Woman the Hunter?

By Carl Zimmer | February 22, 2007 12:00 pm

amazons.jpgThere was a time–in the 1960s and 1970s–when the phrase “Man the Hunter” enjoyed a lot of popularity. Some researchers claimed that the evolution of hunting played a key role in the origin of our lineage. That’s what we made tools for, and that’s how we got all the extra energy to fuel our big brains. Much of our anatomy, according to the Man-the-Hunter theory, was the result of adaptations for hunting. You have to stand tall above the savannah grass, for example, to spot your game. You need to make weapons. And a bloody-minded psychology helped too. In the 1976 book The Hunting Hypothesis, Robert Ardrey declared, “Man is man, and not a chimpanzee, because for millions upon millions of evolving years we killed for a living.” And remember, it’s Man the Hunter. The ladies were supposed to sit at home raising the wee ones and gather some berries.

The story of hunting is a lot more complicated today, thanks to a lot of new evidence and some critical reappraisal of the old evidence. Jane Goodall discovered that male chimpanzees hunt monkeys, and since they’re our closest living relatives it’s possible that our ancestors were hunting millions of years before they could stand upright. And in their book Man the Hunted, anthropologists Donna Hart and Robert Sussman argue that for millions of years our hominid ancestors were more likely prey than predator. The oldest stone tools from hominids, dating back 2.6 million years, were likely stone scrapers and other items that were better for scavenging meat than taking down a wildebeest. By 1.5 million years ago, hominids may have been hunting some of their food while stills scavenging other meals. But hunting tools remained very simple for a long time. The oldest wooden spears are 400,000 years old.

And the evidence keeps coming in. Today the journal Current Biology publishes yet another piece of the puzzle: female chimpanzees hunting with spears. More below…


The sight of chimpanzees using tools is hardly new. They’ve been seen making probing sticks for snaring termites, using rocks to bang nuts, and so on. But it was surprising for a team of primatologists to see chimpanzees in Senegal using tools to hunt. On several occasions the scientists saw chimpanzees fashion sticks into spears, which they then rammed into tree hollows where little bushbabies were hiding. In one case, a chimpanzee successfully pinned down a bushbaby and was able to grab it and have a snack.

The discovery adds more weight to the suspicion of some researchers that stone tools can only offer a limited picture of the history of tool use in our ancestors. Ancient hominids might well have been making simple spears and stabbing small animals for millions of years without leaving behind much evidence of their exploits in the fossil record. Studying chimpanzees may offer some clues to what they were up to–particiularly these chimpanzees in Senegal, which live in a mix of woodlands and grasslands that resembles the East African ecosystems where our own ancestors evolved for millions of years.

And what’s particularly intriguing in the report is the fact that of the 22 observed cases of spear-fashioning, only one involved an adult male. Thirteen were carried out by females. (The other cases involved young males.) The scientists suggest that female apes played an important role not only in the development of tools for crushing nuts and catching insects and other kinds of foraging, but also for hunting. Among our earliest ancestors, females might have spent some of their time spearing prey.

If scientists can observe these Amazonian primates some more, it will be interesting to see how much they share their meat. In the forests of the Ivory Coast, scientists have found that when chimps catch small animals they tend to keep the prey for themselves. If the animals are bigger, they’re more likely to share it–willingly or unwillingly–with other chimps. But big game makes up only a small fraction of their calories. Human hunter-foragers, on the other hand, share much more of their food with other members of their group. They also split the work of getting food much more strictly than chimpanzees, with men mostly providing meat and women getting the roots and fruits. Some anthropologists have argued that this division of labor and broader sharing means that humans can have a more reliable supply of food over their lifetime. However, this is not a hard and fast rule. As Harvard anthropologist Frank Marlowe observes, Austrlain females hunt lots of small animals, while men in many cultures are full-time foragers for honey and fruit. There are even cultures in which the men and women hunt together.(pdf) Man, Woman, Hunter, Hunted, Root-Digger, Fruit-Picker–harder to fit on a book cover, but perhaps closer to our complicated reality.

Current Biology has a couple movies you can watch, although they don’t have close-ups of kills. See also National Geographic for more information.

CATEGORIZED UNDER: Evolution
MORE ABOUT: Evolution

Comments (17)

  1. J-Dog

    If you dig into the article…”You have to remember, there was a 2 for 1 Special Sale on bushbabys that day. And they make the most delightful shoes and purse combo!”

