Who Brought Home the Bacon?

Anthropological thinking about human evolution has long been dominated by the image of “man the hunter.” But as the anthropologist Frances Dahlberg writes, woman cooperated with man “to create the uniquely flexible and interdependent social organization of our species.” In an attempt to balance the importance of man as a hunter with the diverse and often ignored activities of women, the author has brought together six essays which stress the economic importance of women in gathering food and in the social system itself. The essays deal with the behavior of chimpanzees, with human evolution, and with four examples of contemporary societies that live by “foraging”—i.e., going out to hunt or gather food, as opposed to cultivating it.

Why has hunting by males received so much attention and the work of women so little? One reason derives from an outmoded view of primates. It used to be thought that the apes, whether chimpanzee, gorilla, or orangutan, were entirely vegetarian. Except when nursing infants, each animal gathered its own food and ate it on the spot. In marked contrast, human beings killed animals—often large animals—by using weapons, and this was done by males who shared the meat with women and children. Hunters must go long distances and may also be warriors; they run substantial risks of injury. The hunting way of life thus intensified the very small division of activities observed in the apes. Human males, larger and much stronger than females, were evidently better suited by physiology to more strenuous behavior. Females were seen as limited by the burdens of bearing and caring for infants.

Obviously, the traditional view was in part correct, but it underestimated both the economic and the social contributions made by women. Or, even more infuriating, it simply omitted them. The basic problem with the traditional view of man the hunter was that it hardly took account of the social system in which early human beings lived. But we have since come to see that the central problem in tracing evolution is understanding how human beings adapt through their organization and customs.

In the introduction to Woman the Gatherer Dahlberg rightly stresses how men and women depend on each other in primitive societies. She is also right to stress the extreme cultural diversity and flexibility among the different peoples who lived by foraging. But this diversity makes evolutionary reconstructions difficult. The papers she has collected show that women always played an important part in the social system, but that their food gathering may have contributed a great deal, as in Australia, or almost nothing, as among the Chipewyan Indians.

The emphasis on the functions of women runs into difficulties. These are illustrated by Dahlberg’s treatment, in her introduction, of aggression, dominance, and sharing, in which she does not mention feuding or war and so ignores activities that were often central to primitive life and were dominated by males. Indeed, the essays that follow show both the gaps in Dahlberg’s introduction and the contradictions in the role…

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