The idea that men hunt while women stay home is almost completely wrong, a review of foraging societies around the world has found. In fact, women hunt in 80 percent of the societies examined, and in a third of these societies women were found to hunt animals over 30 kilograms, as well as smaller game.
These finds are likely representative of all past and present foraging societies, he says. Face Wall–Scheffler at the University of Washington in Seattle. “We have a sample of almost 150 years of ethnographic studies, we have all the continents and more than one culture from each continent, so I feel like we got a good piece of what people do around the world,” he says.
There was already growing evidence that women hunted in many cultures in the past. For example, of 27 people found buried with hunting weapons in the Americas, nearly half were women, according to a 2020 study. However, researchers have been reluctant to conclude that these women were hunters.
“There is this paradigm that men are the hunters and women are not the hunters, and that paradigm influences how people interpret the data,” says Wall-Scheffler. Her team analyzed a database called D-PLACE that has records from more than 1,400 humane societies around the world over the past 150 years. There were data on the hunting of 63 of the recorded foraging societies 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 went hunting rather than catching animals they stumbled upon while gathering plants, for example. In 87 percent of cases, it was intentional. “That number was higher than I expected,” Wall-Scheffler says.
The team also analyzed data on the size of animals hunted by women, which was recorded in 45 societies. In 46 percent of the cases it was small game such as lizards and rodents, 15 percent medium game and 33 percent big game. In 4 percent of societies, women hunted animals of all sizes.
The analysis found that women’s hunting strategies were more flexible than those of men. “Women use a wider range of tools when they go hunting, they hang out with a wider variety of people,” says Wall-Scheffler.
They may hunt alone or with a male partner, other females, children, or dogs, for example, Wall-Scheffler says. While women hunters around the world commonly used the bow and arrow, she says, women also used knives, nets, spears, machetes, crossbows, and more.
This increased flexibility could be the result of the hunters’ varying mobility when they are pregnant or nursing, he says. In at least some cases, women hunted with babies strapped to their backs, for example.
In some societies, there were taboos on making or using specific tools or weapons by women, Wall-Scheffler says, forcing them to look for alternatives.
“This paper represents a much-needed meta-analysis,” says Randy Haas at Wayne State University in Michigan, whose team conducted the study of burials in the Americas. “The findings, along with related archaeological finds, convincingly show that the subsistence division of labor is much more variable than previously thought,” she says.
Since 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 get it,” she says. “I think it’s just as remarkable that women with babies on their backs are going out there to shoot animals.”