One of the most common stereotypes about the human past is that men did the hunting while women did the gathering. That gendered division of labor, the story goes, would have provided the meat and plant foods people needed to survive.
That characterization of our time as a species exclusively reliant on wild foods – before people started domesticating plants and animals more than 10,000 years ago – matches the pattern anthropologists observed among hunter-gatherers during the 19th and early 20th centuries. Virtually all of the large-game hunting they documented was performed by men.
It’s an open question whether these ethnographic accounts of labor are truly representative of recent hunter-gatherers’ subsistence behaviors. Regardless, they definitely fueled assumptions that a gendered division of labor arose early in our species’ evolution. Current employment statistics do little to disrupt that thinking; in a recent analysis, just 13% of hunters, fishers and trappers in the US were women.
Still, as an archaeologist, I’ve spent much of my career studying how people of the past got their food. I can’t always square my observations with the “man the hunter” stereotype.
First, I want to note that this article uses “women” to describe people biologically equipped to experience pregnancy, while recognising that not all people who identify as women are so equipped.