Out of Bounds

Huntress Revival

Scientific American did a good job dispensing with the “Man the Hunter” nonsense

By Rob Breeding

Are women born to hunt?

For me, this always seemed a silly question. Humans are omnivores, and the meat side of our eat-everything approach probably played a key role in our species becoming the one that dominates the planet.

 We needed meat to become human, some anthropologists theorize, because it takes rich, energy-dense food to grow a knob of brain cells as big as the lump between our ears. Meat, scavenged, then later hunted, fueled humanity’s ascendence.

So of course women are born to hunt. All humans are hunters, even Tesla-driving vegans who never stray beyond the range of the nearest Supercharger. The desire to hunt courses through us. Males may have been more likely to hunt in prehistoric times, but the idea that in protohuman clans, the boys did all the mastodon spearing while the girls sat around the cave nursing infants and mending animal-skin activewear is ludicrous. 

Did our ancestors have the luxury of that sort of gender-based specialization? I doubt it. You grabbed a spear and got on with it.

This wasn’t always the dominant view of human evolution I learned after reading the November edition of Scientific American magazine. I’d been intrigued by the cover story, “Woman the Hunter: New science debunks the myth that men evolved to hunt and women to gather.” It never occurred to me that gender was one or the other in hunter-gatherer societies. 

While the “grandmother hypothesis” led to the assumption that gathering was a bigger contributor to the pre-agrarian human’s daily caloric intake than was hunting and that females were more likely to do the gathering, the two aren’t mutually exclusive.

Scientific American did clear up some of my ignorance. The article focused on debunking a theory touted by an anthology of scholarly work published in 1968, titled “Man the Hunter.”

The book summed up the anthropological thinking of those halcyon days six decades ago, when scientists concluded pre-agrarian males did do all the mastodon spearing, and females did remain in the cave, nursing babies and darning OG Patagonia, known in ancient times as Irish-elk-skin outerwear. 

I’d never heard of the book, but I’m not nearly so foolish as the foolish men who came up with that poppycock. I suspect the authors’ conclusions were as much a reflection of their era’s gender ignorance as it was their ignorance of pre-history.

Scientific American did a good job dispensing with the “Man the Hunter” nonsense conjured up by those pipe-smoking, tweed-skinned college professors of the 1960s. If the magazine had stopped there, I’d be a happy camper. Alas, the authors were unable to resist the urge to frame their story of ancient gender equality in a way that only seems possible in the post-gender 2020s.

Modernity has changed many roles for humans since we bedded down in agrarian-inspired civilization. How exactly, we’ll never know for sure because we weren’t there and the prehistoric hard drive crashed long ago, wiping all the accumulated data.

Maybe there weren’t gender-assigned tasks in the clan culture of prehistory, as the authors of “Woman the Hunter” argue.  Maybe so, but 50,000 years ago, even if gender identity was fluid, biological gender had to be binary. Babies were made the old-fashioned way, and a species needs to make a lot of babies to climb from niche to planet-altering status in the 300,000-year blink of time since the first modern humans emerged in Africa.

Our tolerance of difference is a byproduct of the successful rise of humankind.

There’s nothing wrong with tearing down stereotypes. The best elk hunter I know is a woman and my one raghorn bull was laughably small compared to the many elk she killed in her hunting days. Still, female hunters are a rarity. The “Becoming an Outdoors Woman” programs cropping up in every state are changing that trend, but modern hunting remains mostly a boys’ game.

But it was never exclusively so.

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