Article image

Prehistoric women were not just gatherers, they were also hunters

A recent study challenges the belief that men were the hunters and women the gatherers in prehistoric times. Research led by Sarah Lacy, an anthropology professor at the University of Delaware, suggests that women were not only physically capable of hunting but likely participated in it.

Focus of the study 

The study was focused on the Paleolithic era, which spans from approximately 2.5 million to 12,000 years ago. The researchers found little evidence to suggest that roles were rigidly defined by gender.

Professor Lacy, who specializes in the health of early humans, collaborated with Cara Ocobock from the University of Notre Dame, who bridges modern-day physiology with the fossil record.

The researchers were inspired to challenge the long-held belief about gendered division of labor. They questioned why the “cavemen hunt, women gather” theory was so widely accepted. “We have so much evidence that that’s not the case,” said Lacy.

Gender equality 

A review of ancient tools, diets, art, burials, and anatomy revealed a striking picture of gender equality. 

“People found things in the past and they just automatically gendered them male and didn’t acknowledge the fact that everyone we found in the past has these markers, whether in their bones or in stone tools that are being placed in their burials,” said Professor Lacy.

“We can’t really tell who made what, right? We can’t say, ‘Oh, only males flintknap,’ because there’s no signature left on the stone tool that tells us who made it.”

Lacy noted that, from what evidence we do have, there appears to be almost no sex differences in roles. 

Physiological capabilities 

One of the biggest questions addressed was whether there were physiological barriers preventing women from hunting. 

While men may have advantages in speed and power tasks like sprinting and throwing, women excel in endurance activities such as long-distance running. Both sets of skills were crucial for hunting. 

Estrogen, predominantly found in women, plays a significant role in enhancing fat metabolism, regulating muscle breakdown, and providing a longer-lasting energy source. The fact that estrogen receptors can be traced back 600 million years further validates its pivotal role.

Shared roles

“When we take a deeper look at the anatomy and the modern physiology and then actually look at the skeletal remains of ancient people, there’s no difference in trauma patterns between males and females, because they’re doing the same activities,” Lacy said.

During the Paleolithic era, most people lived in small groups. To Lacy, it didn’t make sense that only part of the group would hunt.

“You live in such a small society. You have to be really, really flexible. Everyone has to be able to pick up any role at any time. It just seems like the obvious thing, but people weren’t taking it that way.” 

Outdated theory

Lacy points to the 1968 publication “Man the Hunter” by anthropologists Richard B. Lee and Irven DeVore. By emphasizing hunting’s role in human evolution and presuming all hunters were male, they inadvertently set a gender-biased narrative. 

While this outdated “man the hunter” theory seems to have persisted for decades, Professor Lacy hopes this new research will highlight that both sexes have always been contributors to their communities. 

Egalitarian species

“There were women who were publishing about this in the ’70s, ’80s and ’90s, but their work kept getting relegated to, ‘Oh, that’s a feminist critique or a feminist approach,’” Lacy said. 

“This was before any of the work on genetics and a lot of the work on physiology and the role of estrogen had come out. We wanted to both lift back up the arguments that they had already made and add to it all the new stuff.” 

For three million years, males and females both participated in subsistence gathering for their communities, and dependence on meat and hunting was driven by both sexes, Lacy said.

“It’s not something that only men did and that therefore male behavior drove evolution. What we take as de facto gender roles today are not inherent, do not characterize our ancestors. We were a very egalitarian species for millions of years in many ways.”

The study is published in the journal American Anthropologist

Like what you read? Subscribe to our newsletter for engaging articles, exclusive content, and the latest updates.


Check us out on EarthSnap, a free app brought to you by Eric Ralls and

News coming your way
The biggest news about our planet delivered to you each day