We all know how it goes. A woman might find herself on a date, a chat around the kitchen table or on a breakfast TV show panel when someone brings up the question of gender disparity. She might talk about labor inequality between husband and wife in the home, the wage gap or she might just be showing off a bit about lifting weights at the gym. And then it comes: It turns out that the person she’s talking to is, in fact, both an amateur anthropologist and archaeologist, skillfully disguised as an accountant/lawyer/air conditioning technician.
He’ll start by explaining how our pre-historic, cave-dwelling, ancestors had a clear division of responsibilities: The man did the hunting, the woman did the gathering. The former would leave at dawn and come home at dusk with a mammoth over his shoulder, as the latter looked after the children and kept the cave home fires burning. This is the ruling of the psychologist for prehistoric family matters. This explains everything. It’s our nature. It’s your nature.
But when you dig, you’ll find all sorts of things: We now learn that you’ve been misled and you have misled others. A comprehensive new study, investigating dozens of ancient civilizations and drawing on further recent studies, proves this to be pure myth: the concept of “natural” separate roles for men and women, widely accepted in the social sciences, the concept used to respond to women challenging the conservative narrative – is a mistake. 1970s feminist, Irina Dunn, was right and even prehistoric women needed a man like a fish needs a bicycle.
As anthropologists in recent years began observing women in tribal communities doing the hunting, they started questioning the traditional understanding of the prehistoric division of labor. In the 1980s, anthropologists observed women from the Atga tribe in the Philippines hunting deer and wild boar with bows and arrows and women in the rainforests of Brazil use machetes to impale pacas (large rodents). In the 1990s, anthropologists observed five-year-old girls hunting porcupines with their great-grandmothers in Central Africa. Not exactly knitting by the fire.
A breakthrough disproving archaeologists’ previous claims came in 2020: A survey of prehistoric graves in North and South America revealed that almost half of the skeletons buried alongside hunting tools were in fact those of women. Oops.
And now, in a further study published in the PLOS One scientific journal, an international team of scientists reports that women hunted in over 80% of the 60 prehistoric civilizations they studied. And that’s not all. 87% of those women initiated the hunt – they didn’t just impulsively defend themselves from some random cheetah attacking them in the jungle.
“They simply got up in the morning and went out hunting,” says biological anthropologist Cara Wall-Scheffler. “That was their job.” Women would carry shoulder bags with javelins, machetes, knives, bows and arrows. Sometimes with a baby on their backs.
Evolutionary psychology undermined
“Recent studies have made me look at things we might have been missing. Prejudices have clouded our data interpretation,“ says Dr. Yonat Eshchar, an animal behavior expert who publishes articles about prehistoric civilizations and evolutionary psychology on the Davidson Institute of Science Education website tells us. “I’m not trying to disrespect researchers. We all have our biases. As long as science is a human enterprise, we’ll have these biases.”
It nonetheless challenges traditional views of gender roles in human society. “It does undermine some of the evolutionary psychology – that I believe was already being challenged anyway. Researchers had chosen to focus on very specific things. They’d say: ‘Men were the leaders and women did work in the home, so that was their assigned role.’ But it’s not a 100% division.
When we talk about hunter-gatherers, people say things like ‘Women developed to take care of the children, the men left the cave to work.’ But we see that just wasn’t the case. This division has always been absurd because even if you say that women were the gatherers and took care of the children, that’s also important hard work. And it’s incorrect anyway.”
So modern society didn’t invent feminism. “Indeed. We didn’t come up with the idea that women can do more or less what men do. In many cultures, women fought alongside men. Evolutionary psychology has always been framed in terms of ‘that’s the way it is.’ They construct a story to explain the current situation. These studies show that the stories of male and female roles are stories based on nothing. Our nature is not based on one thing. Our reality is founded on genes as well as on society and the education we receive - and women can go out, look for adventure, be assertive and become leaders.”
These studies come as no surprise to Prof. Daphna Joel who researches gender and the brain at the Sagol School of Neuroscience at Tel Aviv University. “Feminists have long critiqued evolutionary psychology that claimed that it was only the men hunted and fought. Whenever they found a female skeleton buried with hunting tools, they thought it was a man.
The myth about men being from Mars and women from Venus – as it appears in religion, like in the Biblical account of Creation - strives to account for unequal social roles in terms of how God created it. And myths never really go away. They’re just replaced with new myths. Whenever research disproves a myth, they don’t say ‘Ah... we made a mistake’. They just change the myth. You must be careful not to criticize the myths, but rather say they are not relevant to the question of what kind of world we want to live in. This is an ethical, not scientific question.“
What do you mean? “We only use science in this way when we try to justify imbalanced social orders. Let’s think about medicine: We want to live a healthy life without pain or suffering, and we use science to help us do that. We don’t convince ourselves that we must become sick and die. This is how science is used in every other circumstance. It’s just when it comes to justifying unequal social orders that we suddenly say ‘Ah, there’s nothing we can do. Science shows that this is how it has to be.’ We have to move away from asking what it is to be a man or woman, male or female and shift toward the ethical question of the kind of world in which we want to live.
