The man, the myth, the hunter: A scientific fairytale?

Cave paintings of hunters

These prehistoric rock paintings showing hunters and animals in Manda Guéli Cave, Chad, Central Africa. Image credit: David Stanley, CC BY 2.0, Wikimedia commons.

From a young age, we are painted a glorified image of a scientist—impartial, unbiased and unwavering in their pursuit of the truth. However, as we grow older, we realise no such scientists exist. Scientists are only human—and as such, we are a product of our environment. Prejudice ingrained within societies as well as personal bias strongly influence how scientists interpret evidence.

A striking exemplification is the debunked myth of “man the hunter”. The empirical  hunter-gatherer paradigm, popularised during a 1966 symposium hosted by Richard Lee and Irven DeVore, was considered by many as gospel and widely wielded as a tool to justify the gender- and sex-based societal stereotypes held by those in power at the time to be the “natural order” of things.

The reductionist message extracted from work by Lee, DeVore, and their contemporaries, into a public (mis)understanding was that hunting acted as an important subsistence activity throughout the human lineage and that it had always been the role of men to hunt large game and participate in warfare, while the women are best left with less dangerous tasks—like child-rearing and gathering fruit. However, a mounting pile of evidence has arisen that draws this long-standing theory into question.

Prejudice ingrained within societies strongly influence how scientists interpret evidence. A striking exemplification is the debunked The Myth of Man the Hunter.

Paleontological research by Robert Sussman and Donna Hart, exploring key fossil evidence of ancestral species Australopithecus afarensis, indicates that early humans lacked dental adaptions required to consume meat and that the emergence of systematic intentional hunting could be as recent as 60,000 years ago. This would render “man” the hunted—rather than the hunter—during important stages of our evolution. Archeological finds dating back over 20 years have unearthed women buried with weapons in Scythian period settlements in Southern Russia

An excavation of a 9000 year old burial contained an early female hunter with projectiles and animal processing equipment. This, combined with a meta-analysis of 27 sites from the same period indicates that the division of subsistence labor, meaning activities used to attain food, was non-gendered and females were big game hunters in the Americas during the Late Pleistocene to Early Holocene. In a struggle to keep the traditional hunter-gatherer paradigm alive, some authors have stated that females only hunted or went to war in more distant times of the Homo sapiens lineage.

Luckily, the employment of novel DNA profiling techniques in re-interpreting evidence is continuing to empower the deconstruction of gender narratives and re-evaluation of historical social orders. In 2017, genomic profiling confirmed that a high-ranking warrior found in a lavish burial site in a Viking-aged settlement called Birka, in Sweden, who was at the time of discovery presumed to be male, is in fact female. Analysis of DNA and dental enamel peptides revealed that ‘one of the richest’ Iron-Age burials in Southwest Britain, containing both a mirror and a sword, belonged to a woman.

The final fatal blow for the “man the hunter” hypothesis was delivered by a groundbreaking study published last month by Abigail Anderson and her colleagues from Seattle Pacific University. The group investigated the hunting behaviors of 63 foraging societies from around the world. They found that in 79% there was documentation of women in a hunting role. Notably, women were active hunters in every single society who detailed hunting as their most important subsistence activity.

When women participated in intentional hunting, they targeted all sizes of game—but most commonly large game, with 50 % of societies documenting them doing so with children in tow. As expected, the peer-reviewed article has been distilled through various news outlets, each with a different spin and receiving some backlash from sites such as SkepChick, scientists with differing viewpoints and Reddit forums alike. Nevertheless, across the board we see increasing evidence for the existence of heterogeneity in the division of labour and of the importance of different subsistence activities in foraging societies that varied throughout human evolution and around the globe, ‘regardless of child-bearing status’. With this being the case, we must ask ourselves how the theory of “man the hunter” came into being, and why it has persisted for so long.

Women were active hunters in every single society who detailed hunting as their most important subsistence activity. 

The emergence of the idea that hunting was the most important subsistence activity during human evolution, and that men were the commanding force in societies throughout history, was likely concocted through the Western-centric and sexist lens of ethnographers and archaeologists at the time it was developed. Once a hypothesis becomes the scientific consensus it tends to propagate, acting as a coercive force in scientific investigation and often resulting in evidence being interpreted in a way that will support the status quo. In this way, many archaeologists assumed that remains found in burials with weapons were male and were disinclined to designate tools found in burials with females for hunting or warfare. At the same time, some ethnographers fell prey to inherent biases which distorted reporting of behavioural phenomena and reinforced gender-based labour division.

Unfortunately, these scientific fairytales are not a thing of the past. Anderson and colleagues, the authors of the aforementioned forager study, and many others in the field are calling for a more ‘inclusive framework for understanding human culture’ allowing us to better encapsulate the nuances of other societies.

This call to reduce the impact of reductionist, status quo and personal biases on research is being echoed across many other areas of research from neuroscience to innovation adoption. In order to make research more impactful, we should all be wary of factors influencing our own research. Be that the ever-present pressure to publish (or else perish), the urge to bend evidence to confirm existing beliefs or even the strings attached to funding. Acknowledge that science exists not within a vacuum, but in a tangled web alongside politics, religion, history, and culture, and try to avoid writing your own scientific fairytale.