Sooner or later in conversations about who we are, who we have been, and who we can be, someone will tell a story about Man the Hunter. It’s a story not just about Man but about Woman and Child too. There are countless variants, but all of them go something like this: In primordial times men went out and hunted and brought home meat to feed women and children, who sat around being dependent on them. In most versions, the story is set in nuclear units, such that men provide only for their own family, and women have no community to help with the kids. In every version, women are baggage that breeds.
Though it makes claims about human societies as they existed 200,000 or 5 million years ago, the story itself isn’t so old. Whatever its origins, it seems to have reached a peak of popularity only in the middle of last century. Here’s a chunk of one of the most popular versions from the 1960s, Desmond Morris’s The Naked Ape:
Because of the extremely long periods of dependency of the young and the heavy demands made by them, the females found themselves almost perpetually confined to the home base. . . . The hunting parties, unlike those of the “pure” carnivores, had to become all-male groups. . . . For a virile primate male to go off on a feeding trip and leave his females unprotected from the advances of any other males that might happen to come by was unheard of. . . . The answer was the development of a pair-bond.
This narrative, in other words, traces the dominant socioeconomic arrangements of the late Fifties and early Sixties back to the origins of our species. I think of it as the story of the 5-million-year-old suburb. Proto-human males go off — all of them, since apparently none are old or sick or sitting around talking about the fantastic eland they got last week. They go out all day every day, carrying their spears and atlatls to work and punching the primordial time clock. Females hang around the hearth with the kids, waiting for the men to bring home the bacon. Man feeds woman. Woman propagates man’s genes. So many of these stories, as women anthropologists later pointed out, are worried about female fidelity and male power. They assuage these worries by explaining why females are faithful and males are powerful: monogamy is exchanged for gobbets of meat.
I learned something about this bizarre fantasy of evolutionary biology at the end of the Nineties, while writing a book about the history of walking. I came across the work of physical anthropologist C. Owen Lovejoy, who had been writing about the evolution of human walking in academic journals for over a decade. He deployed a more technically complex version of Morris’s tale about pair-bonds: “Bipedality figured in this new reproductive scheme because by freeing the hands it made it possible for the male to carry food gathered far from his mate.” The walking thing and the hand thing were for the guys. Women stayed home, dependent.
A much-cited essay Lovejoy published in 1981, “The Origin of Man,” actually has a section called “The Nuclear Family,” in which he posits that Man the Hunter — who is more monogamous than Morris’s hunter with “his females” — brought home meat for his faithful ladyfriend and their children, not the whole group. This seems dubious when you’re talking about a big dead animal in warm weather or anything hunted in the company of friends. Wouldn’t you be more likely to share your kill around and maybe have a community feast? In any case, Lovejoy argues that men provided and women waited. Lovejoy theorized about the “lowered mobility rate of females.” In summary: “The nuclear family and human sexual behavior may have their ultimate origin long before the dawn of the Pleistocene.”
There is ample evidence to contradict the Man the Hunter story. In the 1950s, Elizabeth Marshall Thomas lived with the people of the Kalahari, sometimes known as the San. They are thought to have maintained, until recently, a more ancient way of life than almost anyone else on earth. Morris’s claim about the “extremely long periods of dependency of the young” that kept the females “almost perpetually confined to the home base” is patently untrue in the case of the San, as Thomas learned.
The whole group moved regularly, and families could also move independently of the group. The women Thomas met went out and gathered food almost daily. Children who were too large to be carried and too small to keep up were often tended by someone staying at camp while their mothers roamed. Thomas makes clear that hunting and gathering are not completely separate activities and speaks of “slow game — the tortoises, snakes, snails, and baby birds that are often found by people who are gathering.”
Not only were men not the sole providers of food, in other words, they weren’t even the sole providers of meat. Which is not to say that men didn’t bring home meat or that they weren’t important. It’s just that everyone brought home food, even kids. It was all important. Thomas mentions an exceptional hunter, an athlete who could run down an eland. One day he killed three big animals. He stayed with his carcasses while his wife and her mother recruited others to help carry the meat back to camp. He was truly a great hunter, but he relied on highly mobile women and his extended community for help with his bounty.
Thomas also notes that “meat united people. A meal of life-giving meat was meant for all.” San males didn’t hunt as the heads of nuclear families following an individualist way of life; they hunted as part of a community. The Inuit also shared meat, according to Peter Freuchen, a writer and explorer who lived among them for decades early in the twentieth century. He tells a story about how his Inuit wife furiously mocked a woman who was stingy in sharing a seal her husband had killed. Sharing was etiquette as well as survival. Even among the Inuit, some of the most carnivorous people on earth, women sometimes accompanied men on long hunting trips, because the hunters could die of cold in the subzero weather if their clothing was damaged. Women processed and prepared their food, clothing, and shelter.
The familiar just-so stories about male independence also misrepresent the family dynamics of settled farmers and artisanal, industrial, and white-collar workers. Most farmers worked at home — an extended home with fields and orchards — and their families often worked alongside them. The wives and kids of craftsmen often participated in the craft in various ways. During the Industrial Revolution, working-class women and children toiled in factories and sweatshops, as they do in the factories of Guatemala and China and Bangladesh today.