The binary gender system harms most people because most people don’t fit into the man/woman stereotypes. Each person has a mosaic of characteristics and this system oppresses us all. We all pay a high price and it must be changed so that we can live in an egalitarian world in which we are free to choose. If it’s acceptable for one human, it’s acceptable for all humans, regardless of what kind of sexual organ they possess, their religion or skin tone. This is the vision of the world in which we would want to live.”
So the study was nice, but it doesn’t have to reinforce any kind of idea “Exactly. Anthropology is interesting, but it doesn’t affect the world in which we would want to live. Science won’t help us get what we want. The things we want are not prescribed in science.“
The discourse about gender roles and equal rights for women has made a comeback. But it’s about 'progress' and it doesn’t necessarily benefit women. “We must ensure that the conversation isn’t controlled by those wanting to preserve an unequal social order. No one wants to stop sending people to hospitals and no one’s saying that science understands that people die in the end, so we don’t need to send them to hospital. The approach isn’t always to find out what nature prescribes and go with it.
Religion and culture generally go against nature: The phrase ‘A great man overcomes his instincts’ is championed by advocates against homosexuality. Even in light of widespread homosexuality in nature, the axiom of homosexuality being ‘against nature’ is maintained. The reason they oppose homosexual relationships is that they are forbidden in their culture and they use nature to justify this prohibition.”
Back in 1949, in her book The Second Sex, feminist philosopher Simone de Beauvoir contended that femininity was a social construct and since the dawn of civilization, women have been trapped by their biology while men have defined reality. Man created society in his own image – influencing how women see themselves.
Jewish texts also seem to have done a bit of gaslighting here and there: “Biblical society was patriarchal, but women in the Bible had a lot of power. They are very important to the narrative,” says Natalie Marcus, creator of The Jews Are Comin” TV series. “The way I see it, Biblical women fighting and being strong scared the men, and it led to later interpretations belittling them and their role within the narrative. The number of women in the Bible is not the same as that of men, but when you do see strong, clever women who control the men to lead the story in the direction they chose.”
“Yael killed Sisera. Deborah the Prophetess not only led the people in battle, but Barak refused to go to war without her. In ‘The Jews Are Coming’, we did a sketch about Deborah the Prophetess in which people ask her ‘Who’s taking care of the children when you do your prophesying? Is your husband okay with you being like this'?"
In the Bible, we see signs that women weren’t gatherers. “Women don’t appear in the Bible just as mothers. They’re also fighters: Samson and Delilah, the Book of Esther, Yael who killed Sisera. Batsheva who manipulated David to crown her son Samson as king was a woman involved in the kingdom’s politics at its very highest levels. If you study the Bible through a liberal perspective, you’ll find yourself exposed to various narratives – of women who took fate into their own hands. Biblical texts are open to interpretation. Commentators always look for elements in the text that will reinforce their existing views.”
The caregiving work
So maybe our ancestral grandmothers did much more than wipe prehistoric poop, but they ended up being remembered as mere gatherers. Isn’t raising children worth the same as running around in the fields? Why isn’t lovingly nurturing the tribe’s future – boys and girls – not given pride of place in either ancient or modern cultures?
Prof. Orli Binyamin of the Sociology Department at Bar Ilan University who works with the Gender Studies program explains that “a certain dichotomy supports the oppression of women in patriarchal societies. It automatically associates women with the private, i.e. gathering, as opposed to the public, i.e. hunting where the important things happen - that what really matters is political and economic activity. It’s actually saying that women are not part of it when in reality women have been contributing to households and their assets for centuries.”
And not just about hunting. “European women were denied the right to hold passports and in the United States, with the advent of industrialization, an ideal developed whereby a woman should be in the home and her dream should be doing the interior decorating of that home. But for years now, women – especially black women and poor women – have been working, supporting their families, building up small businesses. This reality, however, doesn’t seem to be disturbing cultural structures: While women do so much in so many fields, it’s not reflected in their economic worth. There is a feminist platform that points out that decades of caring for children have an economic value, but this is never factored into GDP calculations.
You mean we’re not rewarded for the 'gathering' work we do “It’s not just that states won’t reward it: When women do make caring for children their vocation, they’re punished with poverty because we won’t pay you the true economic value of daycare work. Many women today won’t let themselves fall into such a situation and will look to other lines of work to raise themselves out of poverty. Because the patriarchal structure doesn’t recognize the economic value of women’s work, why would we accept that women could and did indeed hunt?
If we recognize this, the story we’ve been told our whole lives will fall apart. When a child asks where Daddy is, they’re told that ‘Daddy has gone to work. He’ll come home in the evening and he'll bring you a present and Mommy doesn’t do anything. Mommy does love. That’s not work.’ The family-work conflict rests on this.“
So what are we to do now that our prehistoric ancestors – male and female - were actually quite equal? Well, the very same thing. Some of us will leave the cave to hunt for a paycheck. Some of us will stay at home and take care of the children. Some of us will do both – it’s a jungle out there. But we can say one thing for sure: The next time we meet a caveman who tells us we belong inside, because our primitive nature is calling us, we can tell them it’s bullshit and that as far back as when we lived in caves, long before the Gender Studies department existed, men and women saw beyond gender definitions and simply got on with being male and female human beings who understood that we need cooperation to survive.