Woman the Hunter and Gatherer: How Motherhood Saved Tribes

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Woman the Hunter and Gatherer: How Motherhood Saved Tribes

A female tribe hunter looking for a target. / Photo by: sonjachnyj via 123RF


"Man the Hunter" has long been known, way back since the 1900s, and is pictured as a man holding a spear as he chased around wild beasts. However, recent studies show that grandmothers may have been the vital key to human evolution and survival after all. ‘Kristen Hawkes from the University of Utah is an anthropologist currently studying the hunters and gatherers who once have lived in northern Tanzania. Groups such as the Hadza are still occupying the area and they might just help researchers in learning about ancestral livelihood.


During the study, Hawkes and her colleagues observed how the Hadza group collects resources like food, and how often they go out to hunt. The average rate of success for every excursion is only 3.4 percent which meant that if they were highly depended on wild meat for food, they would eventually starve. Luckily, the majority of their calories were brought by old and young women of the tribe. As mentioned in Poole’s article on NPR, the mothers in the community rely on tubers. He further added, "The success of a mother at gathering these tubers correlated with the growth of her child. But something else surprising happened once mom had a second baby: That original relationship went away and a new correlation emerged with the amount of food their grandmother was gathering.”

It was during that moment Hawkes and her colleagues were left in shock as it was revealed to them that it was not "Man the Hunter" providing for the communities but rather, the grandmothers. This then led to a complete re-evaluation of what Hawkes knew about the evolution of humans. Primatologist Sarah Hrdy from UC Davis supported the theory that women have performed a lot of work for their tribes or communities to survive. She further argued, "People often try to explain the fact that humans are so good at cooperating by saying, well, we needed to cooperate in order to succeed at big game hunting, or so that men in one group could bond with other men to go wipe out the neighboring group. What that doesn't do is explain why these traits emerge so early.” It is also important to know that humans are the only members of the great ape species who possess the incentive to care for other people and their thoughts. According to developmental psychologist Michael Tomasello, even though humans are not smarter than other apes, they do have the ability to communicate and collaborate with others. In fact, Tomasello claims that unlike apes, infants and children are born with adapted cooperation and shared intentionality. 

Moreover, Tomasello supports Hawkes’ study as this would better explain how humans naturally have "prosocial traits." These traits are obtained from shared child care and feeding, and not from hunting, as "Man the Hunter" suggests.

The Evolution of Motherhood in Modern-day Society

A mother and her daughter. / Photo by: georgerudy via 123RF


Unlike in the ancient times, there is an increasing number of women who delay or skip motherhood to pursue their careers. Anthropologist Lisa McAllister from the University of California, Santa Barbara stated, “We have evolved a drive to seek success. The more successful individuals in any society are the ones who would traditionally leave behind more offspring and therefore get to be more represented in the next generation.”

McAllister lived with a community in Bolivia called Tsimané. As a hunter-gatherer tribe, women were placed in higher hierarchies, depending on the number of healthy children they could produce. This made them similar to Hadza women who provided food for all of the members of their community. However, at present, individuals no longer measure a woman’s worth by the number of children she has. Instead, as McAllister mentioned in the article, “In our society, we don't measure a woman's worth as much by a woman's ability to mother or have children anymore. We often measure it by, 'What kind of job does she have?' [or] 'Does she drive a nice car?'” This is the evolution of motherhood in modern times.

Furthermore, a study performed by The Atlantic showed the exact downfall of motherhood. According to the article, mothers are now making up less of the world's population. Moreover, surveys show that mothers are currently older in age than in the last few years. This also includes married women who spend less of their lives within marriage and those who choose to use contraception.

Despite the decline, history cannot deny the fact that motherhood shaped an entirety of survival and evolution. As Poole mentioned in the article, “While the men were out hunting, grandmothers and babies were building the foundation of our species' success – sharing food, cooperating on more and more complex levels and developing new social relationships.” Modern day individuals may owe women a warm, "thank you" for their existence.



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