.

1 commentaire:

  1. Thank you for writing this. The propaganda is getting ridiculous.