    And before I get zinged by all you women scientists and bloggers …and you know who you are… I am kidding! Give me a break! Some of my best friends are women! Take my wife…Please!

  2. Tina Rhea

    I can imagine chimps poking sticks into holes as an extension of the termite-fishing they already do, and grabbing the critter in the hole as it jumps out, and the practice evolving from there– if you can spear it, it’s less likely to bite you.

    In all that tiresome Man The Mighty Hunter stuff by Ardrey and Morris, to whatever degree some of it might be true, I don’t recall any mention of women being the logical inventors of weaving and pottery so they’d have some way of carrying all those roots and nuts…. Elaine Morgan has an interesting alternative and is a lot more fun to read.

  3. Like many western European archaeologists, I’m skeptical about attempts to find out what humans are essentially like — hunter, gatherer, male this, female that. We tend to feel that at some level of intelligence, for instance from the appearance of H. erectus onward, people no longer acted mainly upon biological imperatives, but pursued constantly mutable culture. In fact, they did as they chose.

    Such a perspective makes is useless to try to generalise from any observations of how people have lived in the far past. With culture, each situation is historically unique and cannot be taken to stand for any other less well known situation.

  4. derek

    People who bought the idea that men did all the hunting have insisted for more than thirty years that hunting sucked and was stoopid and gathering was a much better thing to do, and this proved men were useless sacks of lazy good-for-nothing fat for hunting instead of contributing something useful.

    And now that they’re going to turn on a dime and say women hunted, does this mean women are useless and lazy, or does it mean hunting is now rehabilitated, reverse Stalin style? I can’t wait to learn what the new party line is, and see how fast people can reverse their former opinions.

  5. Derek sounds like somebody pissed in his breakfast cereal. What this new observation ought to teach folks like Derek, and the rest of us, is that we can’t go projecting our ready-made opinions about male and female nature onto artifacts and observations of primates. IF this observation means that early female humans were hunters – it seems reasonable now to suppose they were just as likely to be hunters as were early male humans – that doesn’t make the separate argument that hunting was an important or central source of the food supply for early humans.

    What Derek is all cranky about is his fear that early female humans might actually be shown to have an important role to play in something, anything. And then that might mean that present-day women have an important role to play in something, anything. Which makes Derek feel a whole lot less important just by virtue of being Man. Who is Hunter. Amen.

    Gahhh. Take a deep breath, Derek. Female primates can have active roles to play in chimpanzee society, or even human society, and it doesn’t mean your balls are going to be cut off. People can look for positive things to say about the history of female primates without it equalling male-bashing. I swear, some males are so touchy. Is it hormonal, or what?

  6. Doug

    Herodotus writes of a nation of female warriors known as Amazons.
    http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Amazons

    Although unlikely, perhaps this is a distinct species of chimpanzees as are bonobos.

    Chimpanzee
    http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Chimpanzee
    Bonobo
    http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Bonobo

  7. QrazyQat

    In all that tiresome Man The Mighty Hunter stuff by Ardrey and Morris, to whatever degree some of it might be true, I don’t recall any mention of women being the logical inventors of weaving and pottery so they’d have some way of carrying all those roots and nuts…. Elaine Morgan has an interesting alternative and is a lot more fun to read.

    Elaine Morgan alternative is BS for a variety of reasons (which I’ve documented here)

    But there was actual, accurate, and interesting alternative, and it did change the way things were thought about (although the principles have never gotten the kind of credit I think they deserve). This discovery further cements the ideas of the “Woman the Gatherer” model regarding females and tool use. And idea, BTW, that dates back now 35 years, to Sally Linton’s paper with that title (she was a grad student at the time, I believe) and carried through the work (1974 and later) of Nancy Tanner and Adrienne Zihlman (who I see has been quoted re the story in some of the news pieces). BTW, the paper that got Sally Linton thinking was Richard Lee’s paper about the !Kung in the book, “Man the Hunter”. Sort of ironic, the title, but Lee’s paper was not male-biased stuff.

  8. Qrazy Qat: You said, “which I’ve documented here.” But there was no link.

  9. Duh, realised that much later; I was editing the latter part of the post and forgot to go back and stick the link in. Here’s the link: Aquatic Ape Theory: Sink or Swim?

    This is my site on the “aquatic ape” idea.

