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 of women in evolution that remain to be resolved. For example, in “The Female Chimpanzee as a Human Evolutionary Prototype,” the first essay, William McGrew describes male chimpanzees patrolling the boundaries of their territory, killing strangers, and eating infants. Moreover, the latest accounts of ape behavior show that gorillas may also kill other gorillas and may eat young ones.1 Virtually all old male orangutans show scars, presumably from territorial fights. Indeed, the probability of the apes’ being aggressive was predicted from their anatomy long before such behavior was actually observed.2 Recent studies indicate that apes are far more aggressive than anyone except Robert Ardrey thought they were.

Dahlberg minimizes the importance of male dominance and stresses sharing between males and females within the family. But McGrew in his paper describes chimpanzees as having a “linear hierarchy of dominance.” The relations of dominance and sharing may be illustrated by the problems Jane Goodall had when she started to feed the chimpanzees she worked with. At first the more dominant animals took most of the bananas, and it proved extremely difficult to arrange a series of provisioning boxes so that subordinate animals might get some of the food. In these studies dominance was mightily in evidence, and sharing was not.

A longstanding anthropological theory holds that the male need for sex held the early, or primitive, family together. But Colin Turnbull, in his essay in this collection, describes how a long period of sexual abstinence following childbirth was common among the Mbuti Pygmies. Although this caused difficulties for the pygmy husbands, years of prohibition of sexual activities did not disrupt the family because the family had so many other functions. Dahlberg herself emphasizes sex as a principal causal factor in the evolution of human social behavior, and points to the loss of estrus, or heat, in human beings, and the consequent possibility of mating at any time, as uniquely human and basic to human social behavior. But she and other contributors who make this argument fail to mention the fact that orangutans, the most solitary of apes, show no external signs of estrus and the males mate at any time. Even among the apes, social behavior is too complicated to be explained by sexual behavior alone.


Here again McGrew’s essay on the female chimpanzee is suggestive. The apes he describes from his extensive research in Africa live in territories defended by the males. The only persistent social group consists of a female and her young, although other temporary groups may form. All of the animals in the territory know one another. Mating is either opportunistic, possessive (when a male tries to control a female), or occurs when two chimpanzees pair off (or “consort”) with each other and may leave the group for some days. Most pregnancies result from this consort pairing, although most of the copulations do not occur among such pairs. Clearly, the male strategy suggested by sociobiologists—mating with as many females as possible—is not as successful for procreation as pairing.

Chimpanzees eat a very wide range of food and find most of it in the trees. Insects make up an important part of the diet and the females consume about twice as many as the males. There is some sharing of such food, largely between mothers and their young. While adult chimpanzees do not share vegetable food, they do share meat. Both sexes may hunt small mammals on the ground, but it is the male chimpanzees that cooperate in hunting monkeys and share the meat with the females. Chimpanzees do not scavenge, they use a wide variety of objects (sticks, stones, leaves, grass) as accessories in feeding, for cleaning their bodies, and during combat with one another. The males engage in aggressive displays and usually walk on two feet when they do.

McGrew points out that, although chimpanzees are not the ancestors of human beings, the kinds of behavior he observed could have evolved into human behavior with greater emphasis on elements already clearly there. More hunting, more sharing, more division of activities, more cooperation, more use of objects would diminish the difference between animal and human behavior. The procreative success of consort pairs could evolve into more permanent associations.

McGrew’s essay, unfortunately, is limited to chimpanzees and does not discuss gorillas. Gorillas are just as closely related to human beings as chimpanzees but differ in important ways. Female gorillas are in estrus only one to four days of the month, far less often than chimpanzees, but the gorilla social group is considerably more compact than that of chimpanzees. Some years ago—when little was known about the apes—it may have been reasonable to think it did not make much difference which ape was used as a basis for speculations about human evolution. That is no longer the case, and speculations about human evolution should be enriched by the understanding that would come from a comparison of the behavior of all apes.

Adrienne L. Zihlman, in her essay “Women as Shapers of Human Adaptation,” dissents from the emphasis on hunting in human evolution by suggesting a different version of events. She postulates that in the early stages of human evolution—more than two million years ago—hunting was unimportant, that human beings depended on gathering. Sharing was made possible by the development of containers—possibly made from bark or parts of animals, although this is a matter of conjecture—and this new adaptation helped to separate humans from apes. This thesis Zihlman defends at considerable length, using a wide variety of evidence on the role of women in nursing, carrying, and caring for the young, and on their contributions to the economy of the family. She believes that what evolved was an integrated way of life, one with great flexibility.

