Man as the fearless hunter is a popular, but unfounded myth about prehistoric society. In this mistaken view, early men braved the wilds to provide most of the family’s food. They supposedly hunted hairy mammoths and brought home wild pig bacon. Men made and shaped culture. They were the great ones in control.
Of course, a variation of this myth portrays men as the sole inventors of fire, tools, and language. In this myth, the women’s primary role was to support the men’s primary food-providing activities, remain silent partners, and aspire to be ideal mothers. They were presumed to be the weaker sex who stayed close to the home fires in order to protect, cook, and care for the hunters.
Many fundamentalist religious groups embrace this skewed interpretation of human history. There is no doubt this allows them to declare that there is little contradiction between scientific theories of evolution and religious writings. In the eyes of fundamentalists, God in all His wisdom instilled a social lesson in the biological differences and traditional power relationships between the sexes. Feminists who do not accept biological determination are said to go against the dictates of natural history and divine will.
In the opposite camp, anthropologists who have argued that early human society was more egalitarian. They view the main food providers as women, not men. Recent archeological findings at Neolithic sites confirm that most early Homo sapiens did not depend on large animals for food. The scorched beast was only an occasional treat. The real staple foods were roots, nuts, fruits, small game, and other less glamorous comestibles. Far from huddling by the fire, women probably had to roam the grasslands and forests to hunt for animals with nets and gather foodstuffs. All of this activity required as much physical endurance as chasing big game. The most recent anthropological findings also suggest that women very likely domesticated plants and invented tools for food processing and storage.
Family planning was part of women’s lives too. Anthropologists report that contemporary hunting and gathering groups such as the !Kung Bushmen of the Kalihari Desert used traditional techniques to reduce family size through prolonged breastfeeding, abortion, herbal contraceptives, and abstinence. !Kung women knew that they could not wander over large areas of land if they had to carry small children. To adapt to the need for mobility, they limited the numbers of children to around five. There were wide intervals between births with an average spacing of three to four year per child.
According to the most thoughtful and thorough research, women and men in these societies shared political decision-making, an ethic that seems to mirror a general pattern of shared family responsibilities. In brief, almost everything we know about the social and economic life of hunters and gatherers refutes the idea that motherhood was women’s primary role in the beginning. It is also unlikely that she was a passive participant in a man’s world. The question is why the old myth of man, the hunter, persists despite published scientific evidence for several decades. The only possible explanation is sheer stubbornness. Some people find it convenient to disregard scientific evidence because they use the past to justify the present. There is one person in anthropological circles who is absolutely delighted about this: man, the hunter.