  10. This behaviour being so much less spread among adult males, the most conservative and least likely-to-change-their-ways individuals (Hey, our cousins the chimps are really so much like us, aren’t they?) would seem to indicate that this is something they — the species — have only recently learned; as in the last couple of years. I mean, those younger males that have been observed to do it, are they just going to quit using tools as they grow older? Why on Earth would they; wouldn’t that be just stupid?

    And if they’ve only learned to use spears in the last couple of years, then the place they most likely learned it from is, from us, from Man. And given that they’ve had tens of thousands of years to do so already — years where one would have thought the likelihood of learning from us would be much greater than now, seeing as how we do so much less of our hunting-for-subsistence with spears nowadays — my guess is the specific people they learned from are anthro–oops, sorry, aperopologists deliberately trying to create the sensational news we are commenting on here.

    (Yeah, so call me a cynic, be my guest.)

  11. Claud Bramblett

    I don’t know about Senegal, but in East Africa we would be as likely to find a poisonous snake as a galago in a tree hollow. It would be very adaptive to explore with a stick rather than a hand!

  12. I mean, those younger males that have been observed to do it, are they just going to quit using tools as they grow older? Why on Earth would they; wouldn’t that be just stupid?

    You’ll have to ask the chimps “why?” but in fact this is what they tend to do with other forms of tool use. All forms of tool making and tool use by chimps are far more commonly done by females. The reason suggested by Linton, Tanner, and Zihlman was that females have more nutritional stress due to having and caring for kids, and that males just don’t have to use tools to get enough of the harder to get, generally higher fat, foods that tools are used to obtain. It’s a matter of why do it if you don’t have to? Trying to save time or be more productive, have more free time? To do what? Scratch more? :) Stop thinking like a western human and start thinking like a chimp. :)

  13. iratecat

    “Austrlain”?

  14. Neil

    The use of sticks as tools – to reach fruit on thin branches, or to attack rivals or predators – would provide evolutionary pressure for freeing the hands by developing bipedalism. The use of weapons in the nature of spears would also have facilitated venturing into the grasslands where predators would otherwise present extreme risks to tree-loving apes.

  15. Jane Derry

    There was a very enlightening book I read in my Psychology class that talked about women being the stronger of the species of human. Can’t remember the name of the book right now, but it was chock full of historically backed up facts about men and women from all cultures back in history. It is a fact that women were made for the long run, men for strength and the short run. Women were proven out to be the primary hunters, and better at it, than men, because they are made that way. (This book was written by a man, by the way, and caused quite a stir at the time!)

    Seems that throughout history the women would go out and hunt, and the men stayed home watching the kids. He ate the food, he didn’t hunt it. This is also proven out in wildlife! The women were in charge, always, of feeding the kids, so she hunted and gathered when she couldn’t hunt. Amazon women is only one example, he gave hundreds of examples of this. The women, if they wanted to eat, had to hunt, because the men didn’t or wouldn’t. That’s just how it was, and is, for that matter.

    Point of fact; HOW MANY MEN ACTUALLY FEED THE KIDS NOW? Very few can claim to do this. Visit a grocery store and keep count of how many shoppers are women and men. The result will be that the women get the food, unless the man is single and taking care of the food himself. The rule now is, men won’t shop unless they absolutely have to. So the women do it. (using shopping for food as the modern form of ‘hunting’.)

    If you will also notice, women do the cooking as well. There are some excellent male cooks, but usually only if they can make money at it. At home they let or make the women cook. That’s just how it is. I’m stating the facts, not trying to skew them to suit my purpose.

    While we are at it, how many men actually clean up after the meal, or clean house, or watch the kids?

    Women do it all, because throughout history we have had to. If we didn’t do it, it certainly didn’t get done!!! Men have made us strong by insisting it wasn’t their place to do this kind of work. Note the comment, the woman’s place is in the home, barefoot and pregnant, etc. THIS HAS MADE US STRONG.

    So if the men want to blame someone because women are strong, they should look in the mirror! They made us strong, so don’t complain about it. Enjoy it!!

    Tianca

  16. Jane Derry

    I believe the book was called, Women; The Superior Sex.
    Tianca

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The Loom

A blog about life, past and future. Written by DISCOVER contributing editor and columnist Carl Zimmer.

About Carl Zimmer

Carl Zimmer writes about science regularly for The New York Times and magazines such as DISCOVER, which also hosts his blog, The LoomHe is the author of 12 books, the most recent of which is Science Ink: Tattoos of the Science Obsessed.

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