This is an important statement on woman’s contribution to human evolution, and it should help to restore a more balanced view. Unfortunately it is as biased as the view it seeks to replace. From the evidence we have, we can say that chimpanzees hunt cooperatively and that they share meat. One assumption is that this kind of behavior probably increased when our ancestors became bipedal. Following McGrew’s suggestions we may conclude that hunting, sharing, and gathering may have all increased, but there is no reason to postulate that hunting was unimportant. Certainly for the last million years the evidence is persuasive that our ancestors hunted large animals, and this record is not erased by Zihlman’s conjecturing what happened three to four million years ago. The ancestral creatures she describes seem less intelligent and less flexible in their behavior than the chimpanzees described earlier by McGrew. Zihlman’s theory that food was gathered and shared before the advent of hunting is not impossible: but the evidence of hunting by contemporary apes as well as in the fossil record suggests that hunting was important too.


Agnes Estioko-Griffin and P. Bion Griffin suggest quite a different view in their essay on “Woman the Hunter,” based on a study of the Agta, a Negrito people living in the Philippines, who hunt deer, pig, and monkey; they also fish and gather in the forests. They exchange meat for corn and rice and plant some food crops. “They are,” the authors write, “superb hunters,” eating meat almost daily. The women hunt—using bow and arrow and dogs—very successfully. Great regional and seasonal diversity exists in economic activities and in the extent of hunting by women.

The Agta social system is based on nuclear families living in small communities without political organization. The authors point out that Agta women are equal to men, that “they do have authority, and they do regularly contribute a significant proportion of the subsistence resources. Their freedom of choice in sex and marriage seems to support the hypothesis of an egalitarian society.”

The Agta data show that many of the accepted generalizations about man the hunter and woman the gatherer are simply incorrect. The authors wisely conclude by restating the issues. The question is not why women do not hunt but under what circumstances they do so. To what extent were women in hunting societies restricted by pregnancy and child care? Perhaps in some societies they were not greatly restricted after all. We should first ask to what extent the apparent restrictions are merely a reflection of European cultural assumptions.

Such distortions of perspective are taken up in Catherine Berndt’s impressive essay on Australian Aboriginal women. Practically all the conclusions about them, she argues, have been biased: first because they were Aborigines, and second because they were women. These powerful prejudices were not only used to justify discrimination in the way they were treated, but distorted the anthropological work of Malinowski, Róheim, Murdock, and many others. Berndt shows how the invading Europeans changed the life of the Aborigines and contends it is much more difficult to get an accurate picture of the Aboriginal culture than many have thought. The principal conclusion of her careful study is that biases of every kind—political, economic, scientific—have hindered our understanding of the Aboriginal woman. She was “gatherer, homemaker, mother, child-rearer” and was helped by the male hunters “in a cooperative enterprise to ensure their survival.”

Colin Turnbull, in giving a personal account of his own experiences in Zaire, neatly states another fundamental problem of biased observation: “I came to know Mbuti women, necessarily, through the eyes of Mbuti males.” But he adds that this bias was reduced by repeated field trips and opportunity for observation. The Mbuti he describes are egalitarian, with women doing almost all of the things that men do—they hunt, gather, and take part in rituals. The girls have considerable choice not only of their husbands but of partners in premarital sex. Motherhood is highly respected. Turnbull concluded that the Mbuti made great efforts to stress the complementarity of the sexes. He writes, “Sexual differentiation is indeed a major principle of social organization, being used—together with age—as a structural means of dividing the labor and authority—but without any sense of superordination or subordination.” Here again the emphasis is on interdependence of men and women rather than on their independence, as in our own society.

The same could be said for the Chipewyan Indians of western Canada, described in an essay by Henry Sharp, although the position of women among them is in contrast to that of the Mbuti women. These Indians are foragers with a diet of 90 percent meat. As with other foraging groups in the extreme north, their population was very sparse—between 50 and 100 square miles to one human being. There was little to gather, and even that was limited to a small part of the year; yet even under these extreme conditions the family remained the basic social unit. Women were devalued and of low status, but Sharp points out that this was symbolic rather than an expression of biology. Women stayed near the camp; men hunted and did their butchering out in the bush—division of functions that were both practical and symbolic.

