Exercise scientists: women hunted, men gathered

Scientific American upends the old idea that manly men evolved to hunt for meat for growing prehistoric families with physiological evidence that women – who are better endurance runners, on average – would probably make better endurance hunters, too:

Mounting evidence from exercise science indicates that women are physiologically better suited than men to endurance efforts such as running marathons. This advantage bears on questions about hunting because a prominent hypothesis contends that early humans are thought to have pursued prey on foot over long distances until the animals were exhausted. Furthermore, the fossil and archaeological records, as well as ethnographic studies of modern-day hunter-gatherers, indicate that women have a long history of hunting game. We still have much to learn about female athletic performance and the lives of prehistoric women. Nevertheless, the data we do have signal that it is time to bury Man the Hunter for good.

Overall, females are metabolically better suited for endurance activities, whereas males excel at short, powerful burst-type activities. You can think of it as marathoners (females) versus powerlifters (males). Much of this difference seems to be driven by the powers of the hormone estrogen.

The estrogen receptor—the protein that estrogen binds to in order to do its work—is deeply ancient. Joseph Thornton of the University of Chicago and his colleagues have estimated that it is around 1.2 billion to 600 million years old—roughly twice as old as the testosterone receptor. In addition to helping regulate the reproductive system, estrogen influences fine-motor control and memory, enhances the growth and development of neurons, and helps to prevent hardening of the arteries.

Important for the purposes of this discussion, estrogen also improves fat metabolism. During exercise, estrogen seems to encourage the body to use stored fat for energy before stored carbohydrates. Fat contains more calories per gram than carbohydrates do, so it burns more slowly, which can delay fatigue during endurance activity. Not only does estrogen encourage fat burning, but it also promotes greater fat storage within muscles—marbling if you will—which makes that fat’s energy more readily available.

If you follow long-distance races, you might be thinking, wait—males are outperforming females in endurance events! But this is only sometimes the case. Females are more regularly dominating ultraendurance events such as the more than 260-mile Montane Spine foot race through England and Scotland, the 21-mile swim across the English Channel and the 4,300-mile Trans Am cycling race across the U.S. Sometimes female athletes compete in these races while attending to the needs of their children. In 2018 English runner Sophie Power ran the 105-mile Ultra-Trail du Mont-Blanc race in the Alps while still breastfeeding her three-month-old at rest stations.

For those practicing a foraging subsistence strategy in small family groups, flexibility and adaptability are much more important than rigid roles, gendered or otherwise. Individuals get injured or die, and the availability of animal and plant foods changes with the seasons. All group members need to be able to step into any role depending on the situation, whether that role is hunter or breeding partner.

Observations of recent and contemporary foraging societies provide direct evidence of women participating in hunting. The most cited examples come from the Agta people of the Philippines. Agta women hunt while menstruating, pregnant and breastfeeding, and they have the same hunting success as Agta men.

They are hardly alone. A recent study of ethnographic data spanning the past 100 years—much of which was ignored by Man the Hunter contributors—found that women from a wide range of cultures hunt animals for food. Abigail Anderson and Cara Wall-Scheffler of Seattle Pacific University and their colleagues report that 79 percent of the 63 foraging societies with clear descriptions of their hunting strategies feature women hunters.