Everyone contributes. You could call women dependent, but only if you were willing to call men the same thing. Dependency isn’t a very helpful measure; interdependency might be better. Useless and dependent isn’t what most women have been, and it isn’t what most women are now. Seemingly ancient tales about Man the Hunter, the idea that men are givers and women are takers, that men work and women are idle, are nothing more than justifications of present-day political positions. A perfect specimen of a men’s-rights ranter wrote on social media earlier this year that women have not evolved at all
because women never worked. . . . And now we have ended up with this cancerous cesspool of female degeneration we all suffer from, day in day out. We need to put women into the world all alone and without help and let them die or survive without any sort of help or interference, so they can catch up on evolution and reach the state of being human too.
His fury is based on a fiction, which would be ridiculous if it were not the extreme form of a widely shared belief, one that paints a fairly sad picture of the human species, with both men and women inhabiting fixed and alienated roles.
There is an interesting contradiction built into this picture: it suggests, on the one hand, that women never worked and, on the other, that bearing and raising children was such overwhelming work that women were housebound — or cavebound, or treebound. It’s as if all women literally had their hands full of babies at all times, like Madonnas in paintings, when it is more likely that those who did become mothers spent concentrated time with babies and toddlers for a while but not forever, and that they led unparalyzed lives before, after, and quite possibly during this phase of motherhood.
Stories that promote the idea of the nuclear family have little to do with what women have actually done throughout most of history or prehistory. They suggest that the human condition has always resembled what middle-class, married, stay-at-home women were expected to do in the twentieth century. Even Hannah Arendt describes the female condition as something that involved little more than baby production. She was talking about the specifics of classical Athens, where the women of means, the wives and daughters of citizens, were largely confined to the house, which limited their productivity and participation. Athenian men weren’t necessarily producing much, either; food came from the countryside and from far-flung colonies, and most of the manual labor was done by slaves and peasants. Which means that Athenian women continued producing children while the men of the city discontinued producing food. Nevertheless, Arendt writes in The Human Condition,
That individual maintenance should be the task of the man and species survival the task of the woman was obvious, and both of these natural functions, the labor of man to provide nourishment and the labor of the woman in giving birth, were subject to the same urgency of life.
Arendt apparently couldn’t resist the neat symmetry between “the labor of man” and “the labor of the woman.” But we should. For most of history, housework was much harder than it is now. It involved shoveling coal or chopping wood, stoking fires, pumping water, emptying chamber pots, washing everything by hand, and making bread, clothes, and much else besides from scratch. There have often been women of leisure, of course. But they were usually married to men of leisure. And their leisure was made possible not by hunter-mates but by servants, many of whom were also women.
In any case, leisure was not the primordial human condition, nor is it the condition of most women around the world now. There was a brief era in the Western world when many middle-class women weren’t part of the wage-earning economy and industrialization had made running a household a bit easier. You could look at some of these women as nonproducing consumers, though to do that you’d have to discount the labor involved in raising children and keeping a house. This period lasted several decades, but it didn’t start 5 million years ago, and it ended when declining middle-class wages sent many more women into the workforce.
Right now, in the United States, women constitute 47 percent of wage earners; 74 percent of these working women work full-time. Throughout much of the industrialized world the numbers are similar or higher. Elsewhere, women are growing food, carrying water and firewood, herding livestock, pounding cassava root, grinding corn by hand.
Patriarchy — meaning both male domination and societies obsessed with patrilineal descent, which requires strict control over female sexuality — has, in many times and places, created many versions of dependent, unproductive women, who are disabled by dress or body modification, restricted to the home, and limited in their access to education, employment, and profession by laws and customs backed by threats of violence. Some misogynists complain that women are immobile burdens, but much misogyny has striven to make women so.
Antiauthoritarian and feminist anthropologists have attempted to upend some of these stories. Elaine Morgan countered the arguments of the Man the Hunter posse with a 1972 book called The Descent of Woman; in 1981, Sarah Blaffer Hrdy wrote a more scientifically solid book, The Woman That Never Evolved, which also proposed alternative theories. Even Marshall Sahlins, who participated in the Man the Hunter conference and contributed to the book of the same name, published Stone Age Economics, a 1972 treatise that argued hunter-gatherers lived lives of leisure and abundance.
But there’s an underlying assumption in all these stories: that we are doomed to remain who we were a very long time ago. By that logic you could argue that since we used to eat our food raw, we ought not cook it, or that because we once walked on all fours, this two-legged thing isn’t meant to be. Not long ago human beings lived on almost entirely vegetarian diets in warm places and on almost entirely carnivorous diets in the Arctic.
We are a highly adaptable species. We live in cities and nomadic bands and nuclear units; we’re polygamous or polyandrous or practice serial monogamy or take vows of celibacy; we marry people of the other gender or the same gender or never marry at all; we raise our biological children or adopt or are devoted aunts and uncles or hate kids; we work at home or in an office or as migrant farmworkers or visiting nurses; we live in societies where gender apartheid is the norm or where everyone mingles or where the idea of gender itself as something binary and oppositional is being rethought.
There are givens in our biology, and there are particularly common patterns in our past. But we are not necessarily who we once were, and who we once were is not necessarily what the just-so stories say. The present is not at all like the past recounted in those just-so stories, but neither was the past. We need to stop telling the story about the woman who stayed home, passive and dependent, waiting for her man. She wasn’t sitting around waiting. She was busy. She still is.