Did cave-men hunt and cave-women cook?

28 November 2010

Question

I have a question about prehistoric humans. The stereotype is that prehistoric man went out and hunted and prehistoric woman stayed in the cave and looked after the kids. Is there actually any archaeological evidence for this?

Thanks you.

Lia Svilans

Answer

Diana - Well the answer is, we don't really know. It's something that palaeontologists have argued over and argued over for years and years, and years. But it all hangs around a thing called division of labour. The idea of that is you have certain groups of people doing certain types of jobs, and if you can divide people according to certain rules say, their gender or their age, or something like that then it might mean that they do a specific job. But of course, finding that in the archaeological record is actually really difficult because you'd have to have a certain group of people fossilised along with the job they were doing, and you'd have to have it repeated over and over to show that it was happening in this society. So the answer is, we don't really know what was happening all those years ago because it's in pre-history. You can look at cave art perhaps, but even then, how do you interpret some figures as male or female? Quite often, the cave art isn't very easily identifiable in terms of gender. There was one theory that one guy came up with a few years ago who said that the Neanderthals actually became extinct because the women took part in hunting far too much and therefore were not able to bear children because they got killed off.

Chris - Rather likely archaeologists in palaeontology that probably made that comment, who were probably blokes, I would think!

Diana - Yeah. This was definitely a man who said this, but I mean, it's certainly possible that women in Palaeolithic times did take part in hunting. We don't know that they were busy making babies all the time. It looks like population was actually quite low.

Dave - Can you compare it with modern Stone Age peoples?

Diana - You'll get into trouble for calling them Stone Age, but yeah, I know what you mean.

Dave - I'm sorry.

Diana - They do make comparisons. It's called ethnographic comparisons. So what you do is you look at hunter gatherer groups in say, South Africa, or South America, or in Papua New Guinea, and look at how they divide up their labour. And actually, it's quite a mixed picture. Sometimes you get very matriarchal societies where the women are in-charge and the women go out and hunt and gather, and sometimes you get patriarchal societies, societies where the women stay at home and the men do do the hunting. So, who knows?

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