The Chipewyan Indians believed that women had the magical power to pollute the male way of dealing with nature and to endanger success in hunting. Men brought the meat and fish to camp, and the women dried these on racks, a process requiring frequent attention. “The roles of male and female, in a public sense, place the former in a position of highly valued, active hunter and the latter as a low-valued, passive, continuously working drudge.” However, the food was not usable until it was processed by the women. Since even the most skillful hunter would fail at times, borrowing was a necessity; and the borrowing was done by the women and was the mechanism for the distribution of food.

Sharp concludes that “the sexual division of labor in human society is so basic to all known cultures that it is difficult to imagine a system that does not possess a highly developed and complementary one.” Among the Chipewyan Indians the system had the men producing practically all the food, and the women processing and distributing it, both activities being necessary for survival.

It is disappointing that the editor of this collection did not try to provide a critical synthesis of the various papers, or to supplement them by taking account of other anthropological work. For example, two of the chapters emphasize chimpanzees, but the conclusions on social and sexual behavior, sexual dimorphism, and aggression might have been quite different if the gorilla and orangutan had been considered. To reconstruct evolution is difficult at best, and such easily available and relevant information as we have should not be omitted. Nor should we uncritically assume that the study of contemporary foragers can give us a great deal of information on the way of life of our ancestors many thousands of years ago. Unfortunately for this view, there were great technological changes in the last few thousand years before agriculture. Such changes have been tabulated by Gerhard and Jean Lenski,3 and I will give only a few examples of them here. All recent foragers had dogs, which have been very important in hunting—but dogs were only domesticated some 12,000 years ago. Grinding, an important process in making seeds available as food, appears very late in the archeological record. Fish were important as a source of food for many foragers, but extensive use of fishing and of boats occurs very late.

So it is evident that the technology and economy of the foragers of the last few millennia before agriculture began were different from those of the previous period during which 99 percent of human evolution took place. As Berndt puts it, “If the reporting of ‘facts’ about the situation in the recent past, let alone the matter of interpretation and evaluation, is so fraught with controversies and disagreements, it must surely be even more difficult to transpose such reports and interpretations into the far-distant past.” She concludes that the relations of men and women cannot be deduced from material remains alone.

Emphasis on the importance of gathering, as opposed to hunting, can lead to a fundamental distortion of the problems of human evolution. For example, Dahlberg refers to gathered food as “abundant and predictable,” especially in the tropics, and Zihlman speaks of gathering “the abundant savanna resources.” But apparently there were very few foragers. There may be several apes to one square mile, but it takes some ten to fifteen miles to support one foraging human being. We can now estimate that in the savanna in East Africa there were some fifty to one hundred baboons to one human hunter. Vegetarian primates occur at far higher densities than human foragers.

Nor is this a recent condition; from very extensive collections of fossils Noel T. Boaz4 has estimated that the density of population among our early ancestors was about the same as that of the carnivores. With the origin of agriculture the number of human primates increased rapidly, showing that their numbers had been limited by the supply of food. Even when food gathering was supplemented by hunting, the food supply could not support large populations.

To indicate the importance of hunting large animals, the figures below show what one group of Cree Indians secured in one winter:5


In contrast, five pails of blueberries were gathered.

Our ancestors hunted large animals, including elephant, hippopotamus, giraffe, and large ungulates of many kinds. There is no need to underestimate the food from this source or the very real complications of killing large and dangerous game such as buffalo. For both hunting and butchering, groups of cooperating males were necessary.


p class=”initial”>While food gathering was certainly underestimated in the traditional accounts of evolution, there is no need to overestimate its importance now. Even with hunting and gathering, human beings were rare before the development of agriculture. Dahlberg’s claim that foragers enjoyed a “well-fed and secure life” is simply incorrect, as Sharp’s essay shows. If this was sometimes the case, there were also lean seasons, unusual years, famines. As Edward Rogers states, “Times of starvation are vividly remembered and countless tales are told of such events.” 6 Norman Tindale7 describes how a whole horde might be wiped out by drought, how strangers were feared, and how one group might take land from another. The useful emphasis on gathering and sharing in such books as this one should not be coupled with a rejection of the realities of the pre-agricultural world.

Still this book is successful in calling attention to major biases in anthropological literature. It should by now be clear that women have always been important in all social systems—and perhaps especially so in foraging societies. Women’s contributions have not received adequate attention because of bias in both the collecting and the analysis of data. But it is not clear how the particular choice of examples in Dahlberg’s collection can be justified; or how the sometimes contradictory findings of the disparate chapters can be integrated. Perhaps it is lucky that the stereotype of “Woman the Gatherer” is becoming as questionable as that of “Man the Hunter”—the great diversity of foraging systems supports neither extreme.

This Issue

September 24, 1981